Sean O’Meara has lived in Shinrone all his life and has never seen days like these. “The whole parish is covered in red and white,” he explains. “I am almost emotional starting to talk about it to you; it is quite an occasion.”
s he speaks he chokes up a little. O’Meara hurled for Shinrone, lived and breathed it. He was a selector a couple of times. He served on committees, as club treasurer. And now he is the team sponsor.
Since he stopped farming he went into supplying his own brand of sliotar, O’Meara’s, and that name is now emblazoned on the red shirts that will run out on O’Connor Park this afternoon for a first county final appearance in 61 years. Shinrone hurlers have never won the Offaly senior hurling championship.
The closest they came was in the 1960 final, played on a sunny day in St Brendan’s Park, Birr, when they came agonisingly close against the reigning champions and favourites, Drumcullen, losing a thrilling match 4-11 to 4-10. Shinrone had tasty, skillful hurlers. Drumcullen had good hurlers too and ferocious physicality, but after failing to score in the opening 20 minutes and trailing 3-2 to no score, Shinrone made a remarkable recovery and twice led in the closing stages though points from Monty Franks.
But after lengthy injury-time allowed by referee John Dowling, a bone of contention in Shinrone for years afterwards, the experienced Drumcullen hit the last two scores to clinch a 17th title. Amazingly, it was also their last. Paddy Molloy became the first man to collect the freshly-unveiled Sean Robbins Cup.
“My uncle Tom, God rest him, was full-back and my dad was a selector,” says O’Meara. “Tom was 41 I think at the time. We heard of that team all the time, that team was always talked about. The sad thing about it was that there was huge emigration in Ireland and a big bunch of our lads left for America and mostly Britain. The team didn’t recover from that; they didn’t come back, the vast majority of them.”
Shinrone made it to the semi-finals the following year, then went five years without winning a match, the player losses hitting them hard. They were even relegated to junior hurling for a few years. In the early 1980s O’Meara was on a team that reached a senior semi-final. That was as close as they came. Under 21 wins in 1977 and ’78 provided the nucleus of a side that also featured the Offaly All-Ireland winner Brendan Keeshan. O’Meara won an All-Ireland medal in 1981 as a non-playing substitute.
Shinrone has been a match for any hurling team in Offaly for the last ten years and regular qualifiers from the group stages. But they’ve never got beyond the semi-final, losing most recently last year to Coolderry by a goal. This year their form hasn’t been hectic and it hasn’t been a great championship, but they’ve chalked up the wins, taking out Coolderry in the group stages, then dethroning St Rynagh’s — bidding for four in a row — in the quarter-final. Then, against Belmont, Shinrone didn’t hurl particularly well, but stayed in the match. Four points down entering injury-time, they won with two late goals.
“Even to get to the final is a big thing,” says O’Meara. “Winning would be just amazing. There was a quarter-final [mental] block. One particular year against Kinnity we were 12 points up at half-time. Admittedly there was a gale blowing and we had the gal and we were caught in injury-time. It had a bad effect on the players. That was a year we were playing really well, we had beaten all the good teams in the earlier rounds.”
Notable as the achievement is in reaching the final, the players will find it of scant consolation unless they upset the odds and defeat today’s favourites, Kilcormac-Killoughey. Shinrone has not been hurling at the level of champions-elect, relying on resilience and doggedness to get them through. The semi-final escape might tell a tale of a side with its name on the cup or one whose luck is about to run out.
But, to look at their glass being half full, they’ve beaten Coolderry, St Rynagh’s and Belmont to earn their place. And today they’ll hope to find their best form when it is needed most.
They are undeniably new to the party though. On the other side is a club that only won their first senior championship in 2012, but have four to their name now and were unlucky to fail in the 2013 All-Ireland final against St Thomas. While Shinrone havn’t been in a county final in 61 years, the evergreen Ger Healion of Kilcormac-Killoughey, at 39, is preparing for his tenth.
“I am excited about it, I am afraid to even think too much about it,” says O’Meara who, after retiring from hurling, went into refereeing, officiating at county level. “I think if we are in the game at half-time we have a chance. Kilcormac-Killoughey have players who have won championships already and played in other finals they were beaten in and that is a lot of experience going into a final, plus the fact they play regularly at Tullamore and we don’t.”
And with that novelty comes an attack of nerves and a tendency towards extreme caution. The chairman is Michael Cleary and on receiving contact from a member of the press is inclined to fear what might follow their doors opened too freely. He has been chairman for five or six years and one of many who have helped in their own way to make this day possible. But there is the underlying fear of the underdog that something could go terribly wrong.
Cleary has four sons on the team and if you pucked a sliotar anywhere in Shinrone it would be a small miracle if it didn’t hit someone by the name of Cleary. There is another separate set of brothers of that name and multiple cousins. You could quickly become bamboozled by the matrix of family connections. Michael’s sister Fionnuala is married to a Sampson and three of their sons are involved. Another brother Joe also has a son on the squad. And another brother who doesn’t, Pat, played underage with a Ballyskenagh-Shinrone combination as a juvenile and won an All-Ireland medal with Offaly in 1985.
Pat’s work took him away from that part of Offaly and he now lives in Tullamore and is involved with Ballinamere hurlers. But Shinrone has so many connections for him there is little else on his mind at the moment than today’s match. “It is fantastic for Shinrone,” he says.
His brother Joe was principal of the local primary school that carved out a reputation for producing a litany of successful teams in competition. “The bulk of the players have won minor A and some have won one and two under 21s,” says Pat Cleary. “They might have hoped to have won a senior before but that takes a bit of maturity. They did struggle to beat traditional clubs before. But they’ve beaten them this year and they won a lot of those matches in the second half. It does give them confidence that they’re not gone out of games.”
They are managed and coached by Roscrea native Trevor Fletcher ,who is plotting against his adopted home club, where he married into, resides, and signed for, having played in an All-Ireland club final with them in 2013, scoring 1-1.
The former Tipperary hurler had also been with Belmont for four years before taking on Shinrone, so he had some experience of having to face up to a team he was closely aligned to not long ago. But this is a little more textured. Shinrone are outsiders, but if they pull it off, at some stage Fletcher will have to go back home to Kilcormac and unlit bonfires and rueful talk of what might have been.
The Shinrone win over Belmont meant Fletcher avoided a sixth successive semi-final loss. Belmont had earlier inflicted a big defeat on Shinrone in the group stages. Fletcher has been trying to drum it into the Shinrone lads that they have the hurling; all they need is the belief to go with it.
The excitement builds. Brendan Keeshan was due home yesterday for the final from London where he has worked for years. Some of the 1960 team have been rounded up for interviews, some admitting they never thought they’d live to see Shinrone in another final. Billy Feighery was club chairman for the best part of 30 years and would love to be there but is recuperating in hospital after an operation. The club tried to see if there was a way of getting Billy out for a few hours but it wasn’t possible.
Another interested observer might be Joe McKenna, a talented export to Limerick, who played for four years with Offaly minors and four more with the under 21s and made some senior appearances. His sister Margaret still lives in Shinrone and her son John runs one of the village’s two bars.
McKenna was on the Shinrone team that won the 1968 junior championship, but by 1972 he had won a championship with South Liberties, leading on to an All-Ireland with Limerick the following year. One can only imagine the loss of a player like that to a club like Shinrone, but a half century later here they are in a county final. Dreaming big.