Hurling and camogie

Newry Shamrocks thrilled to become senior hurlers in 2022: Paul Sheehan

Newry Shamrocks celebrate beating Carryduff to win the Down Intermediate Hurling Championship. Picture by Dermot Donnelly 

'YOU'RE playing senior hurling now, lads…'

That phrase from politics is usually deployed as a warning - but Newry Shamrocks are relishing going up in Down.

Centre half-forward Paul Sheehan, 'man of the match' in their Intermediate Hurling Final victory over Carryduff on Sunday was answering the question before it finished:

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a life-long club dream to be a senior hurling club and now that's fulfilled, of course we will [go up]. There's no doubt about it.

"That's all we have ever wanted, all we've ever dreamt of, and to finally get over the line and be able to do it is brilliant."

The 31-year-old Sheehan has suffered enough setbacks, personal and collective, to know that celebrations should be enjoyed. He was technically correct when he shouted to a supporter as we spoke on the phone, "I'm outside the pub, I'm not in it!" - but he was on his way in.

Even their previous Championship triumph, in the 2019 Down Junior decider against Ballela, was marred for Paul by his suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury - his second, having done that damage a decade earlier too.

On the pitch he reckons they lost five consecutive Junior finals before at last going up to Intermediate - and then that Championship was delayed last year until this summer by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Shamrocks then lost that 2020 final to Carryduff, albeit that the competition was only run off over two weekends.

This year's Championship, also involving Liatroim and Clonduff, operated on a round robin basis, guaranteeing at least six matches per club. The Newry men lost both group encounters narrowly to Carryduff but won their other four games to ensure their place in the final - and then won the match that mattered most.

Sheehan had a storming first half, scoring 1-5, with captain and full-forward Eoin McGuinness netting another goal for a five-point advantage, 2-7 to 0-8. However, Carryduff fought back to level with the hour almost up only for Sheehan and Aodhan Furlong to get the Shamrocks over the line, 2-12 to 1-13.

"This is our first year playing Intermediate again and we won it," said a delighted Sheehan. "There was little or nothing between ourselves, Carryduff, and Liatroim, but when they're hard-earned it feels all the better, all the sweeter when you win."

After the joy came sadness, as the Shamrocks remembered some of those they have lost along the way.

Most heartbreaking of all was Oisin McGuinness, who died while playing soccer as a 16-year-old in 2009 - but he has never been forgotten, insisted Sheehan:

"All our underage teams growing up, Oisin would have played with us. I was a wee bit older, unfortunately he passed away when he was U16.

"We were all very close to him, but the McCaffreys in particular, he lived across the road from them, they were best friends. Sean [McCaffrey], who would have played with us, is teaching over in Qatar, he sent a message on Sunday morning, just when we woke up, saying that Oisin would be looking down on us and wishing us all the very best.

"We would always talk about Oisin, always refer to him as being 'the 16th man' - I know that's a cliché but it is true, we genuinely do always talk about him. His grave was the first place we went after we won."

The Shamrocks players and management also visited the resting places of others: "Tony Carr and Benny McKay would have played back in the day, always around the club, hurling mad. Just real characters.

"I don't know if John [Murphy] hurled but there weren't too many matches that he missed anyway, and his grandsons play, Jordan, and Nathan would have played as well.

"John is a GAA legend in Down, and a Shamrocks legend. That was tough last year, John will always be held in such high regard in the club. It was important that the Cup was brought to him too."

Then there was 'Big Fla': "Liam O'Flaherty, but I've just always known him as 'Big Fla', would have been Kieran Courtney's best friend."

Sheehan hails Courtney as "a Trojan of the club", along with many others: "My dad Eoghan would have taken a lot of underage, all the boys around my age group, along with Stephen Fullerton.

"Then Martin Lennon, who's involved with the seniors now, along with Paul Woods, the manager. The likes of Billy Campbell and John Mee would have taken the likes of Ryan Courtney, the three Campbells, Jordan Murphy, all their age group all the way through from U10s.

"They took us to Galway, Laois, Dublin, Cork for tournaments and challenge matches, weekends away."

Family is key, with Paul joined in the side by his siblings Dara and Conall. Indeed "we've eight sets of brothers on the team and nearly all our dads and uncles have coached at some stage."

Paul's uncle Ronan Sheehan, the current Down hurling boss, is continuing that tradition as Shamrocks senior coach, having been in goals for that Junior Final win two years ago.

The hurling tradition has been passed down from Ronan's father, the late Jerry, as Paul explains: "He was Chairman of the Down Hurling Board for years, a Corkman, and he was hurling-mad. Fly-fishing, hurling, and going to Mass, nothing else mattered to Granda! He put the love of hurling into all of us."

Newry Shamrocks may be better known for football, with All-Ireland winners like John Murphy and 1994 captain DJ Kane, but their dual status goes way back.

They last won the Down IHC in 1986 but the caman code has always been encouraged, says Sheehan: "There is a big overlap, especially at underage; we have our academy which caters for football and hurling, and everyone plays both. The young fellas at the club, every one of them plays football and hurling for the Shamrocks, they love them both.

"Because of our catchment area around Newry, those that don't play football for the Shamrocks play football for surrounding clubs - like the Campbell brothers with Ballyholland.

"If boys aren't playing now they certainly did play football at some stage at senior level. Everybody always played a bit of both - but hurling is the first love."

Fermanagh champions Lisbellaw await in the Ulster IHC next weekend - but Sunday was about more than celebrations for Paul Sheehan and Newry Shamrocks.

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