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The Rebel messiah who found a Faithful cause

by Vincent Hogan was published in the Irish Independent on Saturday the 7th of August 1999

WHEN the day comes to apply a celestial audit on the life of Edmund Rice, his bequeathal of a Bantry brother to Offaly hurling will evoke its share of jolly uproar.

Birr in 1961 was the epicentre of a hard, fractious hurling community where club games rattled with storied enmity. Voyeurs were drawn to Offaly county finals like drunkards to an all-night tavern. Old hatreds peppered the stew.

Offaly hurling was a strange, introverted business. The county had never won a title beyond `Tournament' status, yet few doubted that they had men who on any given day could go hip-to-hip with the game's oligarchy.

Brother Denis Minahane arrived in their midst without fanfare. His first posting had been at Coláiste Chriost Rí where he worked with the college football team. A child of Christy Ring's hey-day, hurling enthralled him. But West Cork was football land and, by extension, Bro Denis was a football man.

Yet, within a year of arriving at Presentation College, he was in charge of the Offaly senior hurling team. In another county, this might have been deemed a mite eccentric. Not in Offaly. For here was a place where the county job had few suitors.

Bro Denis would remain Offaly's manager over the next 12 years. In that time, the county won respect, but nothing more tangible. Offaly's first Leinster crown would arrive six years after his departure. Ostensibly, it might seem as though the Corkman made little headway.

But those involved argue stridently to the contrary. Indeed, Damien Martin the county's first Allstar and a dual All-Ireland winner offers an unequivocal denouement. "If there hadn't been a Bro Denis," argues Martin "the Dermot Healys of this world would have been wasting their time. Because, with respect to Dermot, Bro Denis batted from nothing."

He is retired from school now, but the separation is merely technical. Within seconds of a welcoming handshake, he draws your attention to a framed photograph on the mantlepiece. It shows the past pupils of Birr Community School who were county panellists when Offaly won last year's All-Ireland crown. There are 15 faces in the picture.

BIRR Community School came to life in '79 through an amalgamation of Pres with the local vocational school and convent. With 800 students and a full-time staff of 50, Bro Denis was appointed principal.

He finds little conflict now in this hurling week as Offaly and his native, Cork, prepare to square up to one another in senior championship hurling for only the second time. When he talks of Offaly, it is as if Bro Denis talks of family.

"I'm almost 40 years here now," he smiles. "And I think, when someone changes residence, they should throw in their lot with their new neighbours. My heart is with Offaly. No question about it."

Birr past-pupils stretch, admittedly, across many county boundaries. Former Tipperary goalkeeper and current selector, Ken Hogan, grew up in Rathcabbin, about five miles from the town. To this day, he describes the "slight awe" he feels when encountering Bro Denis.

Hogan hurled for the school in two losing All-Ireland finals (against St Flannan's and North Monastery). He recalls especially the game against a North Mon team that included Tomás Mulcahy and Tony O'Sullivan in 1980 and Bro Denis' assertion that this was the best colleges team he had ever seen. "Mark my words, you'll see a lot of these boys in Croke Park next September with Cork's minors," he insisted.

A few months later, it was Tipp (with Hogan in goals) who claimed the All-Ireland crown, Cork among their victims. "I gave him a bit of a ribbing about that," Ken recalls now.

"But his influence on all of us was incredible. You knew you were going into something special when you went to the community school. He was never aggressive, abusive or intimidating in any way."

It was this too, above all else, that he brought to the Offaly county team of the 60s. Old feuds dissipated as sworn enemies found themselves dining together after training. Bro Denis understood what an investment in simple friendship might reap for Offaly.

He recalls now: "You only had to be here a few weeks to smell the atmosphere for hurling. Football was totally alien to them. I had no great hurling background. Nothing going for me if you like, except my interest.

"But I saw a terrible lack of organisation with the county team. When I took over in '62, I went into a vacuum I suppose. A team would be picked for the Championship and there'd be practically no training done. The inter-club rivalry was huge. People would come from miles around to see an Offaly county final, to see hurling plus ... shall we say ... other activities.

"It was all attrition, historical rivalries. Things that might have happened in 1936 and they still hadn't got it out of their systems."

A measure of Offaly's indifference to the county picture had been siphoned some years earlier from a challenge game against Thurles Sarsfields. County against club. It ought to have been a worthwhile contest, but Thurles won in a demoralising canter.

THAT was the scenario, Bro Denis now sought to eradicate. By '66, there was evidence of progress when Offaly beat Tipperary in the National League. It was a game that marked Johnny Flaherty's debut and to this day Bro Denis expresses admiration for the integrity shown by Flaherty's marker, Liam Devaney.

