‘The emotion and joy, I never saw that level before’ – the Clare side chasing Munster hurling history

Updated Thu 9:30 PM

SATURDAY’S HURLING SCHEDULE will commence for Tommy Guilfoyle in Dr Hyde Park.

He’s jumped on board as coach to the Roscommon senior hurlers this year, alongside new manager Francis O’Halloran, a pair of Clare natives trying to spread the hurling gospel.

They’re having a puck around at 9am in the Roscommon county ground, to acclimatise themselves to the surroundings before Sunday’s league opener against Tyrone.

Guilfoyle, a long-serving stalwart in Clare hurling forward lines, will be on the sideline for that Division 3A fixture but in between he’ll be back home immersed in local hurling matters.

The plan is hit the road and by Saturday lunchtime be parked up at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. He’s on co-commentary duty for Clare FM, this is a game close to his heart. His alma mater St Joseph’s from Tulla partake in a moment of history, their first appearance in a Dr Harty Cup final, the premier Munster hurling colleges competition.

There will be a healthy representation of players from his own club Feakle. The semi-final win over Waterford’s De La Salle took place in Mallow and saw another day of hurling double-jobbing.

After that mid-afternoon game, he was headed to the Connacht GAA Air Dome in Mayo to witness Roscommon win a pre-season provincial league final at the expense of Sligo.

It’s a hectic time but covering so many miles on the road is worth it as he sees the impact in East Clare of this novel hurling journey.

“It’s been building since Christmas really, winning the quarter-final and the semi-final and now this unique occasion.

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“The last day, the game was on the Saturday and the lockdown finished on the Friday, so we were back to normal opening. Someone described Tulla on Saturday evening as like Paddy’s weekend, there was a carnival atmosphere around the town.

“The crowd have played a big part in it. They’ve got great support from local clubs and businesses. 

“I’ve been at colleges games own the years but the after the quarter-final, the emotion and joy on the field, I never saw that level before. Parents, past pupils, grandparents, teachers, ex-teachers. There was a big sing-song on the field, I never saw it after a game.

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“Just relief and great joy. So many outside people that weren’t parents or pupils to turn up to a game, and for it to take off with a school team. Saturday afternoons, watching St Joseph’s Tulla is the place to be.”

The final hurdle to be surmounted is on Saturday after a campaign filled with milestones. St Joseph’s had never won a game before in the Dr Harty Cup, that was their modest aim at the outset this season. Their team had climbed steadily through the ranks and have flourished in this knockout format, clipping the wings of St Colman’s Fermoy, CBC Cork and De La Salle Waterford.

The victories have been founded on stirring comebacks and the remarkable free-taking expertise of forward Sean Withycombe, who has hit 1-38 in their last three victories.

“Sean’s father is a Kerryman, he’s very proud of that,” says Guilfoyle.

“It’s the sum of the team more so than individuals. In the quarter-final, the corner-back Dara Ryan popped up with a score when all looked lost. The inspiration and the winnings have come from different areas.

“It’s very much player driven. That comes from a great belief amongst themselves where they’re never beaten.

“This is a once in a generation team based on the strength of the clubs around. They wouldn’t have a conveyor belt coming every year. Down the years Tulla would be looking in the road to Flannan’s, the aristocrats of hurling. I suppose Tulla were wondering, ‘Could it be us?’ ”

Feakle and St Joseph’s Tulla player Adam Hogan.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

It is a team anchored by three local clubs – Tulla, Feakle and O’Callaghan Mills supply 12 of the starting side between them. There was one player apiece from Clooney-Quin, Crusheen and Broadford in their starting fifteen for the semi-final.

They have been powered by a strong spirit and sense of unity in their playing group. Life off the pitch has illustrated to Guilfoyle how the players look out for each other and the locality is there to provide valuable support.

“What really bonds this group together is Ronan O’Connor and Oisin O’Connor, the brothers from Feakle, they’ve had a double tragedy in the last couple of years. They lost their father Pat to a farming accident and last year they buried their mother Denise, she died of cancer. It was tragic and such a tough blow for them.

“There has been great support from the school, the teachers and all the parents of their team-mates, not alone when it happened but continue to do so. The lads live just up the road from me. Their fellow players and school mates have really stuck together, in its own way it has really bound them together.

“I remember being around the house at the funerals and the most striking was the amount of students that were there for the few days. The school continues to oversee the supply of dinners and stuff like that. Ronan is the captain, he was on the Clare minor team last year.

“It shines through very strongly that they are a very united bunch. The hurling has been a great outlet for them. The support has been brilliant from everyone and continues within the parish and the clubs and more importantly, the school.”

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Galway’s Aidan Harte.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

On the hurling front they have plenty expertise guiding them. Terence Fahy is the Clare U20 hurling manager. Tomas Kelly steered Inagh-Kilnamona to last year’s county senior showpiece in the Banner county. Aidan Harte has come across the border from Gort, bringing with him a wealth of playing experience in Galway colours which included the highlight of contributing to their 2017 Liam MacCarthy Cup win.

That trio of teachers adds profile to the sideline, opponents Ardscoil Rís have people of similar stature in current Clare senior Paul Flanagan, former Limerick senior Niall Moran and Clonlara’s Cormac O’Donovan, the supplier of a famous match-winner in Clare’s 2009 All-Ireland U21 final glory.

Ardscoil Rís coach Niall Moran.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The Clare connections add to the intrigue,” says Guilfoyle.

“I’d be a past pupil of Tulla, we had great teachers down the line. We won All-Ireland colleges B back in the ’80s. Seanie McMahon that went on to play for Clare centre-back, his father Michael was involved. John Stack was another great man that put in a lot of effort.”

“The lads now have great experience and know-how. The new school was built seven or eight years ago, and there’s an all-weather pitch there, that all helps and this team has that new identity.

“Let’s hope they can do themselves justice on Saturday. Play the game rather than the occasion because Ardscoil have been there before and they have that winning tradition.

“There’s great excitement around. Everyone wants to be a part of this.”

  • Dr Harty Cup final: St Joseph’s Tulla v Ardscoil Rís, Gaelic Grounds, 1pm – Saturday 5 February.

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