KILLINAN END - Enjoy success while it lasts

The roller-coaster nature of club hurling was cast in stark relief in recent weeks down in the south-east. It involved two of the most high-profile clubs of recent decades, Wexford’s Oulart-The Ballagh who made the drop to Intermediate ranks while Waterford’s Ballygunner go from strength to strength. The margin said it all last Sunday in Waterford’s Walsh Park. Ballygunner had beaten Roanmore by 2-27 to 0-13, a twenty-point margin, to complete a remarkable eighth consecutive County championship. Never has the club flown higher than now and Peter Queally, Roanmore’s manager, described them as “All-Ireland champions in waiting”. As Ballygunner have found out in recent years, the Munster championship can be a slippery slope so that’s another story.

Next year will be significant for them in that they will be attempting to equal the all-time record in Waterford, which was nine in-a-row achieved by Mount Sion between 1953-61. This standard was set before Ballygunner won even a first title – which came in 1966 - and it is testimony to the enduring quality of Mount Sion that Ballygunner scraped past them by just two points in this year’s semi-final. Ballygunner is located on the southern outskirts of Waterford city, while Mount Sion originated in the environs of Mount Sion CBS up in the hills from the city centre. You pass the CBS on the way up to Barrack Street where you will find the birthplace of John Keane, former great Mount Sion and Waterford hurler and icon - his actual childhood home now marked by a plaque on the wall.

At this remove, based on the sort of margins they have achieved in many games Ballygunner look to have a very strong likelihood of extending their run in Waterford. You might wonder what good such dominance can do for a county but similarly to Toomevara with regard to the Tipperary team years ago the Ballygunner footprint is relatively light at inter-county level. When Waterford beat Tipp last summer they drew players from nine clubs, with just three from Ballygunner. Ballysaggart who will play Intermediate next year after just two years in Senior ranks also had three on that team, while De La Salle who just managed to evade the drop by beating Ballysaggart in a relegation play-off also had three. The rest were pulled from six other of the county’s 13 Senior clubs.

It seems like an ideal use of resources though it is remarkable that a team which will play in Intermediate next year had the same number of starters for Waterford as Ballygunner. Even more curiously when Ballysaggart won the Waterford Intermediate championship in 2019 it was Ballygunner’s second team that they beat in the final, and that by only three points. This was the same Ballysaggart team that beat Seán Treacy’s narrowly enough on the way to a Munster Intermediate final loss against Fr O’Neill’s of Cork. Funny how paths cross.

Oulart-the Ballagh represents the two villages of those names in which are located between Gorey and Wexford town. The club of the Jacobs and Martin Storey was very modestly successful down the years, with a Junior championship in 1967 followed by an Intermediate championship a year later being the height of it. All changed utterly in 1994 when the County senior final was won despite never having won either a Minor or Under-21 County championship before that. There had been five Senior final defeats in the previous 20 years but it was not an odyssey of Mayo proportions with little sense that there were hard-luck stories or any kind of destiny awaiting. All bar three titles since Wexford’s golden year of 1968 had found their way to Rathnure or Buffer’s Alley – Quigleys and Dorans the marquee names.

After 1994 Wexford’s County final day became a veritable feast day around Oulart and the Ballagh. The next 21 finals saw 16 final appearances, 13 of them won. They were the team to beat every year, and the only blight on their achievements - not unlike Ballygunner - was the failure to convert Wexford championships to provincial and All-Ireland titles more than they managed. Three times in succession (2011-13) they knocked out the Kilkenny champions, James Stephens, Ballyhale Shamrocks, and Clara. Each time they lost the Leinster final. They had done the heavy lifting, but others enjoyed the fruits of their labour.

For all the recognition of teams such as Mount Leinster Rangers, Kilcormac, and Coolderry, all of which won unlikely provincial titles, the role of Oulart-the Ballagh risks being marginalised by posterity. History is written by winners. But in the Wexford context certainly they were perennial winners and their relegation after 36 years in the highest grade is a great fall from grace. They are not the first or last team of great heritage to tumble. Between Toomevara’s 1960 and 1992 County titles they visited the Intermediate grade. Ballyhale Shamrocks won the 1990 All-Ireland club title but within five years were back in the Intermediate grade. Oulart’s day will come again, and Ballygunner’s will end too. Such is life.