Bennettsbridge may at present be competing in the Kilkenny junior hurling championship but at one time they were the kingpins of senior hurling in the county and the envy of most as “The Bridge” became acknowledged as one of the greatest club teams in the country.

Bennettsbridge is in the parish of Tullaherrin and the G.A.A. Club was formed in 1888. Two year later the wearers of the distinctive horizontal green and gold hoop jerseys won their first Kilkenny senior hurling championship titles – the last of their 12 senior crowns came in 1971.

The ‘Bridge sits second in terms of SHC successes alongside Mooncoin – Tullaroan head the county roll of honour with 20 senior championship wins.

Bennettsbridge can lay claim to having had five players from their ranks captain Kilkenny teams to All-Ireland senior success.

Dan Kennedy captained the cats in the classic 1947 victory over Cork; to be followed in 1957 by Mickey Kelly, scorer of the winning point when Kilkenny just edged out Waterford by a point (4-10 to 3-12); the supremely stylish Seamus Cleere skippered the 1963 team to victory over Waterford in a very high-scoring final – a year in which he was named Caltex Hurler of the Year; the great corner back of the 1960’s and early ‘70’s Jim Treacy was captain in 1967 when Kilkenny beat Tipperary in a final for the first time in 45 years; while goalkeeping marvel Noel Skehan captained his county in the famous 1972 victory over Cork, a game in which he was voted ‘man of the match.’ That accolade came Noel’s way again after his heroic display in the 1982 All-Ireland final when Kilkenny shocked red-hot favourites Cork. And, of course, Noel was a maker of G.A.A. history when winning nine All-Ireland SHC medals – six as a player and three as understudy to the great Ollie Walsh, his first cousin. He was named Texaco Hurler of the Year in 1982.

Bennettsbridge is indeed a club with a proud history. ‘Bridge players have, between them, amassed a total of 44 All-Ireland senior hurling medals, the first of which were won in 1933 by ‘Lovely’ Johnny Dunne and Liam Reidy and the last in 2003 by Kilkenny goalie James McGarry, who also won Celtic Crosses between the sticks for the cats in 2000 and 2002.

The ‘Bridge enjoyed a golden era between 1950 and 1975. In that quarter century they appeared in 16 county SHC finals, winning 11. The club also won in those years the county JHC title of 1951, two Special Junior championships, the SHL of 1964/’65, the county junior football crown of 1969 and the Under 21 county hurling championship of 1967.
Johnny McGovern, who was right half back on the Kilkenny team which beat Waterford in that 1957 All-Ireland final, has the distinction of being the holder of all 11 SHC medals won by Bennettsbridge in that timeframe.

In a winning presentation for the A.I.B. Club of the Year competition in 1982 Bennettsbridge made the following proud comment: “The ‘Bridge has provided a proud wearer of the black and amber each year from the war years up to the present day. Hurling and the parish are synonymous. To be from Bennettsbridge is to know hurling, at least that’s what we have been told! Nonetheless we were lucky to have some personalities with an extraordinary commitment, in the days when our only facilities were the field and the play.

“We had the deeper strength of a passion for our games. Club members generated this burning enthusiasm and all were motivated by the lengendary Fr. P. Nugent, CC. He gave everything, he demanded everything – the blend provided greatness which is documented. That spirit permeated the entire community, the evidence is in 13 annual festivals and a community hall built through voluntary effort.

“This hall was the brainchild of the late Fr. Jimmy Murphy, PP, and the late Dan Kennedy captain of the victorious 1947 Kilkenny senior hurling team, and is being used by the club for social occasions, presentation dinners, ceilis and dances etc. It was in this h all that the late Dr. Peter Birch of Ossory performed one of his last G.A.A. official duties, when he addressed delegates at the annual county convention held on January 6, 1981.

“After a storm comes a calm – the tide went out. The period after 1975 was a painful one for our club. After the ecstatic excitement of 25 years of glory, there came a great lull. The only thing notable about the second five years of the 1970’s was the complete absence of anything notable.

