In the first of a new Off The Ball series, we revisit the story of Birr GAA’s historic success in the 1990s and 2000s as told by those who scored the points and lifted the trophies.
Reassembling at the club, former All-Ireland Club Championship winning captains, Joe Errity and Johnny Pilkington, and Birr’s greatest ever player Brian Whelehan recounted their memories of winning 12 county titles, seven Leinsters and four AIB GAA All-Ireland Club Championships in a 17-year period.
Naturally, the Offaly hurling trio began with the club’s momentous first All-Ireland title in 1995 and the drawn final with Dunloy at Croke Park.
Four points down at half-time and up against a strong wind in the second half, they felt an overwhelming sense of relief after forcing a draw against the Antrim champions.
“We were damn lucky in a way to draw that game,” Pilkington recalls.
“Against that very strong wind in the second half when we came in at four points down, that is what I look back at over my career and say, ‘I was just delighted to be a part of that.'"
Whelehan added his belief that if Birr had lost that day and not forced the replay, the club may have never gone onto achieve the success they did over the following decade.
“If we had come away from Croke Park that day without the second chance or without a win, I think it would have broken up that team for quite a while. I think it would have been the end of that team.”
The course of history was not to go that way though, with all three players part of the 1998 All-Ireland club winning side, which former All-Star midfielder Pilkington describes as his “most enjoyable All-Ireland”.
But the road to success that year was marked with tragedy, with the passing of Errity’s father, Tommy, in the stands during the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Clarecastle.
“We were in the dressing room and it was just quietness after,” Pilkington reflected.
“It put things into perspective, even though we had had an absolutely marvellous win.”
The trio also talked about comparisons of their Birr side with the other great hurling club teams of the era, and how Birr had been voted the number one club team of all-time in a poll.
“I think that was a huge recognition of that achievement because that achievement is so rare to put two club All-Irelands back to back," Whelehan commented.
“You are playing champions all the time. That is the one thing that people forget. You are playing champions of their own county who don’t die too easily.”
Summing up his playing life with Birr, Errity explained that his love for playing was never about winning but simply all that came along with being dedicated to the club.
“The big thing about the 17 years was the comradery, and the friendships that were built-up and the bond… winning just came along with that.
“We played it because we are clubmen and that is just an integral part of our nature and our upbringing. To me hurling was about hurling with Birr and doing as well as you could do.
There's been a change to the AIB GAA Club Championship fixture schedule this year! Provincial Finals will take place from the 24th of November until the 8th December with the All Ireland semi-finals on the 4th and 5th of January and the finals on the 19th of January.
Tickets available from gaa.tickets.ie and usual outlets including local clubs and Supervalu and Centra stores.
When It’s Club It Lives Forever