"That day was such a breakthrough," he recalls. "Beating Tipp was a huge surprise but I'll always remember Devaney for playing Johnny skilfully. He could have buried him physically, but he didn't. That game gave a great fillip to hurling here.

"A lot of our fellas in the Coolderry, Shinrone area would have been working in Roscrea. For them, it was something else to go to work on a Monday morning, having beaten Tipp."

Progress, though, tended to be sporadic. In the summer of '67, Offaly were annihilated in the Leinster Championship by Westmeath. The game would be tagged the `Battle of Birr' as Bro Denis recalls, "we lost our heads."

A year later, Kilkenny narrowly beat a 14-man Offaly and then, in '69, Bro Denis' charges knocked All-Ireland champions Wexford out of the Championship before succumbing narrowly to Kilkenny in the Leinster final by 0-16 to 3-9.

According to Damien Martin: "If Bro Denis had got us two or three years earlier, we would have won the All-Ireland in '69. He had taken the parochialism out of our hurling. And he was the best motivator I ever came across.

"Fellas who wouldn't go into a dark room would go out and hurl like warriors for that man. God knows how he managed to give them courage."

Bro Denis recalls Leinster final day of '69 wryly as "the same week man first walked on the moon." Otherwise, his recall is undramatic. "Game we should have won," he says. "'Course Kilkenny got a goal just before half-time, as they always seemed to do. Demons for it."

When he thinks of days long gone now, he thinks of special, unsung hurlers. Of `Jobber' McGrath, the Westmeath man who would roll the sliotar up his hurley and flick it over an opponent's head. "Nobody could tackle him." Of Aidan Rosney, the 19-year-old who collapsed and died while training with the Offaly seniors in '83. "Most artistic player I ever saw."

The art of the game. It is at the core now of his affection. And concern. He argues: "I cannot understand the public's interest in Gaelic football anymore. I could barely watch the Leinster final last week. It was boring. Just pulling and dragging. For me, the whole summer is about hurling.

"But I'd worry about hurling in the long run. I see danger signs all around the place. Even though we're having great games, it's not spreading. In Cork, you'd have to ask what's happening in the city? What's happening in the heartland of Tipperary?

"I feel the Association should be ploughing more money back into the promotion of hurling. It's such a skilful game. It would be a woeful indictment of any generation to let it die. It's unique to our character. I think it's more part of the Irish psyche than any game I know."

CURIOUSLY, for Offaly, he sees an advantage in the compactness of their geography. Hurling is confined primarily to the south of the county, to clubs like St Rynagh's, Kinnity, Birr, Seir Kieran, Drumcullen and Coolderry. In essence, it is contained within a radius of little more than ten miles.

Hence the wonder of what has been achieved in a tricoloured jersey.

"I get cross when I hear some of the comments made," he reveals now. "Because few people recognise the marvellous achievement of Offaly in hurling. The emphasis all this year has been on Clare and Munster. Clare are marvellous. But Offaly are All-Ireland champions and nobody seems to recognise it.

"I think this Offaly team would compare with anything from the past. For me, they should have won the All-Ireland in '95 as well. It was as if Biddy Earley came into the Offaly dressing-room. They had the game won but John Troy missed scores he'd never miss again and the winning goal was a giveaway.

"It seemed to me that the gods were in Clare's favour that day. They're a great team. But I think, throughout the 90s, Offaly have had their measure."

He talks of the uniqueness of Offaly's psyche, the "calmness and control under pressure," the "general level of intelligence" among the players. As principal of Birr Community School, Bro Denis had the Whelahans, Dooleys and Pilkingtons under his tutelage. Better than most, he understands the calibre of man available to Offaly.

"Skill alone isn't enough," he stresses. "Obviously, you've got to have it. But interest, background, intellectual ability all go to make up a player. I've seen very skilful youngsters come to nothing.

"Being honest, back in the sixties I could never have envisaged Offaly getting to the stage they're at now. It would have been much the same as seeing Longford winning an All-Ireland. But there's this incredible skill and intelligence there. I think Dermot Healy saw it. And it's to Michael Bond's credit that he has too."

BUT tomorrow? Is there yet another, defiant kick in the Faithful? "My gut-instinct would be that, if Offaly are at full-strength, they could win," he says.

"But I don't know if we've got the same roll on that we had last year. Last year, the timing was perfect. This year, I'm not so sure.

"But Cork aren't as good as they appeared in the Munster final. Clare were missing Jamesie that day so Cork have still to prove their worth. But they're a young team, probably very united. And they've a very good leader in Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

"Some of my own family will be there cheering Cork," he adds, nodding again towards the photograph on his mantlepiece.

"But I'm Offaly now."

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