“We were not without hope even though our most athletic young men had taken as their first option in commitment, another code. The ‘young lads’ were showing signs that, hurling in the blood, a new generation of children were striving to emulate their fathers. The dedicated nurtured the seeds of our second spring. In 1977 success at last, our Under 12 team captured both championship and league titles. In 1978 championship the Under 12 and Under 14 teams were runners-up. In 1979 our Under 14 team reached the final of the Feile na nGael and that same year saw the formation of Bennettsbridge Camogie Club.

“1979 was the turning point in the club’s history. Michael Kelly, a former Kilkenny All-Ireland captain (1957) was elected chairman and a youth policy was adopted.

“A life-long ambition of many members was changed into a commitment – it was time to stop talking about buying the Wood Field and to get on with the task of acquiring. Over the past four decades the club has used a field traditionally known as the Wood Field, adjacent to our village. It is used merely for the purpose of training and tournament games etc. The use of this field down through the years was by permission of the vice-chairman of our club, Paddy O’Neill.

“The minutes of the 1979 a.g.m. simply report: ‘The chairman asked for a big effort in the coming year to raise finance to provide a playing field which was now in the pipeline.’ By the 1980 a.g.m. negotiations were being completed. A decision to purchase was taken, sub-committee to oversee and finance the task were established, and by this year’s (1982) a.g.m. £35,000 had been raised to keep the club’s finances in the black, even though the purchase price of £21,600 was paid, levelling completed, re-seeding accomplished, boundary walls erected and all paid for.

“The youth policy also began to pay off. The Under 21 team brought new spirit to the young men of the parish. Training for hurling became a feature once again. Unlucky to lose to O’Loughlins in the Northern Championship final, who had a rather easy win in the county final. This year our under age teams reached eight finals and were victorious in the Under 16 football. Our camogie girls brought home the honours in the Under 14 championship.

“At the other end of the parish stands one of the foremost handball alleys in this country – namely Kilfane. This handball alley is run independently of our hurling club and it’s facilities are open to all members and to the community in general.

“We share our history and our experience, hoping it will be an encouragement to those who have slipped form former greatness and are still down. In a short three year period we have straightened up at the bottom and begun a meteoric rise that has brought us in reach of the top in all grades. Former glory is just a year away.”

While that was a noble sentiment back in 1982, Bennettsbridge has not yet made it back to the top of the hurling tree in Kilkenny.

There were high hopes that the JHC title would be landed in 2005 but having won the Northern title, Thomastown doused Bennettsbridge hopes in the final.
The late Tom Ryall of Ballycallan, true Gael and G.A.A. author, in a Duchas address in Bennettsbridge in 1984 on the topic ‘Hurling in Bennettsbridge – Earlier Years’ said that during the era 1951 to 1971 Bennettsbridge “were almost invincible and it was the shock of the year when they were defeated. What is not as well known is the fact that Bennettsbridge were prominent in the early years of the Association. The team was known as St. Kyrans. St. Kyrans first entered the championship in 1888, the second year that such competition was in existence. Only four teams entered the first county championship in 1887. Thirteen teams took part in the 1888 championship. St. Kyran’s (Bennettsbridge) game was fixed for Kells on March 4 but they got a walk-over and they qualified for the quarter-final of the county when they got a bye in the second round.”
Tom informed his audience that St. Kyrans next obtained a bye to the semi-final which was against Confederation from the city. Confederation won by 1-0 to 0-4, a goal outweighing any number of points. This position remained until 1892 when five points was declared equal to a goal. In 1896 the present position of three points to a goal was introduced.

Mooncoin won the county final of 1888 with victory over Confederation.
Bennettsbridge took part in a hurling tournament in Callan in June 1888 when they beat Ballingarry by 4-4 to 0-0.

In 1889 Bennettsbridge went out of the championship in the first round to eventual champions Tullaroan on a score of 0-3 to 0-0.

Tom went on to say that in 1890 Bennettsbridge won their first championship title. Four teams took part and in the final The ‘Bridge overcame Callan by 1-4 to 0-1. The report on the game was the shortest ever for a county final and consisted of about six lines, Tom Ryall stated.

As county champions, Bennettsbridge represented the Marble County in the Leinster championship but lost to Castlebridge of Wexford by 1-3 to 0-2 in a match played in Waterford.

