Loughmore-Castleiney chase Tipperary senior double glory in a special year of commemoration in the GAA.
93-YEAR-OLD Bill Ryan landed in Leahy Park in Cashel on a winter’s afternoon in 1987.
It was county football final day, the third Sunday in November, and the purpose of his trip was the regular weekend occurrence of supporting a Loughmore-Castleiney team taking to the field.
If he sought a peripheral role as an observer, blending in with the crowd as his native club took on Clonmel Commercials and wished for the collective focus to be placed on the exploits of those on the pitch, Seamus J King had another idea in mind for him.
In his eyes Ryan was a member of football royalty. He the county’s last surviving All-Ireland senior football winner, a feat achieved in 1922 when a line was finally drawn under the championship from two years previous. He had three Munster senior medals to his name
And he was a survivor, a figure deserving of immense respect, after travelling to Dublin to line out for his county on 21 November 1920 and witnessing a day that descended into horror as the shootings in Croke Park killed 14 people.
For King it was important to recognise a man of such standing. He felt Ryan needed to be involved and invited him to perform the ceremonial act of throwing the ball in on the centenrary of the Tipperary’s first senior football final.
“He didn’t want to create any fuss,” recalled King, a noted GAA historian and author from Cashel, the following August when his book ‘Tipperary GAA Story 1935-84′ was launched.
“He preferred not to. But we persuaded him and he did. However, before he did he had to go into the Loughmore-Castleiney dressing room to give a few words of encouragement to the lads.
“Bill, thank you for doing Cashel an honour on that day and for bringing honour and distinction to this occasion.”
The match that ensued was played in a mudbath but the players overcame the wretched conditions to serve up a pulsating game. They could not be separated yet the following week in Holycross, Loughmore-Castleiney were crowned champions after a two-point win.
There would be a major hurling breakthorough for the club as they lifted the Dan Breen Cup in 1988 but that proved the last Tipperary senior football title that Bill Ryan witnessed his club collect.
He passed away in August 1991 at the age of 97 after a remarkable life and closed a particular sporting chapter as the last surviving member from Bloody Sunday 1920. He was pre-deceased by his clubmate Jim Ryan, who died in the same month back in 1972, a 75-year-old that had also played for Tipperary on that seismic and tragic day on Jones Road.
Two months short of the centenary of Bloody Sunday, the current group of Loughmore-Castleiney players continue to uphold a rich tradition. Today in Boherlahan they have a senior football semi-final assignement against last year’s kingpins Moyle Rovers, next weekend in Semple Stadium they will take on last year’s beaten finalists Kiladangan with the senior hurling silverware on the line.
They achieved the double in 2013 and that bid is very much alive again.
Tom McGrath was part of the Loughmore successes in the 70s, throughout the 80s and into the 90s, before filling a multitude of club roles since. Immersed in the present but cognisant of the past. He held the local men that had played back in 1920 in high esteem.
“Bill Ryan Laha he was known as, he’s from Laha, a townland in Castleiney. Jim Ryan then was from Loughmore village, he was married to my grand-aunt. Jim’s daughter married a Loughmore man, they went living in Templemore and their sons and family would have played there. We’d have had mighty games with them, they were Templemore Éire Óg at the time.
“I remember Jim having the pub in the village and the shop. But even though I’d the family link, Bill Laha because he lived much longer, I’d have known him more.
“He was just part and parcel of the community. Bill was a great man to go to matches. He’d a great neighbour down there Pad Joe Stapleton, they were always at the matches together.
“He was with us all the time and very much part of it all. His son-in-law Mick O’Connell would have been on the team that won the county final in 1955 and was later then as a selector. That would have kept Bill involved.”
That 1955 triumph saw them toast the club’s footballers. They waited 18 years for another victory yet have stayed a relevant force. Seven football finals over the last two decades have featured Loughmore as a participant, four of those delivering silverware and three in the 2013-16 time frame. In hurling that 1988 milestone was followed up with similar accolades in 2007 and 2013.
In a small commmunity they maximise their resources. If Ryan is a famous surname due to legendary feats of the past, it is McGrath that is the dominant theme these days on teamsheets. That’s not just a modern occurrence, the passion for the games has been nurtured and passed on through generations.
Tom McGrath outlines the family tree.
“So there was Mick, my father, and Dick, then Phil and John, the four brothers. Now they won a county final together that day in 1955. Then they had three sisters, Mary Jo, Nancy and Peggy.
“They all have grandchildren tied into it now.”
Tom played on county days of glory with Pat, Michael and Frankie alongside him for sibling support. Eleven of the team that soaked up hurling acclaim in 1988 were produced from four houses in the parish. They trailed Borris-Ileigh by two points before Pat struck a late goal and Michael hit a late point to seal their win.
Their offspring have kick-started another golden era. The current crew move seamlessly between the two sports. Six McGraths started in last Saturday’s hurling semi-final as Nenagh Éire Óg were swept aside and another came on.
“Noel, John and Brian are three brothers, Pat is their father. Aidan and Ciaran are brothers, and they’re first cousins of the other three lads, Michael is their father.
“Then Tomás, the captain of the team, he’s a second cousin of the boys, their fathers are first cousins. Taffy the selector is his father. And Conor is another first cousin’s son. The sub goalkeeper Micheál is a son of Frankie the team manager now.”
The family links do not stop there in the starting fifteen.
“Well it’s even worse than that. You go down another layer and Joseph Hennessy, he’s a first cousin of Tomás McGrath, Evan Sweeney is also a cousin of Tomás on the other side. Their mothers are sisters. Willie Eviston then is a cousin to Noel, John and Brian as their mother is Mary Eviston.
