Long live the North Kerry Championship

December 23rd, 2014
by Weeshie Fogarty

Ballybunion, St Stephens Day, cold, dark, bleak, windy, streets deserted, Bill Clinton's famous bronze statue in golfing pose situated in the centre of the town outside the local Garda Station is bedecked in a Santee hat and coat but Ballybee is one of my favorite places in the summer. Now we are in the bones of deepest winter and I am here reporting for Radio Kerry Sports on the North Kerry championship semi-final.

The clubs in action, St Senans founded in 1934 have never won the championship are up against the renowned Listowel Emmett's the hot favorites, they have been crowned champions fourteen times, Moyvane top the winners list with eighteen titles.  

A visit to the beach at the end of the town before the game is a must. The huge Atlantic waves are pounding the shore line; a scattering of hardy walkers are well wrapped up against the raging elements. A few horse men and women are galloping along the beautiful strand as the sea gulls swoop and dive gracefully around the remains of the old castle overlooking the sea. Ballybunnion in summer or winter is a special place.

The talking points had began two hours earlier when the game was switched from Moyvane to the Beale venue. The Bob Stack Park as big and wide as Croke Park with a superb natural playing surface. Always playable in the wettest of conditions, snow and ice is the only enemy here. Bob Stack born in New York to Irish parents and moved to Ballybunnion aged sixteen to run the family farm. Bob won six All Ireland medals and is considered one of the greatest ever Kerry players. Ogie Moran and Bomber Liston are two other Beale legends of later years.

The match lives up to everything we have been told about as regards this famous championship. The good, the bad and at times the ugly are on display, but its great stuff for the neutrals and warm the cockles of the heart. It's hard, tough, and physical with sporadic outbursts of violence. Referee Michael Hennessey of the legendary hurling family has his hands full and lays down the law early in the hour. A side line mentor begins berating his decisions, he stops the game, walks to the line points to the offending selector and says, "One more shout from you and you're gone". Gone to where I wonder to myself?  The admonition works, but the on field battle has only just begun.  Four red cards and two blacks will be flashed as the game threatens to boil over but it's a mighty combat. Hennessy keeps a tight rein on affairs; a few skirmishes are breaking out as the battle rages, North Kerry at its most famous, or infamous.

A great goal by mid fielder Jason Brown had seen Senans ahead at the short whistle 1-3 to 0-2. Disappointingly for them they fail to score in the second half. Connor Cox of Listowel is a magnificent classy footballer, he is the Listowel savior and he lands three glorious points as the game ends in a welter of excitement, a draw. Senans should have won, Listowel finished the hour with twelve men. The Kennelly brothers are playing, Tadgh home from Australia and Noel the long serving warrior still in superb form. Their uncle Mikey is the team's manager. Their late dad Tim was a legendary figure of North Kerry championship football. It's a never ending story. The grass roots, the foundations of Kerry football, what makes it great, the secret of Kerry.

Ten Australians are in North Kerry for a wedding and are only at the game specially to meet Tadgh; they tell me he is a legend in their country and can't understand why he is not constantly mobbed here. Hot tea, delicious steaming hot soup, sandwiches and Swiss roll, a mighty mix at half time from the Beale ladies served in their beautiful new complex. We're renewed for the restart.  I watch the game from inside the little score board building, (solid concrete build like a small war bunker) squeezed in with two fine young men from Beale who await the winners in the final. I get the feeling they hope Listowel are beaten, I might be wrong but?

We returned to Ballybunnion for the re-play last Saturday; however St Senans had lost their chance the previous week and despite the great efforts of Eoin o Connell. Sean Weir, Jason Brown, Damian Somers, Padraig Quill and their beautiful skillful corner forward Darragh Kennelly they were struggling all day and lost 1-14 to 2-5. The game had an explosive beginning, rarely seen, with two goals in the first two minutes, David Foran for Senans and Connor Cox for the winners raising green flags. The latter finished with 1-7 to his name while Noel Kennelly continues to roll back the years as he gave a brilliant performance at midfield.

And so next Saturday in o Rahilly Park Ballylongford the story continues to unfold, as Beale attempt to win their first Eamon o Donoghue Cup in fifty five years, anything can happen. A Listowel die hard and great friend told to me during the week that everyone outside the town wants to see them lose, "I hope ye beat the bread and tae boys will the cry coming up to the final' he remarked.  John B Keane and his son Billy have on many occasions written and spoken in high praise about this unique competition. Their town will develop a siege mentality for the next few days until the final whistle is blown then the talk will be about next year, and what happened this year, or is it last year?. North Kerry continues to confuse.

The North Kerry championship is unique, it's different, it runs from one year into the next, the crowds flock to it; it has an atmosphere all on its own. Songs and ballads have been written about it, it's a throw back to my young days playing football in the fifties but I love it. Those in the know might even whisper to you that local GAA rules might be stretched to the very limits to solve some championship problems that have arisen there over the years?

So well done to both clubs who have written a new page of history "in the North" following the semi-final and re-play. It might not be the sanitized football what many believe in but its wonderful entertainment.  Board officers Billy Enright, Mike Flavin Mairead o Sullivan the long serving Jack Hennessey and other dedicated officers there are a credit to the association. Long live the North Kerry Championship, to hell with the critics.

Radio Kerry - The Voice of the Kingdom