Leitrim Hurlers Still Believe, Despite All the Evidence

Carrick-on-Shannon – Through the hail of bad news raining down on the country, Irish people can still take heart from the courageous story of Leitrim’s inter-county hurlers, who togged off last night in the freezing drizzle to begin their arduous winter training, fired by the belief that anything is possible – despite all the evidence.

Leitrim residents remain baffled as to why it is Ireland's least populous county.

Leitrim residents remain baffled as to why it is Ireland's least populous county.

Leitrim is the least populous of all Ireland’s counties with a mere 29,000 people living in the middle of nowhere between Connacht and Donegal, but its hurlers are undaunted in their pursuit of glory, which has so far eluded the county for over a century.

Leitrim currently boasts no hurling honours and one of the least competitive county championships in Ireland. 12 of the last 12 championships have been won by the same club, St. Mary’s Kiltoghert, with the only other team to win in the last 23 years being Gortletteragh. Despite the paucity of talent and competition, however, Leitrim hurlers continue to show up for training every Thursday night.

Manager Kevin Glancy beamed proudly out at the bedraggled bunch from under his umbrella, as he shouted instructions on how to “rise” the ball, the art of getting it off the ground quickly so one can hit it more cleanly, which is so basic to the game.

A Leitrim hurler attempts to rise the ball and hit it while the others offer encouragement.

A Leitrim hurler attempts to rise the ball and hit it while the others offer encouragement.

“Sure, I know those Kilkenny and Tipp lads are fair good at these skills,” said Glancy unhurriedly, “but they’ve been out practicing since October. We’re only getting started now and I’m sure the lads will have the hang of it come next spring.”

“Once we’re able to get the ball off the ground at will, just watch us go.”

Since he was appointed manager of Leitrim, Glancy has been noted for his insistence that Leitrim play “the modern game,” and particularly for his insistence that players hit the ball out of their hands.

“The game has changed an awful lot in recent years and Leitrim will have to change with it,” said Glancy fervently. “A lot of people think we should stick with our traditional skills but we have to be modern if we ever hope to beat the likes of Kilkenny and lift the Liam McCarthy cup.”

“I think we could give [All-Ireland Champions] Tipp a run for their money come next September,” said Glancy, as he watched his players attempting a “sideline puck” – the technique of hitting a stationary ball on the ground while standing right next to it – with no success.

Last year’s top scorer Clement Cunniffe said that he felt “really good” about Leitrim’s prospects in 2011.

St. Mary's and Gortletteragh do battle before an enthralled crowd of hedges.

St. Mary's and Gortletteragh do battle before an enthralled crowd of hedges.

“Yeah, I mean, we have some good new young lads coming into the team from the U-21s,” said Cunniffe, planting the bas of the hurley into the muddy ground so he could lean his somewhat overweight arse on the handle. “Young Kennelly from Gortletteragh actually ran a few metres with the ball on the end of his hurley. We haven’t seen skill like that in this county for many a year.”

“All those GAA-sponsored egg-and-spoon races are starting to pay off.”

Cunniffe has been playing hurling with Leitrim now for ten years and feels happy that he will pass on a legacy of growing achievements to the next generation.

“Yeah, last year we came so close in the Lory Meagher Cup [a new 4th tier competition for ex-patriot drinking clubs, paralympian teams, and Leitrim],” said Cunniffe, shaking his head at the memories. “We had a great win over South Down Syndrome in Round 1, beating them by a point 1-13 to 1-12. But then it all went wrong for us away at Longford in the semi-final, losing 2-21 to 0-10.”

“In fairness, Longford are a very strong team. I’ve even put €20 on them to win the All-Ireland over the next five years,” said Cunniffe with a crafty wink. “They impressed me that much.”

News of Leitrim hurlers’ heroic struggles against reality have inspired many across the nation to keep going in the face of overwhelming odds. Taoiseach Brian Cowen even felt moved enough to mention them in a speech about Ireland’s total bankruptcy.

An unnamed Department of Finance official waits anxiously for the outcome of Cowen's 2,000,000,000/1 longshot on Leitrim.

An unnamed Department of Finance official waits anxiously for the outcome of Cowen's 2,000,000,000/1 longshot on Leitrim.

“I may have bollixed the country for the rest of the 21st century,” said Cowen, in a remarkably forthright but honest and accurate statement. “But Leitrim hurlers have shown that we can never break the will of the Irish people.”

“If we all just put our heads down, way deep into the sand, everything will be all right.”

“This year, as a show of support, I’m putting the country’s last remaining €50 on Leitrim to win the All-Ireland. At odds of 2,000,000,000/1, that just might be enough to get us out of the hole I dug.”

“Those boys up in Leitrim are the only hope for the country now,” he added.

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