THE early to mid-1970’s saw Kildare hurling attain its highest national standing. We reached four League quarter-finals with Tipperary (’71,’73,’74 and ’75), getting within six and seven points of the Premier County in the last two of those.
From 1970 to 1973 and again from 1975-1978 Kildare competed in the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship, drawing with Offaly in 1975 before being edged out in a replay before reaching their peak in 1976 when Dublin were beaten by six points in Aughrim and qualifying for their first and only provincial semi-final.
In front of a 4,000 crowd in Athy, Kildare held the lead for 48 minutes and had Wexford hearts fluttering. The Yellow Bellies showed the quality that would take them all the way to the All-Ireland Final that year (and the next) with a powerful final quarter to surge clear before two late goals brought Kildare back to within four points at the finish (2-15 to 2-19).
The seeds of that era were sewn in the mid-1950’s when an enthusiastic hurling board restructured and developed underage hurling like never before.
Those seeds began to sprout in the 1960’s as Kildare began to develop players who could compete on the national stage.
As a predominantly footballing county with little or no hurling history on the national stage, Kildare were among the counties operating at junior ranks at the start of the 1960’s.
In 1961, Kildare had been hammered by Dublin’s second team but with the likes of Dublin, Kilkenny and Wexford’s second teams being moved to a new intermediate championship (Kildare’s proposal), the Junior grade was left to the weaker counties.
Fresh-faced Pat Dunney, the 16-year old county minor was picked in goals as Kildare eased past Louth in the first round in Leinster. Dunney even registered a point when he came out of goal in the second half. Kieran O’Malley, another dual player, of Ardclough, scored five points and Broadford veteran Billy Quinn scored two goals.
Larry Kiely, from the Army, scored two goals in a nine-point Leinster Final win over Wicklow.
The All Ireland Semi Final was won in the boardroom! Kildare had been beaten by six points by Roscommon over the eligibility of five players who had played in the previous year’s competition.
Kildare won that battle and progressed to an All-Ireland Home Final with Kerry. Pat Curley (Army) and Frank Fogarty (Suncroft) laid the foundation for a facile 19-point victory while Kiely scored three of their seven goals and Noel Kelly (Army) two.
Torrential rain saw the quality of hurling suffer in the final away to London. Kildare struggled with the conditions (although there was some suggestion the previous day’s sightseeing might have impacted as well), and they tried to lift the ball too much.
Speaking of sightseeing, money was obviously tight in Kildare GAA circles in those days as only one selector could travel to London and a raffle was made for the seat on the plane. Pat Byrne won the prize leaving Moorefield’s Davy Dennis and Ardclough’s Mick Johnson to stay behind.
London played more ground hurling and two goals from John Joe Dilleen gave them a huge boost in front of a crowd of 2,500 exiles. Éire Óg’s Mick Leahy scored a first-half goal for Kildare but they trailed by two-points at the interval.
Two goals within a minute early in the second half put the Lilywhites in control, the first from Kiely after a pass from Broadford’s Pat Cummins and the second from Curley. O’Malley added a fourth as Kildare ran out nine-point winners for their breakthrough win on the national stage.
We only lasted two years at Intermediate grade, although a second team did well at Junior in 1964. They came up against a Wicklow team who now had the experience of three Leinster Final defeats in a row and this time the Garden County would prevail, winning the 1964 final 4-8 to 2-6.
Kildare were relegated back to junior for 1965 and had dramatically rebuilt the team with the likes of Ardclough trio Tommy Christian and Noel and Bobby Burke, Nicky Behan, a dual player from Éire Óg and Army men such as Donncha O’Keeffe from Cork. Wicklow won the final on a replay, though.
The following year’s panel was injected with yet more youth. Under-21 footballer Tommy Carew joined Dunney in the side (Dunney was now anchoring at centre-back).
The side had a good mix of youth and experience with Billy Quinn the veteran at 35 and goalkeeper Jim Curran the youngest at only 18.
Carew made an immediate impression scoring four goals in the first round against Meath. In the Leinster Final, Kildare re-asserted their authority over neighbours Wicklow with Quinn using all his experience to fire two goals from full forward.
Antrim, the Ulster Champions, were outhurled all over the field in an All-Ireland semi-final played in Newbridge on an August Saturday. Kildare were described as putting in a performance that would have felled many a senior team.
Young O’Keeffe was the four-goal hero on this occasion while Behan, the smallest man on the team, played with guile and accuracy to bag six points. Jim Lawlor from Castledermot was another hero, thrown into the team late but producing a stirring display at midfield. Dwane grabbed the other goal as Kildare won by 5-14 to 3-7.
