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St. Patrick’s Day 1997 will certainly mark a new chapter in the story of Athenry Parish. It is impossible to convey in print the excitement of an afternoon in Croke Park and the journey home to a memorable reception that ended in the Square. St. Mary’s Hurling team did their parish proud before the whole country. Bonfires, flags and bunting – the welcome saw people in high spirits and an extraordinary celebration. So it is in the memories and stories that will be told, the match will be relived and the debate and discussion will go on in the months ahead. To talk about emotions and enthusiasm would fill a book on its own which no doubt someone will write, but for now a few impressions that remain imprinted on my mind.

On the journey home when young Kieran Healy moved through the bus getting players and all of us on board to sign his match programme, the thought that crossed my mind was “Here is a youngster with a sense of history!” And Paschal his father, had played such a prominent role in making it. It just struck me that a living memory of the day and that experience will live for two hundred years in the Healy household. Because from the birth of the grandchild to the death of the grandparent there is a span of two hundred years! Young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams!

It must have been a memorable moment for P. J. Molloy and when he said his few words in the Square. He touched the heart of the matter. The skill and grace that he brought to hurling, he had now brought as manager of the team in a colossal achievement. He reminded everyone in that hushed gathering that the winning of the Tommy Moore Cup was a tribute to all people of sport in the parish who played the game and kept the spirit alive down the years. Many of these warriors of destiny were there and no doubt shed a quiet tear. One was missing and he was in everybody’s thoughts. Only a severe bout of shingles could keep Bobby Gardiner in bed. But Brian Feeney remembered him in Croke Park and nobody was more present in his absence. He was in the thoughts and memories of all who were there and his sterling service to hurling and football and this parish for many a long day.

Chatting with Eugene Cloonan on the bus I asked him how it felt going out to mark Brian Lohan‘? In his calm way, he told me that he was told in the opening minutes that “he would be put in his box!” Three minutes later when he got his first point he made the memorable comment to the full-back.

“Brian, we’ll have to make it a bigger box today”! For an eighteen year old to score nine of the fourteen points shows the skills of this modest young man. With God’s help and good health, he will have many years to use his hurling talent to brighten the lives of all the people who follow the game.

It must be heart-warming for Tom Cloonan, Sean McGovern, Martin T. Kelly and all who helped them to sow the seeds in under-age hurling over the years to see the rewards of their labour in glorious blossom. The TV camera caught magic moments after the final whistle. One of them was the dance of Tom and Eugene in a father-son embrace. It spoke a powerful message. Surely this is Athenry’s answer to Riverdance!

To have the opportunity to celebrate Mass for the team and all that gathered in the Burlington on the night before the match was an experience that I will always remember. Many things crossed my mind. It was a long campaign for the whole squad – over thirteen months from February ‘96. The hours and the efforts that had been put into this venture to reach this day were enormous. Nobody could appreciate all that more than themselves.

Here they had come to the summit, with a huge sense of parish pride and support behind them. Proud of them as ambassadors from their own families and place. Proud of their skills and talents, their dedication and perseverance. And you could sense their pride in parish and the part that this team had played in drawing the varied strands of parish together in a powerful spirit of unity and goodwill, harmony and cooperation. Thank you to Brian Feeney and all the squad for that spirit and leadership.

So much of a great tradition that we can be justly proud of is that on Sundays, we had the Mass and the Match. Both are important in their own place. Both are interlinked. A faith that is nourished in prayer and Eucharist gives courage and spirit to everything we do on or off the field.

St. Mary’s Club is blessed in the example and inspiration of good leaders. People with a sense of pride in their own place, integrity in their lives and a great spirit in a huge area of voluntary endeavour. It is the same effort even when the team does not win. Lotto, looking after jerseys, repairing hurleys, sliothars and all the many and varied tasks mean that many people are doing their bit for the Club. It is all about people and there is a wide range of support. It is important to remember that. And it is important that Croke Park would awaken to the fact that the future of Gaelic Games depends on the vitality and energies of the local Club.

And Friday night, April 11th showed all that in a remarkable way when the team did the Parish Tour with Cup. It was very appropriate that it was led by Jarlath Cloonan and Michael Quinn. Both of them have made an enormous contribution to the Club over the years. They had planned a winding tour that took three hours and ended in Colmanstown. If there ever was any doubt that the people of this parish failed to appreciate the achievement of St. Patrick’s Day, that doubt was buried in the ashes. It was the night of a thousand fires!

Father Tony King. P.P. President, St. Mary’s G.A.A Club.

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Written by Tony King

Published here 19 Jan 2023

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