“John Ryan, wing-back on the hurling team, is a first cousin of Willie. Liam Treacy then, he’s injured at the minute, his father is another first cousin of ours. Ciaran Connolly would only be a third cousin of all the lads but he’s still part of it.
“Really you’d be trying to figure who’s left that’s not related.”
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Those ties form a bond that helps power the squad on their winning runs. In this era of high demands, the dual player is regarded as an endangered species. In the condensed calendar enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic, it should seemingly be prohibitive to try to win two county senior championships.
And yet Loughmore-Castleiney have set about that task with zeal and attacked their schedule. The green light for the return of GAA games arrived on Friday 17 July, their footballers defeated Ballyporeen Clonmel Óg that night. They have played every weekend since, today is set to be their 8th game in 57 days. There was one blip in a group hurling game against Thurles Sarsfields but little sign since of their spirits wilting.
The last three hurling victoriess have yielded wins by margins of 12, 7 and 10 points against the 2019 semi-finalists, 2018 champions and 2018 finalists. Now they face Kiladangan, four decades after the clubs squared off in an intermediate final that Loughmore won decisively.
Their approach and belief system clearly helps. Frankie McGrath is the manager of both teams with the same set of selectors joining him. It’s a twin sideline philosophy they adopted about a decade ago.
“There’s no juggling,” says Tom McGrath.
“You don’t have a joust for power in the field on a training night. Everybody’s together and everyone has a common goal. That’s a big plus.
“The bulk of our training is done in-house. You don’t have fellas coming in from outside, who want something on their CV. They would be coming in to do one game or the other, very hard to get someone that would be doing the two.
“Frankie has Eamonn Sweeney, Maureen Connolly and Taffy McGrath as his selectors. Our training is looked after by Murtough Brennan, a mainy football-orientated man who would have an Army background.”
The seams of talent are there to be mined. If Noel, John and Brian are the glittering hurling stars from days shining with Tipperary, then it’s salient to point out that the latter two have played in All-Ireland minor football finals. Noel’s underage football days were blocked by the sheer amount of big hurling games he was involved in and being parachuted into Liam Sheedy’s senior setup once he entered the adult ranks.
They keep a couple of old-stagers around as well. 19 years after manning the Tipperary central defensive corridor as Nicky English masterminded a Liam MacCarthy Cup success and over a decade since he wore a Kildare jersey in a Christy Ring Cup final, David Kennedy is in goal for the hurlers at the age of 44. Evan Sweeney blitzed Kilruane when the TG4 live cameras were recording last month in Thurles, a day after his 36th birthday.
That offsets some losses like Liam Treacy and Liam McGrath, both possessing Tipperary senior football experience. Treacy is nursing a finger injury and McGrath is in Australia, finally pursuing an ambition that he had long harboured to go travelling last year.
In their minds the unity of their squads and paying equal respect to both codes means all this progress is no great mystery.
“They’re a funny bunch of lads, the two games come equally easy to them. They treat them both equally and enjoy them both. There’s a family theme to it all but that’s rural Ireland for you. Now it’s probably a part that is diminishing because you don’t have the big families, the local employment and there’s other factors like planning that come into it.
“When my own era was finishing in the 90s, we kind of thought that we were coming to the end of a good spell. But we’d two on the Tipperary minor hurling team last year, Ed Connolly and Ciarán McCormack, then Ed’s older brother Ciarán was on the Tipperary U20 team that won the All-Ireland. So they’re coming into it, new family names and that helps to prolong the life of the thing.”
If the pursuit of success over the next few weeks consumes their focus, there is still space in their attention for previous ground-breaking moments. The memory of Bill and Jim Ryan, and the regard they are held in remains strong. A pair of club pillars, the local GAA grounds in their pocket of Mid-Tipperary are named after them.
In The Bloodied Field, Michael Foley’s brilliant and illuminating exploration of the events surrounding that fateful day in 1920, the involvement of Bill Ryan as Tipperary finalised their pre-match preparations is raised.
The subject of who would mark Frank Burke, the star of the Dublin team at the time, cropped up. Michael Hogan considered a defensive alteration.
“Would you swap with me, Bill?”
“I can’t”, replied Ryan.
“Ryan’s boots had been flung out the window of the train the previous day by a soldier. He had spent the rest of Saturday hunting out a new pair and walked the corridors of the hotel all night trying to soften them out but they still didn’t fit right. They felt too loose on his feet. When it came to Frank Burke, Hogan would have to fend for himself.”
Ryan’s boots continued to be a source of personal bother before the game, Hogan lending him a bootlace to help.
Later that night after a traumatic afternoon where Hogan was one of the tragic victims, Ryan stayed with his brother on Wexford Street in Dublin.
“He had never tasted alcohol in his life,” writes Foley.
“That night he drank his first three bottles of stout and slept through the spatters of gunfire outside. Mick Hogan’s bootlace was still in his bag. He kept it for the rest of his life.”
Hogan hailed from Grangemockler, who will contest the Tipperary intermediate football final on Saturday week. Ryan’s native Loughmore-Castleiney definitely have one county senior final date pencilled in the diary and are a win today from another.
In the season of 2020, there would be an added layer of significance and poignancy to potential county titles.
“You’d always be aware of it,” says Tom McGrath.
“Grangemockler have their own chance to write a bit of history as do we. Bloody Sunday would be an important thing in the parishes of Tipperary that had players involved.
“Plenty of the locals would have lot of memories from Bill in particular of Bloody Sunday and what went on. So it would be nice to win something now this year.
“One would be great and sure two would be wonderful. Now let’s not get too greedy, there’s a few big games to be played before then.
“But we’re looking forward to them.”
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