The Home Final was a disappointing affair but that was mainly down to Kerry’s poor performance. Dunney sparked for Kildare, with superb interceptions and distribution from centre-back. He was head and shoulders the best player on the field that day.
Generally, Kildare’s marking was top notch and that plus an inspired display from young keeper Curran kept Kerry’s score down to 2-3 while goals from Behan, Quinn and O’Brien helped Kildare to a 3-12 total.
Curiously, the Nationalist ran a full preview of the Kildare v Lancashire All Ireland Final, clearly unaware that it was actually Warwickshire we would face in Birmingham!
Kildare suffered a blow beforehand when Pa Connolly of Éire Óg was sent-off in an Army football game the week before the final, his suspension counting for the hurling final. Lawlor replaced him on the plane.
There was a record 6,000 crowd at Glebe Farm, Birmingham and they witnessed what was considered to be one of the best hurling matches played abroad, despite a sodden pitch.
Kildare’s defence was outstanding once more and captain Dunney was said to have played the match of his young life. Indeed, the Nationalist went so far as to say he would have earned his place on many senior inter-county teams, and that his reputation as a hurler had overtaken that as a footballer at this stage. Of course, he would go on to earn Leinster call-ups in both codes and many would regard him as the best dual player to come out of the county.
Kildare got off to a flying start with burly full-forward and selector Quinn and youngster O’Keeffe goaling to send the Lilywhites into a 2-3 to 0-1 lead but Warwickshire hit back with two goals of their own and with their dander up after the break they edged ahead.
Carew was excellent at wing back and Christian, like Dunney had the game of his life, capping it all with a point from play said to be from all of 90 yards, and under pressure at that.
Warwickshire kept tapping over the points but second half goals from O’Brien, and O’Keeffe’s second of the match twelve minutes from time, saw Kildare record a famous 4-6 to 2-9 success.
Within three years, Kildare made the jump to senior, rounding off a remarkable decade of hurling progress.
In their first year back at Intermediate, Kildare beat Meath and Carlow before succumbing to Kilkenny in the Leinster Final (2-8 to 6-8). Carlow edged us out in the semi-final in 1968.
The League of 1968/69 saw our fortunes take a significant uptick. Carlow were hammered by seven clear goals (three from Carew), Wicklow were beaten as well while Down and Westmeath were crushed convincingly as Kildare secured the Divisional title.
St. Brigid’s centre-back Jack O’Connell had emerged as a midfield partner for Bobby Burke, while Tony Carew joined brother Tommy on the team.
The biggest hurling victory for the county in 63 years, 8-20 to 1-4 against Meath, signalled their intent as the Championship kicked off but the semi-final against Kilkenny’s second team was always going to be a stiffer test.
The half-time score was 4-6 to 4-5 to Kildare. Defences definitely not on top then! But Kildare had two trump cards on the bench, both named Walsh.
Ned and Johnny Walsh had come to the Ardclough area from Wexford and the appearance of Johnny that day was a key factor in a 5-11 to 5-8 win. He would go on to prove himself one of the greats of Kildare hurling.
It was Wicklow once more in a Leinster Final and Tommy Carew scored 1-10 that day, the ten white flags being a new record for a Kildare hurler. Kildare triumphed by 3-16 to 4-6 to go through to an All-Ireland semi-final with London in Newbridge.
Another dual player, Mick Mullen of Éire Óg was among the goal scorers as Kildare won that one 3-12 to 2-4.
This would be Kildare’s biggest test of the decade, up against one of the game’s strongholds in a final. They had to deal with some frustrating refereeing from Tipperary’s Donie Nealon in Thurles as well.
Bobby Burke was captain but once more Dunney, the only survivor from 1962, was the leader on the field, doing such a man-marking job on Cork under-21 All-Ireland winner Mick Malone that the Cork star was replaced early in the second half. Tony Carew was another stalwart beside him on the wing.
Tommy Christian’s goal just before half-time was a huge boost for the Lilies, putting them two ahead.
County chairman Hugh Campion reputedly gave the mother of half-time lectures to spur them on for the second half and they received another boost when Cork’s Jack Russell was sent-off for striking Dunney.
Burke landed three points to stretch the lead but Kildare really clinched it when player/trainer Pa Connolly entered the fray for the injured Dwane and promptly set up Castledermot’s Jack Wall for a goal.
A misunderstanding between Dunney and goalie Peter Connolly let Cork in for a goal and they stole another one back minutes from the end to set up a nervy finish for supporters hugging the touchline.
Thankfully, the whistle blew and Kildare had hung on for a convincing one-point victory!
Having started the decade in the hurling backwaters, Kildare had finished the Swinging Sixties looking forward to Senior Hurling. Eight of that 1969 team would play against Wexford seven years later in Athy.