Hurling & Camogie

Club Hurling Review of the Year: Agonising defeats for Dunloy and Cushendall bookend 2023

Cushendall hurler Scott Walsh lying on ground after All-Ireland semi-final defeat
Cushendall's Scott Walsh (Sportsfile/SPORTSFILE)

It clearly came from the most genuine of places but the post from Ballyhale Shamrocks’ Twitter account after they beat Dunloy is January’s All-Ireland final did, however unintentionally, raise an eyebrow.

“Hard luck to a fantastic well coached @DunloyGAC team. It was a right battle out there today on a terrible pitch. We were in your position last year and it’s a horrible feeling. But ye are a proud Club and we have no doubt ye will be back in Croke Park again.”

Ah yes, Ballyhale with their – at the point of that 2022 final defeat to Ballygunner – eight All-Irelands, placing themselves in the same boat as Dunloy, who had just lost the club’s fifth final, still searching for the one victory that has eluded generation after generation of Cuchullain’s hurlers.

The Ballyhale tweeter did get most things right in the post. It was absolutely right battle on a terrible – embarrassing might have been closer to the mark – pitch.

Ronan Molloy scored an early goal for Dunloy and the Antrim champions were within a point of the Kilkenny giants with 10 minutes left.

But Ballyhale hit eight of the last 10 points with their quality, and particularly their experience, pulling them to a victory in a match where they were pushed far harder than most outside Dunloy would have believed possible.

Fewer still would have predicted back in January that come October Ballyhale and Dunloy would indeed be in the same boat, a boat carrying county title hopes, a boat sunk without a trace for 2023.

Dunloy's Nigel Elliott is challenged by Ballyhale's Paddy Mullan and Richie Reid during the AIB All-Ireland Club SHC final at Croke Park            Picture: Mark Marlow
(Mark Marlow)

In Kilkenny, Ballyhale fell short in their quest for a sixth consecutive title in a single-point final loss to O’Loughlin Gaels. By the time of that final Dunloy were long gone from Antrim after suffering a stunning 11-point semi-final defeat to Loughgiel, putting an end to their bid for five in-a-row.

It wasn’t the end of the club’s senior championship involvement, however, with a first appearance in the football final since 1941 bringing the curtain down on an arduous 2023. They lost that match too and it’s difficult to ignore the notion big ball efforts took their toll on hurling ambitions.

That four players have decided to step away from Antrim duty in 2024 after such a relentless 2023 is hardly a surprise. There’s only so much that can be given.

Loughgiel’s out-of-the-blue hammering of their neighbours might have been considered the Shamrocks’ final given Cushendall, who had torn them to pieces earlier in the competition, were waiting in the decider.

But Loughgiel don’t work like that. They may be seven years removed from their last title but the twice All-Ireland champions are building again, with four successive minor crowns – until a final loss to Dunloy this season – suffusing talent into the senior panel.

Cushendall were the better side over the 60 minutes of the Antrim decider at Corrigan Park but were left watching a long-range free from one of the Shamrocks’ established stars – James McNaughton, who seconds before had pulled Loughgiel back into things with a goal – drift wide to preserve a one-point win.

They went on to brazenly steal the Ulster semi-final from under the noses of Portaferry –- who retained their Down title thanks to a victory over Ballycran in the sixth successive decider between three clubs. While Ballycran won the group game, Portaferry claimed the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup for the 23rd time when four unanswered injury-time points sent them clear in the final.

They were solid underdogs against Cushendall in the provincial semi but took soft goal chances handed to them by Ruairi Og as they led all the way until Neil McManus slammed home a free with the last puck of the game.

That blow took the wind out of Portaferry, who collapsed in extra-time as Cushendall pulled away.

The unconvincing nature of that win meant Slaughtneil, Derry champions for the 11th year in-a-row, were favourites for the Ulster final but, bar a brief first-half flurry, had no answer to their Antrim opponents, who stormed back to the top of the provincial roll of honour.

Elsewhere in Ulster, Castleblayney won their fourth provincial junior title but while they managed to reach the All-Ireland final after their last win in 2018, this time they found Kilkenny’s Tullougher-Rosbercon much too strong after the Monaghan side had beaten St Eunan’s, Letterkenny in the Ulster final and Sean Treacy’s of London in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Setanta became the first club to win back-to-back Ulster titles at different grades, adding the intermediate crown to their 2022 junior honours with a 1-16 to 2-11 win over Carrickmore.

But they also fell to Kilkenny opposition, beaten by 33 points to a Thomastown side who had won their six Kilkenny and Leinster knockout matches by an average margin of 17 points before cutting loose on the Donegal champions.

And so the year ended as it began, with a meeting of the champions of Kilkenny and Antrim.

The previous night, last year’s beaten semi-finalists went all the way to penalties. St Thomas’s, so definitively beaten by Dunloy 12 months ago and underdogs in this Portlaoise last-four epic against Ballygunner, made it through.

Cushendall fall short in dramatic semi-final

An hour and change was enough to separate the Cushendall and O’Loughlin Gaels in Navan, but only just and it was just as dramatic as the night before.

Plenty of chances were missed, lifts were botched, sliotars were spilled – a sticky pitch on a blustery day in December will do that – but for all the mistakes it was an enthralling game of hurling.

O’Loughlin Gaels regrouped from Cushendall’s concussive start – 1-4 up before anything from the Kilkenny champs, the goal coming from schoolboy sensation Joseph McLaughlin.

By half-time Cushendall were just three ahead and about to face the breeze but it took until the 51st minute for O’Loughlin Gaels to overhaul them.

Cushendall didn’t wilt but, just as it had for O’Loughlin Gaels in the first half, their radar failed them into the wind.

Relatively simple chances went the same way as much more difficult sights at goal and in the end Ruairi Og were squeezed out by an injury-time point, left to a winter of hurt and regret. They’ll carry that feeling into 2024, as will Dunloy, Loughgiel, Portaferry, Ballycran and Slaughtneil – who will have to do with without manager Michael McShane, who stepped down after that Ulster final defeat. 2023 may have been stuffed with club hurling thrills but hunger won’t be in short supply in 2024.