11 players, a coach and selector – the school linked to Limerick’s All-Ireland hurling bid

THE ROAD TO hurling stardom was mapped out in advance for some.

On Sunday they will be at the heart of Limerick’s drive to address that 45-year gap since the county grasped the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

But back the years when they first filed through the doors of Ardscoil Rís to commence their second-level education life, their ability as hurlers shone instantly.

“When Shane Dowling came into the school, he was just after winning the All-Ireland Féile skills competition,” recalls Derek Larkin.

“Just an incredible hurler. Then Declan (Hannon) could just do great things with the ball.

“We’ve a primary schools blitz every September between Limerick and Clare schools. It’s kind of unique as you’re going to come up against schools that you wouldn’t normally play.

“We’re 11 or 12 years doing that now and the first player of the tournament that we had was Cian Lynch with Patrickswell. You could see him from 6th class, just phenomenal.

“It’s not surprising. They’ve been winning at schools level and U21 level. I think a lot of people are surprised it’s come so quickly at senior.

“But there’s a fearlessness about them isn’t there?”

There are 11 past pupils at core of the current Limerick playing effort. Mike Casey, Hannon, Lynch and Aaron Gillane started in that extra-time epic against Cork. Dowling, Peter Casey and William O’Donoghue came on as subs.

Peter Casey in action in the 2016 Croke Cup final.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Barry Hennessy and Kevin Downes were in reserve that day. David Dempsey and Barry O’Connell are part of the extended squad pushing hard for inclusion. Throw in the coach Paul Kinnerk and selector Brian Geary, and the Ardscoil Rís hurling narrative is intertwined with this Limerick 2018 journey.

They started to make waves in the schools hurling arena over a decade ago with familiar names leading the way.

“The first team we kind of made a breakthrough with was in 2006 we got to the Dean Ryan final,” says Larkin, a teacher in the school for over 25 years.

“That was a team would have had Barry Hennessy, Nicky O’Connell from Clare, Darach Honan, Conor Allis that would have hurled with Limerick. Kevin (Downes) would have hurled then and Tom O’Brien.

“Then Declan captained our team that won the Dean Ryan, our first ever ‘A’ title in 2009. He won a first Harty Cup then in 2010, himself and Shane co-captained the Harty team that won in 2011.

“I still remember those games in 2010, the three when we beat Thurles in the final. I remember every puck of them. Downes was extraordinary. Shane went from centre-forward to centre-back. Hannon went into the forward line for a while. You’d pick those guys out way back then from a mile away.”

The inter-county roles are not just restricted to Limerick. Situated on the North Circular Road in the city, they are close to the border with Banner country. There has always been a steady Clare influx.

Past students Jamie Shanahan and Ian Galvin nearly helped propel them past Galway recently. Cathal McInerney would have been involved this season but for injury while Darach Honan, Conor Ryan and O’Connell were celebrated as Clare triumphed in 2013.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Then there are the current links. Clare defender Paul Flanagan and coach Liam Cronin are both teaching in Árdscoil. Diarmuid Ryan, the figure of brilliance on the school’s Harty Cup winning side in February, had a couple of run outs with the Clare senior team earlier this year.

A dream All-Ireland final pairing nearly emerged but for Galway standing firm in Thurles.

“Had Clare gone through it would have been a dream final in many ways and on the other side you’d be looking at one team losing and the disappointment there,” says Larkin.

“There’d have been great craic obviously if both of them got through but there’d have also been this fear of losing, neither team would want to lose the other. That said it’s definitely a match I would have looked forward to.”

Larkin is a native of Tullamore, his work life seeing him immersed in Limerick hurling and living in Quin exposes him to Clare hurling.

Derek Larkin speaks to Ardscoil Rís players.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“When I looked at Offaly in the 90s, the school teams, you had Birr Community School winning an All-Ireland, Banagher Vocational School getting to an All-Ireland final. They had three minor titles won and the senior titles came out of that.

“If you take other than the Ardscoil lads, you have Tom Morrissey, Barry Nash, Richie English, (Darragh) O’Donovan, they all played Harty Cup with other schools. Doon got to a final, we beat them one year. Castletroy were beaten in a semi-final another year. Those schools have all made progress and it’s exposed lads to an intensity of game and training.

“That’s not the reason Limerick are in an All-Ireland final but to me Limerick have all their ducks in a row. They’ve a brilliant underage setup, development squads, the colleges are doing very well, the club scene with Na Piarsaigh and Kilmallock reaching All-Ireland finals. Those guys they’ve won so much coming up all along.”

Ardscoil’s first Harty Cup crown arrived in 2010 in their maiden final appearance. They added titles in 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2018, yet to lose a decider in Munster. Talented hurlers have come through the system, Ardscoil a part that have contributed to the health of the sport in Limerick.

Kevin Downes in action for Ardscoil Rís in 2010.

