A look back at how Barrowhouse prepared for their Junior Football Championship ‘A’ final against Portlaoise in October.
It’s a glorious Sunday morning in the rural community of Barrowhouse, a couple of miles from Athy, a couple of miles from Ballylinan and a couple of miles from the famed Three Counties landmark pub at Maganey.
It’s an area of prime agricultural land but its population is small and the football club operates at the lower rungs of the Laois GAA ladder.
But for the second year running they’re in the Junior ‘A’ county final and once again they’ll be the curtain raiser to the senior final when they take on Portlaoise’s second team in O’Moore Park on Sunday.
A year ago they played some beautiful football against Ballyroan-Abbey and as the game ticked into injury time, Lee Day, in just his second season playing adult football, swung over a delightful free to put them a point up.
There was a right good crowd in O’Moore Park for that game and the tension for those couple of minutes was unbearable. But moments later the game was level; Ballyroan sub Conor Brennan making a draw of it.
Barrowhouse ran out of steam badly in extra time and eventually lost by 2-18 to 1-10. After such a fine effort the scoreline was cruel on them.
But here they are again, back in the final after coming through the group stages and then recording two impressive knockout wins over Kilcavan and Graiguecullen.
After they held off Graigue in a gripping semi-final in Crettyard a fortnight ago there was a gathering on the pitch of players, officials and supporters, a snapshot of the joy that a small community can get from its football team.
A week later and they’re in full-on county final mode and their grounds is buzzing with excitement and energy.
Black and white flags dot the small country roads and as we arrive to their lovely club grounds, we park up beside a big tractor and diet feeder that has wheeled into the car park just ahead of us.
Out of the tractor jump a couple of young children kitted out fully in their Barrowhouse gear.
A Sunday morning training session for the team is doubling up as a meet and greet with the young players that populate their U-7, U-9 and U-11 Go Games teams.
A couple of light-hearted matches take place between the adult players and children before what seems like all the club members pose happily for a massive picture for photographer Paul Dargan.
After that it’s down to business. Manager Sean O’Shea gathers them in to start their warm up. Numbers might be small but if you can’t get lads out a week before a county final then you might as well forget about it. They’ve enough for a full-on training game: one team in the Barrowhouse gear, another in the green and gold of neighbours Ballylinan.
At the corner of the pitch Liz Burke is pouring tea (the milk has been supplied by dairy farmer Pat Whelan) and doling out biscuits. Another club official is doing a steady trade selling flags.
Barrowhouse have a rich GAA tradition and celebrated their centenary in 2019. Over the years they have fluctuated between near extinction and the heady heights of senior football.
In 1956 they reached the intermediate final and were eight points up on Portlaoise at half-time. They lost to a late goal from Noel Delaney, one of Laois’s most prolific goalscorers of all time.
That Barrowhouse team contained Billy Malone, who, at 89, was among the sideline spectators on Sunday morning, and whose grandson Brian captains the current side.
Also on that team were stalwarts like Benny Mulhare, Michael Grufferty and Mick Phelan, the club’s most famous player and a man who is an exalted company as having played 13 seasons with Laois from 1950 to 1962.
The 1980s, though, was effectively the most successful decade in their history. Three times they won the intermediate championship and they added another in 1992. Ger Daly, Dom Whelan and Eoin Brennan were their big names of those years.
But relegation from senior in the mid 90s was followed a short while later by relegation to Junior, and they stayed there for the best part of 20 years, save for a couple of seasons when they voluntarily went up to intermediate again.
In 2006 they lost the Junior ‘A’ final to Park-Ratheniska. Their top scorer in that final was a 16-year-old Donie Kingston, who’d moved into the area a short time earlier.
Kingston’s time with Barrowhouse was relatively short-lived; a couple of years later he transferred to Arles-Killeen. Indeed losing players to neighbouring clubs has happened more than once and each time it was like a sucker punch to the club.
In 2015 they did win the Junior ‘A’ but by 2017 one of the star men of that team, Brian Daly, was in the St Joseph’s colours. They’ve lost lads to Athy too.
Their underage agreement, one that had seen them contest minor finals and win numerous U-21s, with Joseph’s came to an end a couple of years ago and gave way to the new Na Fianna Og amalgamation alongside the two Arles clubs and even Crettyard briefly.
Slowly but surely that arrangement is finding its feet, reaching a minor ‘A’ final and winning an U-20 ‘B’ last year. This year they have a strong U-15 group and play an ‘A’ championship semi-final on Saturday.
But all eyes are on Sunday in O’Moore Park when Barrowhouse take on a highly-rated Portlaoise side who were relegated from intermediate last year and who won the group game between the sides by 3-15 to 1-6.
That’s a big gap for Barrowhouse to make up but they were already through when they met back in August and they did beat a similar enough Portlaoise side in last year’s quarter-final when James Baldwin ran the show.
Baldwin, alongside Lee Day and captain Brian Malone, are an incredibly exciting and dangerous attacking trio while the likes of TJ Burke, Lochlann Kelliher and Martin Murphy are formidable around the middle of the field.
The defence is typical of a small junior club: three of the starting backs against Graiguecullen – Sean Phelan, Josh Deveraux and Kodi Dunne – are all only 18 and in their first year out of minor while the durable Theo McDonald is 43 and brings a wealth of experience and calm to the whole thing.
Goalkeeper Darragh Phelan has played underage for the county while Emmet Malone and Fergal Murphy, though dogged by injury, are two fine footballers who came on in the semi-final and scored a vital point each.
Pulling the strings on the sideline is O’Shea, the long-serving Arles-Killeen player, who is a highly-rated young coach and who has been appointed as Laois U-20 manager next year.
Alongside selectors Arnie McDonald and Michael Langton, O’Shea has them playing a lovely attacking game based on confident kick-passing into Baldwin and Day in the full-forward line. It’s not too dissimilar to what Arles-Killeen did with Paul Kingston this year in their eventful battle against senior relegation. O’Shea, as a player, was a key part of that.
They’ll bring a huge crowd to O’Moore Park on Sunday but they do go in as massive outsiders.
No matter what happens though they’ll be back again next year, resilient to the last, as they have been for the past 103 years.
They’re the embodiment of all that is good about rural Ireland.