Ballina have to scale football’s high kingdom
By Thomas Conway
Historically speaking, the last man from the locality to conquer Munster was Brian Ború, who later became High King of Ireland and cemented his reputation as one of the country's most successful Medieval leaders.
Should the Ballina Junior footballers overcome Kerry champions Gneeveguilla next Sunday in Mallow, then Kevin Byrne's side will write themselves into parish lore as the latest band of warriors to earn provincial glory. Different context, similar objective. However, it won't be easy.
Eleven of the last twelve Munster Junior Football Championships have been won by Kerry clubs. The two previous champions, Beaufort and Na Gaeil, went on to claim All-Ireland titles in 2019 and 2020 respectively, steamrolling their opposition in the final.
Were it not the unscheduled interruption of Knocknagree, the small Cork club which tore through the Junior Championship in 2018, Kerry clubs could probably have achieved a six-year winning streak in the competition.
In playing Gneeveguilla, Ballina are about to confront a team like any other, but they're also up against a tradition. Originally a native of Killarney, Fergus Breen has been living in the Ballina area for several years. Along with his wife Eileen and son Robbie, Fergus is a dedicated member of Ballina GAA Club, and although he admits that his knowledge of Gneeveguilla is far from extensive, the former Dr. Crokes-turned-Ballina club man points to two aspects of the East Kerry parish which have coloured its GAA history: its location, and its most famous individual talent - 1984 All-Ireland winning Kerry captain Ambrose O’Donovan.
“Gneveeguilla is on the Cork-Kerry border, about eighteen kilometres east of Killarney - which is where I come from,” he said.
“So that isn’t a huge distance at all. But the one name which would stand out, in terms of Gneveeguilla as a football club, would be Ambrose O’Donovan.”
As Fergus mentions, Gneeveguilla’s proximity to Killarney is significant. The village is located just a short distance from one of the nuclei of Gaelic football within the Kingdom. Many of the current Gneeveguilla team are graduates of St. Brendan’s College - one of the country’s most famous football nurseries.
Fergus himself is a graduate of St. Brendan’s, having shared a science class with the legendary Páidí Ó Sé. The former is well-known locally for his ability to compose complex questions for Ballina GAA fundraising events, but his summary of Gneeveguilla is suitably simple.
“Like most places in Kerry, if you’re from Gneeveguilla, you’re just an ardent football fanatic. It’s a small village, a small community,” he said.
Fergus isn’t the only Kerry presence involved in Ballina GAA club. Tony Kennedy, who hails from Annascaul and actually played on Gneeveguilla’s home pitch several years ago, is now a member of the North Tipperary club.
Suffice to say he knows a thing or two about football in Kerry, explaining the tiered structure of the club game in The Kingdom, which has numerous levels, with quite a limited number of senior teams.
“The way Kerry is broken down is that you have eight senior clubs, that’s all,” he said.
“And then you have one club coming up from intermediate, and one club going down each year. Then there are sixteen intermediate teams - four groups of four. And then after that, you have the winners of the Premier Junior championship - so they would be the 25th (ranked) team in the county. But they’d be pretty strong. Junior football would be pretty strong in Kerry, and there are two formats as well - you have the Premier Junior, which Gneeveguilla won, and then the Junior.”
It is no lie to say that Kerry resembles a seriously competitive club football landscape, with a multitude of ambitious teams which sometimes climb very quickly through the ranks. That doesn’t mean that a team like Ballina should fear their Munster Final opponents.
This is not county football, and while North Tipperary and East Kerry are worlds apart in terms of sporting culture and tradition, Ballina and Gneeveguilla will both enter this game with little concern for such details. The outcome will be decided on the pitch, in Mallow, on Saturday.