For those familiar with Irish comedy circles, Bernard Casey is a man currently making his mark.
The Kerry native has a litany of characters and sketches for his followers to feast on, none funnier than “the local gossip” – a garrulous individual who is constantly up-to-date with the most pressing local happenings, and an expert in the wink-and-elbow language of rural Ireland.
As a fan of Bernard’s, I naturally began to follow him on social media – and it was a post on his Instagram account which got me thinking in football terms.
In February of this year Bernard uploaded a picture of himself donning the green and gold jersey of his local club Skellig Rangers, as they won the All-Ireland Junior Club Football Championship in Croke Park in 2009. For context, Skellig Rangers are a club based in the area around the small fishing village of Portmagee in South Kerry.
My astonishment at forgetting that Skellig had won an All-Ireland ten years ago was quickly replaced by my curiosity. It had not passed under my radar that teams from the Kingdom tend to dominate the All-Ireland club scene, particularly at the Intermediate and Junior levels. But just how dominant are they?
The answer to that surprised even myself.
Of the last 16 All-Ireland Junior Club Championships, nine of the winners have been Kerry teams. Since 2007, the Intermediate grade has seen six winners from the county. No other county comes even close to this over the last 15 years; Tyrone as a statistical runner-up have three intermediate club titles in the same time period.
This level of success is not reflected to the same extent at senior level, with Dr. Crokes being the only Kerry club this century to capture All-Ireland glory; it should be noted that in the same timeframe, Dublin clubs have won the senior club championship four times, a highly impressive feat.
To revert to this preponderance of success at junior and intermediate grades, what is the reason? Is it embedded footballing culture, or the fact that Kerry are a team that always competes for All-Irelands at inter-county grade?
The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no”. While Kerry have always been associated with a fluid, attack-minded and kick-heavy style of play, they do not own a patent on this and there are plenty of other counties around the country who adopt such a method. Similarly, Dublin’s vice-like grip on the All-Ireland series in the recent past clearly indicates who the best team in the country currently is, and yet only one Dublin club has reached a Junior or Intermediate final since 2005 – this was Fingal Ravens, who lost to Galway’s Moycullen in the 2008 decider.
So the answer to this must lie somewhere else – and most likely it is in the club championship structure in Kerry. Bear with me non-Kerry folk, because this is where it begins to get confusing.
Kerry has two club football championships. Yes, you heard me correctly. Two.
There is the Club Championship with senior, intermediate and junior levels which currently take place in April and extend to early May.
Then there is the Senior Football Championship – note the similar yet different name – which typically begins in August and often runs until November.
What is the difference between the two, you might ask?
The main one is that only individual clubs compete in the April competition – when it comes to the Senior Football Championship, teams that are not playing senior football in April mostly amalgamate to make what are commonly known as district or divisional teams* in August.
These would be the East Kerrys and South Kerrys of the world that you most likely would have heard of before. These teams consist of several non-Senior clubs** that amalgamate together to form what is known in musical terms as a super-group; a collection of the best players from a number of parishes in a geographical area.
And it is in the junior and intermediate all-Ireland club scene where this structure bears fruit – namely because it exposes players to a higher standard of football that they otherwise would not get.
Think about it. Let’s say you play for a junior club in Kerry. In other counties you would never play against elite-level stars in the senior championship, but here you can rub shoulders with the best of the best if you get picked for your district team.
This inevitably brings players on as footballers, and when the senior championship is over, the individuals go back to their local clubs the better for it.
Take the recent All-Ireland club finals as an example. In the Intermediate decider, Kilcummin boasted six players who either started or featured from the bench on a regular basis for East Kerry in their run to the Kerry county championship semi-final in 2018, with two other players included in the 30-man panel. Meanwhile, Beaufort had five of their players starting consistently in the Mid Kerry team and a further four on the panel, before eventually bowing out of the competition.
The opportunities afforded to these footballers to play at such a high level simply do not exist for their counterparts at Naomh Éanna or Easkey.
In the heat of club championship battle, where places and localities take on an extra meaning, this factor seems to be giving Kerry teams an edge.
It is something which will most likely ensure that Kerry clubs continue to hegemonise the club landscape in the near future; a structure that other counties undoubtedly would benefit from, but which traditions will never allow.
Another stand-up artist, David McSavage, once promulgated that having a conversation with a Kerryman is a lot like their roads – it is easy to get lost if you’re not from there.
The championship structure is quite similar, it seems, but piecing through these complexities helps to offer an explanation of the relative success.
*Kerry Divisional Teams for the 2018 County Championship
- East Kerry (Clubs: Firies, Fossa, Glenflesk, Gneevguilla, Listry, Spa, Kilcummin)
- Feale Rangers (Clubs: Clounmacon, Duagh, Finuge, Listowel Emmets, Moyvane, St. Senan’s)
- Kenmare District (Clubs: Kilgarvan, Tuosist, Templenoe)
- Mid Kerry (Clubs: Beaufort, Cromane, Glenbeigh-Glencar, Keel, Launce Rangers, Milltown-Castlemaine
- Shannon Rangers (Clubs: Asdee, Ballydonoghue, Ballyduff, Ballylongford, Beale, Tarbert)
- South Kerry (Clubs: Derrynane, Dromid Pearses, Renard, Skellig Rangers, Sneem, St. Mary’s Cahersiveen, Valentia, Waterville, St. Michael’s Foilmore
- Saint Brendan’s (Clubs: Churchill, John Mitchell’s, Na Gaeil, St. Pat’s Blennerville, Ardfert)
- Saint Kieran’s (Clubs: Ballymacelligott, Brosna, Castleisland Desmond’s, Cordal, Currow, Knocknagoshel, Scartaglin)
- West Kerry (Clubs: Annascaul, Castlegregory, Lispole)
**Clubs that go through the ranks (ie. ultimately win the Kerry intermediate club championship) get the opportunity to enter as an individual club in the senior county championship the following year. So for example, Kilcummin, as the current intermediate champions, can choose to not be part of the East Kerry team and to play in the senior county championship on their own in 2019.
Kerryman. Highly opinionated columnist for GAA Wrap.