The miracle of the Seir Kieran brothers and the man who was there for every step 3 weeks ago

The miracle of the Seir Kieran brothers and the man who was there for every step

A good few beats a bad lot.

Every day of the week. During Seir Kieran Clareen's heyday, a few was all they had.

With a population of just 500 people, Clareen is one of the smallest parishes in Ireland. Smaller again, the village itself is literally no more than a crossroads; a crossroads which leads to houses, to the church but most importantly, to the hurling field.

On the hurling field, ten of the Clareen senior team once came from just two houses. Close bond, a band of brothers.

One of these prolific houses was the Dooley house where Joe was the eldest son. The Dooley household would go onto inspire Séir Kieran to unparalleled heights in their Offaly hurling history, and indeed Offaly hurling, to its greatest ever time.

Growing up, there was little else to do in Clareen other than hurl and from a young age, Joe dreamed about nothing else. The pitch became a second home, where he honed that graceful style and by the time he was 12, he was in training with the Séir Kieran senior hurling team.

"I remember when I started, I used to go up and train with the senior team when I was only 12 or 13," says a reflective Dooley now.

Joe Dooley in the Seir Kieran jersey

You sure as hell wouldn't get it in a bigger club with bigger numbers but the deep end is a good place to learn and this new breed of Séir Kieran lads weren't just treading water.

"Do you know, there wasn't enough of a pick in Clareen for proper underage training so you got in with the seniors as quick as you could. You learned quickly that way too! They were telling you where to be and to cop on if you did something wrong! So you learned it quickly."

Learning from men like Eugene Coughlan, a former Hurler of the Year as well as the Mooney brothers - the next Séir Kieran bunch were never going to be set too far wrong.

"Ah you'd be up there at the pitch at every chance you got. We all lived for it."

As so often happens, the younger brothers follow the footsteps before them and it wasn't long before there were five Dooleys pinging ball, perfecting the touch - primed for the famous black and amber colours. Along with them were the Coughlans - legends of Clareen and Offaly and of course, the great Kevin Kinahan, one of Offaly's best ever defenders.

United, grounded and tight-knit. The stuff that made Offaly GAA special.

Back to the early 80s, the green white and gold weren't long calling. Joe Dooley was the first of the brothers in, to join up with Eugene Coughlan on the Offaly team, and he remembers it like yesterday.

"I started straight out of school, I was only just gone 18 and I was called in. Offaly were only after winning the All-Ireland in 1981, and it was Easter Monday, April 12th - a Bank Holiday and there was a great crowd in it, in a tournament game in Drumrainey against Westmeath. They brought me on and I scored a goal and a couple of points so I was in for the next 20 years after that.

"It was a dream come true for me. I just had such a love for hurling. I'll never forget the first day, being in the dressing room with these boys. It was exciting times for me anyway because of that love for the game, it was all you'd think about..."

I was in for the next 20 years after that. Throws it out there like no big deal but those 20 years were Offaly's greatest and Dooley was always there.

These days, it's a very different landscape for the Faithful. In the Christy Ring Cup they sit despondently but even when the going began to get tough, Offaly's man for all seasons was still there, this time as manager. Between 2007 and 2011, he gave it a fair shot overseeing his son Shane and the odd spark of old, but he jarringly admits that underage training has been off in the county 'for the last 20 years.'

"There's no question, the same talent is not there as was there in the '80s, '90s and the 2000s. Offaly need to accept where they are. I'd say we've taken our eye off the ball as regards underage training for the last twenty years to be honest about it. That's why we are where we are now.

"Offaly club hurling is too strong for us to be where we are. We shouldn't be in the Christy Ring Cup and I'd even go so far as to say we shouldn't be in the Joe McDonagh Cup. We just need to get our act together. Discipline, hard work, determination and everyone pulling together..."

That's what gave them the reputation in the first place. Discipline, hard work and no little style - a fair summary of Joe Dooley as a hurler.

He reached the pinnacle fast, when as a 20-year-old, he played corner forward on the Offaly team that won the All-Ireland. It's fair to say that a transition period followed between the 80s and the 90s but with brothers Johnny, Billy and younger men like Brian Whelahan and Johnny Pilkington of Birr coming through, the best was yet to come.

"Started at 18. Played until 37. I minded myself and trained hard as the years went on. You have to do more as you get older. We played in something like 13 Leinster finals in 19 seasons.

"It definitely made it more enjoyable having the four brothers as well, but to be honest, I just loved hurling anyway, loved competing, loved playing with the county."

Three of the Dooley brothers, Joe, Johnny and Billy

There were some tough days of course, none more so than the 1989 semi-final loss to Antrim.

"It was a sad dressing room that day. Antrim played really well that same day, and thoroughly deserved their win. But we probably took our eye off the ball a little bit as well."

But there were some great days to follow. Eamon Cregan guiding them back to the big time in '94, Dooley's longevity underlined by the fact that he was the only Offaly outfielder to have played in their All-Ireland wins in both the 80s and the 90s.

"Cregan played the Offaly style of hurling. It was first time hurling, move it fast, tight defending and working hard. Training was at 7 do you know, if you arrived at the field at 7.02 - it was 50 press-ups. That was how he worked it and we fed off it."

In '98, Michael Bond worked the oracle. After an insane season, four Clareen men marched behind the band before scaling the steps. Not long after, they'd win their fourth Offaly hurling title ever, their fourth in ten years.

A small hurling parish brought to the game's peak.

Through it all, Joe Dooley was there, left hand on top, soaring into the sky and swinging points. Offaly and Séir Kieran's miracle man with no little style.