Source: Cathal Noonan

If they are viewed as a school that relentlessly produces talented players, then it is due to the work of several.

“Liam Cronin, Niall Crowe, Niall Moran, Victor Leyden, Cormac O’Donovan, Paul Flanagan, Orlaith Reidy and Fergal Lyons have all done huge work. This year’s Harty team had Damien Gillane (Aaron’s father) and Barry Hennessy.

“Barry has come back to us now for the last three or four years, working with Harty Cup teams. Totally on his own bat. He’s a sales rep, does a bit of strength and conditioning coaching as well. He’s been invaluable.

“We wouldn’t have won anything without that kind of expertise and help coming in. We’ve an enthusiastic and hard working group of staff members. We’re trying to put out as many teams as possible in the various age groups.

“But it wouldn’t be possible without them or the help of the clubs. We’re literally working off one pitch. We’re very lucky, Na Piarsaigh are always very helpful, Patrickswell, Meelick in Clare, all very generous.”

Niall Moran celebrates after a Dr Harty Cup final victory.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

In Larkin’s eyes, this all started with one man. Liam Kennedy passed away in April 2017 after an illness. A native of Cloughjordan in Tipperary, he taught in the school and laid a hurling platform. His son Padraic was between the posts when Na Piarsaigh won the All-Ireland club title in 2016 and lost narrowly in the final replay last March.

“I started in the school 25 years ago and Liam Kennedy, he drove the thing on, there would be no hurling in Ardscoil without him,” says Larkin.

“A teacher in the school, very involved with Na Piarsaigh for underage for donkeys years as well. Just a great way about him. He was in the school, retired a couple of years ago, unfortunately passed away last year after illness.”

Hurling may have risen in status but it co-exists with rugby rather than overshadow it. This is the alma mater of Paul O’Connell, Sean Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne, evidence of a rich tradition.

Munster rugby legend Paul O’Connell.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I would’ve taught Paul up to junior level,” recalls Larkin.

“Paul can put his hand to anything, no fear of him. A gentleman. We certainly encourage lads to play as much sport as possible up to Junior Cert and then after that they make a choice. At the level we’re trying to promote it within a school, it’s not possible to play both beyond that.

“Conor Fitzgerald played a minor All-Ireland with Limerick (in 2014), brilliant hurler, has a Harty Cup medal. A very good forward for us. Conor is an exceptional rugby player.

“His brother Stephen actually played both with us. Played Harty, he was unlucky now, it was the year Nenagh beat us in a replay of a semi-final. He played wing-back. He’s a Munster contract, Conor has a Munster contract.

“There has been a few down through the years that have played both. At the end of the day, if a fella is excelling at one, you’re not going to stand in his way.”

Stephen Fitzgerald in action for Munster against Ulster.

Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

They’ve thrived in Munster hurling circles but the All-Ireland series has been a tougher nut to crack. St Kieran’s are the benchmark, the aristocrats that have beaten Ardscoil Rís teams after each of their Harty Cup triumphs, including three All-Ireland final successes.

After those setbacks at the hands of Kilkenny teams, the tide has turned of late. Last September, Limerick won the All-Ireland U21 crown against Kilkenny with Lynch, Gillane and Casey playing, along with others past pupils Ronan Lynch, Thomas Grimes and Conor Boylan. That was the precursor for that landmark senior championship win for a Limerick outfit over Kilkenny in July.

And now they are a game away from the ultimate prize in hurling.

In 2013 the school brought back the Clare All-Ireland winners and Limerick Munster winners for a celebration of the hurling achievement of their former students, Marty Morrissey the MC for a novel event.

Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling, Alan Dempsey, Niall Moran and Declan Hannon with the Munster hurling trophy in 2013.

Paul Kinnerk, Darach Honan, Conor Ryan, Nickey O’Connell and Cathal McInerney with the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2013.

A Limerick win on Sunday would be a feat of a different scale.

“All those guys on the Limerick panel, we’ve dragged out of them so much since they’ve left school,” says Larkin.

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“You bring them back for medal presentations or help out with the blitz. They come in, sign autographs, talk to younger teams, even take the odd session here or there.

“They’ve been great role models, no different to what Paul O’Connell is. There’s none of those guys that you would hear anyone say a bad word about.

“Sport adds to it in a school. It gives you a different relationship with them, I suppose we’ve got to know those guys way more than we could possibly do just as a teacher.

“If Limerick pull it off, there’s no doubt about it, we’ll have all the lads in the school as soon as we can. There’ll be great excitement. To see Declan going up the steps of the Hogan Stand would be fairytale stuff. I’ve a great affiliation with all of those lads but the lads who made the breakthrough for us first – Dowling, Downes, Hannon and these guys – they set the mark for everybody.

“We lifted the roof off the place in 2013 when we’d the Clare lads and the Limerick lads in. The place would go mental if Limerick won the All-Ireland. It would be incredible, a dream come true. Just brilliant for them.”

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