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The long and winding road

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SAVOURING THE MOMENT Kilmeena veteran Neilly Ryan has experienced lows in his GAA career but last Sunday’s victory in the All-Ireland Junior Club Final was most definitely a highlight.  Pic Conor McKeown

Kilmeena hit rock bottom before commencing the journey to All-Ireland club glory

Feature
Edwin McGreal

AS they left Croke Park last Sunday as All-Ireland Junior club champions, some Kilmeena stalwarts must have been pinching themselves at how quickly things can turn – in both directions.
Kilmeena lost an All-Ireland Junior Final to Nobber of Meath in 2003 in Cremartin of Monaghan. They were Intermediate the following year and with a lot of very talented young players coming through, there was only one direction the club was heading. Up.
Neilly Ryan was a teenager when he came on in that final – he must have thought he was coming into the team at just the right time.
They were intermediate contenders within a few years, but when the Celtic Tiger bubble burst in 2008, few clubs were hit harder than Kilmeena.
Work brought their brightest and best to the four corners of the globe.
James Ryan was one of their main men, a classy midfielder. But instead of living in Myna, he was lording the skies in Sydney for Clann na Gael. His brother Vinny, Danny Duffy and Anthony Murray followed suit down under.
Danny Ryan pitched up in London – playing in the 2013 Connacht Final against Mayo. John Reilly was in London along with him.
Johnny Madden hit for Qatar; his brother Nigel went to Canada and Kieran Sheridan to Dubai.
The Channel Islands was home for Henry Kelly and in all, Kilmeena haemorrhaged 18 quality players, ten of whom played with the county team at one level or another.
They fell through the trap door as a shadow of the team of a few years previously, losing the intermediate relegation final to Bonniconlon, 0-8 to 0-4 in September 2011. Neilly Ryan was centre-half back that day and it would have been hard to blame him if he walked away.
There was little doubt Kilmeena were not going to bounce right back. But Neilly stayed the course.
We featured the club in a series on emigration in June 2013. Kilmeena had just lost their opening Mayo Junior Championship clash to Lahardane by 0-18 to 0-4.
Lahardane might have won the junior in 2017 but in 2013 they were very much also-rans.
Kilmeena were on the floor.
Long-serving club player Joe Ryan was a selector on that team when we spoke to him nine years ago.
“All the lads left because of work, simple as that. Last year we only had 14 players so I had to tog myself to make a team,” he said. “This year we’ve managed to get back a lot of lads in their mid 20s who had stopped playing. We’re down at the bottom now and it is going to taketime, but we’ll be back.”
We’ll be back. No matter how low they had went, Kilmeena were not flying any white flags, unless half of it was black.
Nine years later they are champions of all of Ireland. While they lost so many of their brightest and best, they were fortunate that proximity to Westport and Castlebar meant that while their tale of emigration a decade ago was a woeful one, it was not necessarily going to be the constant reality it is in places like Achill and Erris.
And the great thing about people emigrating is that they can always come home.
John Reilly returned and he has managed his home club to a historic All-Ireland.
Kieran Sheridan is back home raising a family – indeed after they won the Mayo title, Kieran was on the front of The Mayo News with his then six-week old son, Ted Sheridan, sleeping in the cup held by Kieran and his wife Áine.
Kieran came on and made a solid impression on Sunday.
And there’s always the hope of youth.
Many of the current Kilmeena squad were in national school when their club was relegated to junior, but the woes of the adult team did not halt progress at underage.
Midfielders Jack Carney and Conor Madden are but two products of that development. Carney is in with the Mayo senior squad while Madden is the nephew of Johnny and Nigel Madden.
Because while some will have to leave, the home fires still burn. Even in their darkest hour, Joe Ryan said they’d be back.
And his cousin Neilly Ryan was there, still showing his class at full-forward at 37-years young. He saw his cousins and friends emigrate and the club become a shell of itself but he stuck at it. What a reward for perseverance. The flame has never burned brighter.