KILLINAN END - Breaking New Ground

A weekend of top-class hurling fare beckons with All-Ireland club semi-final berths awaiting in the new year. Three provincial hurling club championships are up for dispute featuring a variety of teams with different backstories but presumably the same aspirations in the short-term at least.

Progress to the next stage of the competition will hopefully be hard-earned and all going well the provincial finals will live up to the billing of featuring the best of the best. There is of course one monstrous elephant in this particular room. While six club teams from different counties put it all on the line in provincial finals a team from one of the real hurling heartlands is spared all that bother.

While others toil and endure the stresses of the call to arms in a final the champions of Galway can sit back in casual observance enjoying their traditional winter break ahead of an All-Ireland semi-final. This is one of the most remarkable anomalies remaining in all of the GAA. There are quare things out there indeed with Galway being part of the Leinster senior championship for many years before the same scenario happened for their other grades. But this one truly beats Banagher for ongoing unfairness and inequity.

The Galway champions, St Thomas’, carry some pedigree having already been All-Ireland champions of course. They won the All-Ireland directly after their maiden County title which was won back in 2012. The All-Ireland series was won beating Loughgiel Shamrocks and Kilcormac-Killoughey. There have been tougher routes to All-Ireland success than two matches against the champions of Antrim and Offaly. For good measure Kilcormac-Killoughey even gave St Thomas’ the advantage of having two players sent off. Even still they had to tough it out for a two-point win.

Prior to this, St Thomas’ had not even played in a Galway county final. Suddenly they were All-Ireland champions. Yet, despite their freshness it was no particular surprise. At the time progress in the All-Ireland series for Galway champion team was nearly a given. Yes, there had been the multiple successes of Portumna to pad the record but no fewer than six clubs from Galway had won eleven titles in the previous twenty years when St Thomas’ lifted the trophy. The parameters have not changed in the meantime with Galway still enjoying a uniquely advantageous position of not having to play in a provincial championship. Yet, in the intervening decade plus since St Thomas’ day in the sun only Portumna’s last title in 2014 has provided Galway with success at the ultimate stage of the competition. It is fair to say that no team from the county has looked particularly likely to win another title either.

Gort’s defeat to Shamrocks Ballyhale in 2015 can be excused on the basis that it was that super-team from Kilkenny against whom losing was no shame. A year later, Galway again had relatively novel champions with Sarsfields winning their only county title in the last quarter of a century. Their campaign hit the buffers shortly after against Cushendall. There is no doubt that the best teams in Antrim have often proven doughty opponents for unsuspecting teams in All-Ireland semi-finals but the Galway champions of the past generally vaulted this hurdle. In 2017, St Thomas’s second attempt an All-Ireland title fell at the hands of a team from just thirty miles away, Clare’s Ballyea. One of the more surprising county champions emerged from Galway a year later in the shape of Liam Mellow’s, a city team which had last won the county title in 1970. That Liam Mellows team had featured Killenaule’s Tom Ryan, and Kiladangan’s Séamus Hogan, and was the club of Inky Flaherty and the Duggans too. The 2017 vintage did not have the same gravitas as some of their predecessors it seems and they were battered in the semi-final by Con O’Callaghan and Cuala, managing just three points from play in the hour.

Since then, Galway club hurling has been dominated by St Thomas’ with this year’s title giving them a record-equalling six-in-a-row. Appropriately perhaps, their defeated final opponents were Turloughmore, the only other team to achieve six successive titles which they did back in the 1960s. The history of Galway club hurling is unusual in that clubs have tended to win their titles in bunches. Turloughmore won seven of their eight titles between 1956 & 1966. Athenry won all their eight between 1987 & 2004. Sarsfields won six of their seven between 1980 & 1997. This is St Thomas’ time with eight titles won from eight finals since 2012. What they lack compared with their illustrious predecessors is success outside Galway. They may have the best arrangements in the draw, but their six-in-a-row will lose some of its lustre if they cannot add another national title considering the success of other teams from the county in the past.