Premier Rewind: Borris-Ileigh – The Reigning Kings

(c) Enda O'Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan
By Stephen Gleeson

In these times of reflection, looking back at great sporting achievements has become popular and, no doubt, a standout time in recent memory was the remarkable journey of Borris-Ileigh’s hurlers in 2019.

Their journey was Gaelic Games at its best. A parish in North Tipperary, that had suffered setback after knock back in wider terms, found itself creating new dreams and playing at a level it hadn’t reached in decades.

Borris-Ileigh breathes hurling. Four All-Ireland winning captains hail from the area and a small rural club carried its hurling tradition through tough times on and off the field, to emerge in 2019 hoping once more that they could bridge the gap with the heroes of 1987 – the team that last won a county, provincial and All-Ireland title.

(c) Enda O'Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan
(c) Enda O’Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan
Midfielder Tommy Ryan was one of the younger players and had never seen a county title but knew all about local heroes: “We grew up with Brendan Maher and Paddy Stapleton hurling for Tipp and they were real leaders in our dressing room. We all grew as the year went on and we all improved,” he says, as he recalls the journey that saw them beat the 2018 county champions, Clonoulty Rossmore at Holycross in the first round before they got the head down and trained away as best they could over the summer months.
As a group, they were used to doing well but never quite reaching the dizzy heights the team of ’87 had. They were the trailblazers who went all the way to Croke Park, beating Rathnure of Wexford on a cold spring day in 1987. Legendary names such as intercounty pair Bobby and Aiden Ryan, the Stakelums, Noel O’Dwyer, Noelie Maher and captain Mick Ryan were all part of an incredible journey that led to the Tommy Moore Cup being hoisted high in Borris that springtime.
JD Devaney | (c) Enda O'Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan
JD Devaney | (c) Enda O’Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan

The links between the 2019 team and their predecessors were everywhere. Joint captain in 2019 was Conor Kenny, and his dad, Philip, was a selector. Philip had been part of that journey in the 1980s when Borris-Ileigh reached a number of county finals and were the kingpins of the game in the home of hurling. Philip Kenny said he was just a young hurler at the time: “I was 23 and I didn’t pay it as much importance as I should have. We had won previous county finals and I thought it was and would be the norm but it didn’t turn out that way. ’86 was the last county final we won.” From there Philip moved from Tipp and his children Conor and Niall grew up in Kildare only moving back to Borris after Niall finished school. “We were always going to come back,” Philip said, “and when Niall finished his leaving cert we did. Being back in Borris is great.”

For Conor Kenny, he loved Kildare and Borris too: “I hurled county finals with Celbridge and then we moved back to Borris-Ileigh and if you told me seven or eight years ago that I’d captain Borris-Ileigh to a county final, I’d have laughed at you. But that’s the way my journey worked out.”

(c) Enda O'Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan
(c) Enda O’Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan

Both Niall and Conor Kenny became integral parts of the plan for Borris and when county minor stars JD Devaney and Kevin Maher came of age, the Borris attack took on a menacing look for opponents. Backboned by county stars Brendan Maher and Dan McCormack, the team clad in maroon and white made inroads in the county championship finding themselves playing Kiladangan in the county final last Autumn. They had been overturned by the same opponents in the north championship and after some harsh words in a team meeting, the Borris group of hurlers emerged stronger and were ready for a second crack at Kiladangan.

“We won a close quarter final against Drom Inch and another close one against Kilruane in the semi final and we knew what to expect from Kiladangan,” says midfielder Tommy Ryan. He says his side relished the chance to avenge the north defeat and knew they had tradition on their side. “Older teams from the parish had success and we knew we were going to do all we could to win as well. Getting there was one thing, winning it was another. And thankfully we drove on that spirit we had in the team which made a difference in a right tough game.”

Borris-Ileigh pipped Kiladangan to bridge the gap with 1987 and jubilant scenes followed in 2019. Timmy Delaney sang ‘Lovely fair Ileigh’ in the dressing room and the celebrations took over. It was something special for a group of players and there was more to follow. Glen Rovers and Patrick Horgan came to Thurles in the Munster championship but when the Tipp team found their flow they had enough to win and had gone a step further on the road. Ballygunner in the Munster final followed.

A huge Tipp contingent travelled to Páirc Uí Rinn for the provincial final and new supporters from far and wide came to follow the Borris journey. Being underdogs going into the game didn’t faze them. They were used to it. Ballygunner were experienced and boasted a large number of inter-county names. Borris tore into their opponents. Early scores from Jerry Kelly and pointed frees settled them. The game wasn’t going as expected for the Waterford side. Borris sent puckouts into the middle and won the breaks. Brendan Maher mopped up ball after ball. Then with the clock ticking on, key moments unlocked Ballygunner. Kieran Maher rifled home a belter of a goal to ignite the crowd in the stand. Brendan Maher hit a point for the ages. A ball flew into a large mass of players and away from them, with the ball, goes Brendan, looks at the posts and lets fly. The Borris crowd couldn’t believe it but realised now that anything was possible.

(c) Enda O'Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan
(c) Enda O’Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan

Players stayed with their own afterwards, talking and laughing and taking pictures until the sun had set. No one wanted to leave the field. Borris-Ileigh were Munster champions. A village united and a county now following their dream. They became national news. They entered the history books again. From there, the next stop was a clash with St Thomas’ of Galway in the Gaelic Grounds. Again they stood tall against a team far more experienced at seeing out big days. This time Brendan Maher fired over another wonder point with half a hurley! The team were in full swing and their management team led by Portumna native Johnny Kelly looked on with pride.

Croke Park beckoned. Borris-Ileigh took on the might of Ballyhale from Kilkenny; another small rural village that expected to win on the big days. Jerry Kelly lit up the stadium showing his vast array of skills but ultimately the victory proved a bridge too far. Borris lost little in defeat. A parish had reignited the glory days and had gone somewhere wonderful through hurling.

Club secretary Gerry Treacy said it was a special time and one they would never forget: “Before Christmas 2019 the team of ’87 got their whole team together and decided to pass on the baton to the current crop. We had a night where both county winning teams met up. The team of 1987 and 2019 both really enjoyed it. It goes to show that generations might pass but we are still one club and are all on the one road. Having everyone there together is what it is all about”.
Brendan Maher | (c) Enda O'Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan
Brendan Maher | (c) Enda O’Sullivan, Padraig Hogan and Diarmuid Brennan

Why not have a listen back to the team’s Munster final win over Ballygunner below?