Shane Dowling: “All they wanted to do was see the club win one county title”
At this time of year, when the leaves turn and the clocks go back, Shane Dowling’s mind is always drawn back to where it all started for himself and Na Piarsaigh.
The Limerick scoring ace credits all their recent success back to the club’s famous Saturday morning juvenile ‘street leagues’ every Winter.
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s Sexton St CBS and clubs like Claughaun and South Liberties were among the county’s hurling pace-setters but rural clubs had taken a vice-like grip since.
The famine in Limerick city clubs had got so bad that the county board employed specific ‘city officers’ to try redress the balance.
Na Piarsaigh had their own initiative and nursery system.
Every Saturday morning of Dowling’s youth saw the clubhouse in Caherdavin awash with children battling it out in the local street league.
“From the sixes to 10-year-olds there’d be huge crowds down,” he recalls. “There’d always be four different teams - Cork, Tipperary, Limerick and Kilkenny. You’d be picked on one and play every Saturday from September to Christmas.
“Then, every December, a pipe band would come and we’d walk around my estate behind it, all the teams and mentors. Then we’d go and play our street league finals and go into the clubhouse afterwards to meet Santa.
“Those were our little All-Ireland finals. It made us very competitive at a young age and it’s no coincidence that a lot of us came through at the same time and just love Na Piarsaigh and hurling,” he concludes.
The club’s street league conveyor belt is still churning away and so is the 24-year-old’s marvellous passion.
He was actually a team mascot across the hurling border, with St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield, when they won the All-Ireland club title back in 1999.
That was because one of his neighbours, the late Ger Hoey, played for the Clare club and used to bring him along to training where he got to puck balls back to Banner legends like Jamesie O’Connor, Seanie McMahon and Ollie Baker.
But that was a childhood flirtation. Na Piarsaigh has always been Dowling’s first love.
“If you walk out my front door and look right the pitch is there in front of you. There’s an estate of 200 houses (Caherdavin Lawn) and that’s where I was born and reared.”
The club is two minutes from the Gaelic Grounds and his dad Paddy was born and reared directly behind it in Greystones so Dowling is a second generation dyed in the wool Na Piarsaigh man.
The club only started in 1968 and their pitch is named after Noel Drumgoole, one of their founding members. He played for Dublin in the 1961 All-Ireland final which helps explains their ‘Dub’ colours and the image of Padraig Pearse adorns their crest.
“After we won this year’s county final we had an Irish band playing in the club-house and when they sang that song about Pearse the whole place went mad!” Dowling chuckles.
He was their water-boy but already training with them when their seniors finally reached the holy grain; their first Limerick SHC final in 2009. It’s a painful memory because they scored just 0-3 and were slaughtered by Adare.
A year later he was playing and still a teenager when they made their breakthrough in 2011 and they’ve been there or thereabouts since and have just won their fourth county title in seven years.
“In 2009 we lost five county finals in the space of seven days and thought it was a disaster, that we’d never do it. But then 2011 came and we won our first and haven’t looked back since.”
Every county title to date has also, remarkably, been accompanied by a Munster title and, two years ago, was capped off with All-Ireland glory, yet beating Kilmallock in this year’s Limerick decider was as big a thrill as ever.
“It’s a massive thing to win your county title,” Dowling says.
”There was time enough, only nine years ago and less, where there were people in our club -who have passed away since- who genuinely cried in front of me. They said all they wanted to do was see the club win one county title and that memory has stuck with me 100 per cent since.
“They didn’t dream of winning Munster or All-Irelands because they probably thought it was so unrealistic. For the older people in the club now, to see where we’ve come from, is fantastic.
“I sometimes slag Dad and say, ‘you’ve no senior county medals!’ and he says ‘well you wouldn’t be senior only for the likes of myself!’” and he’s right.”
In a city with such a broad sporting church their rise to prominence hasn’t been easy because not everyone worships at the altar of hurling.
“People would often say we’ve a huge population to pick from, and that we should be competitive every year and this kind of stuff, but the reality is different,” Dowling stresses.
“We’re only two minutes from Thomond Park and two minutes from Shannon Rugby Club. There’s lots of soccer locally too and I’ve played a bit myself whenever we’ve been knocked out.
“There’s 200 houses in Caherdavin Lawn and, if you knock on them for a fiver for fund-raising, 100 of them would have no interest.
“Na Piarsaigh isn’t really a community, not like Portumna, Sixmilebridge, Patrickswell or somewhere like Dunloy,” he stresses.
“It’s just parts of Caherdavin and the North Circular Road. We’re very much based in the club itself and if you have music or a function or bonfires after a big win you could have some neighbours giving out.
“It’s not that long ago alright that a Limerick city club couldn’t compete,” he adds.
”A lot of the rival clubs think you’re ‘townies’ and ‘soft’ city people, that’s the nature of it. But for all the people who put in so much work, and they know themselves who they are, they can sit back now and enjoy our success.”