It took Bennettsbridge a while to recover from the inactivity of the early 1890’s, brought about the Parnellite split – no County Board functioned in Kilkenny in 1891, ’92 and ’93.
In 1904 Bennettsbridge competed in the senior championship for the last time until they were again back as seniors in 1949 for one year before returning again as seniors in 1952 and winning their second SHC title. That was the dawn of the golden era of
Bennettsbridge hurling.

Tom said that other junior teams also competed for the parish. Killarney reached the 1940 county junior hurling final but got a bad beating from Threecastles – 5-2 to 0-1.
Kilfane was a very prominent football club in the early 1980’s and took part in a number of senior county championships without ever winning the title. Bennettsbridge did win the county JFC in 1969.

Tom Ryall concluded: “From this short summary it can be seen that Bennettsbridge have a hurling tradition as old as the game itself. The opening of this new ground will see to it that this great tradition is carried into the future. Long may Bennettsbridge continue as a hurling stronghold.”

During their heyday in the 1950’s and 1960’s Bennettsbridge won themselves an enviable reputation, figuring in many inter-county hurling tournaments and proving to be a big draw in several Munster and Leinster counties.

The club produced a marvellous seven-a-side team which won many tournaments throughout the 1950’s. This team was known as ‘The Ring Dazzlers’ and the panel was: Dave DeLoughry, Frank Brady, Dick ‘Stokes’ Power, Jim ‘Sam’ Carroll, Paddy ‘Galar’ Kelly, Seamus Cleere, Martin Treacy, Mick McCarthy and Larry Cleere. The team coach was James Hayes.

Prominent Bennettsbridge players who have played and won All-Ireland medals with Kilkenny, apart from those players already mentioned were: ‘Lovely’ Johnny Dunne, who won All-Ireland medals with the great Kilkenny team of the 1930’s; Paddy Moran, Dick Carroll, Sam Carroll, Martin Treacy, Jim Bennett, Liam Cleere, John Kinsella, Timmy Kelly, Tony Kelly and Pat Lalor.

Mention was made in that list of Johnny Dunne, bringing into focus a player who has gone down in Kilkenny hurling folklore. A native of Bennettsbridge he went to the United States in the 1920’s and returned to Ireland with the American Tailteann Games team of 1932.

After winning a National League medal with Kilkenny in 1932-’33, he went on to win Leinster and All-Ireland medals in 1933 with the cats. Kilkenny beat Limerick 1-7 to 0-6 and it was ‘Lovely’ Johnny Dunne who scored the clinching goal for his county in the closing minutes, having taken a pass from Matty Power.

He travelled to America with the Kilkenny team in 1934 and in 1935 again helped Kilkenny defeat Limerick 2-5 to 2-4 in that year’s All-Ireland final. He also played in the 1936 final in which Limerick turned the tables on Kilkenny.
Johnny Dunne passed away in September 1954.

The full list of 47 All-Ireland senior medals won by Bennettsbridge players breaks down as follows:
Noel Skehan (9) – 1963, ’67, ’69, ’72. ’74, ’75, ’79, ’82, ’83.
Jim Treacy (6) – 1963, ’67, ’69, ’72, ’74, ’75.
James McGarry (6) – 2000, ’02, ’03, '06, '07, '08.
Paddy Moran (4) – 1963, ’67, ’69, ’72.
Seamus Cleere (3) – 1063, ’67, ’69.
Pat Lawlor (3) – 1072, ’74, ’75.
Johnny McGovern (2) – 1957, ’63.
John Kinsella (2) – 1967, ’72.
Johnny Dunne (2) – 1933, ’35.
Liam Simpson (2) – 1992, ’93.

The following ‘Bridge players are holders of one All-Ireland senior medal: Dan Kennedy, Liam Reidy (both 1947); Michael Kelly, Liam Cleere (both 1957); Martin Treacy, Tim Kelly, Tony Kelly (each 1963); Jim Bennett (1967).

Bennettsbridge – a club with a very proud past – continues to struggle to come back to the top table in Kilkenny hurling. But past glories will continue to drive this great club back to former glories.
That is a prospective hurling renaissance that can only be good for Kilkenny hurling.