While many different metrics can be used to gauge the competitiveness of the GAA’s club championships, the wealth, or lack of, competition can be ascertained, at least to a certain extent, by examining the spread of finalists in each county. Using the last twenty years of club action as a dataset, it can be argued that the Senior Club Championship in Clare has been the most competitive since the turn of the millennium. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, the Wexford Senior Football Championship can be deemed the most egalitarian in Ireland.
Although Sixmilebridge have, in recent years, have been able to administer a semblance of autocracy, winning four of the last seven championships, the competition is still considered to be the most hotly-contested in Ireland. Eleven different clubs have lifted the Canon Hamilton Cup since 2000, with a further two clubs reaching the final in that time. Crusheen, who claimed their first title in 2010 before backing up their triumph the following year, are the only club in Clare to have managed back-to-back championships in the intervening years. Unlike the halcyon days of the late 90’s however, when Clare clubs annexed six Munster titles in a row between ’95 and ’00, only Ballyea in 2016, have been able to replicate those provincial successes.
The Cork Senior Hurling Championship has too been relatively well-apportioned, with nine winners and thirteen finalists over the past twenty years. Blackrock (’01, ’02), Erin’s Own (’06, ’07) and Glen Rovers (’15, ’16) have all enjoyed brief periods of domination, while most recently, Imokilly have monopolised the competition, claiming the last three titles. Since Newtownshandrum’s provincial (and subsequent national) glory in 2003 however, only the Glen have managed to reach a Munster Final, suggesting that like in Clare, its quality rather than equality that has been lacking at club level.
At the other end of the spectrum, the counties with the fewest number of finalists are predictably those in which hurling is still very much a minority sport or confined to localised enclaves. In fact, of all the counties which compete outside the highest echelon of the game on a national level, only Kerry and Meath have produced more than five county champions in the last twenty years. Six clubs from the killing fields of North Kerry, a district where the small ball is in the ascendancy, have claimed county honours since 2000, a healthy return considering the championship is contested between only eight clubs. Of the clubs that competed in last year’s Kerry Senior Hurling Championship, all of them have reached the final at least once since 2005.
In the footballing world, the competitiveness of the club game in Wexford may come as a surprise to those outside the county. But unlike traditional dual counties such as Cork or Galway, where many clubs cater solely for one code, only the three hurling kingpins – Rathnure, Oulart-the-Ballagh and Buffers Alley concentrate exclusively on hurling. Amazingly, after 133 years of competition, Castletown and St. John’s Volunteers sit atop the Wexford Senior Football Roll of Honour with a mere eleven championships apiece, a testament to the parity of the club scene in the Model County. Five clubs in Wexford – Horsewood (’05), Clongeen (’07), St. Martins (’13), St. James’ (’15) and Shelmaliers (’18) all won their inaugural football championships in the past twenty years.
The competitiveness of senior club football in Meath has also been amplified in recent years, with a host of clubs emerging to challenge the traditional powerhouses of Navan O’Mahonys and Skyrne. Dunshaughlin (’00), Blackhall Gaels (’03), Wolfe Tones (’06), Simonstown Gaels (’16) and Ratoath (’19) all claimed their first senior titles in recent years, although the increase in competition has not translated to success on a provincial scale. Dunshaughlin in 2002 were the last Meath representatives to win a Leinster title, a competition which like that of its inter-county counterpart, has been largely under the thumb of their Dublin neighbours.
The table shown above would suggest that across the board, competitive club championships are not congruent to success outside the county. Of the five counties with the greatest spread of senior championship winners over the past twenty years, only the aforementioned Dunshaughlin (’02) and Clonmel Commercials (’15) have tasted provincial glory. In fact, the adverse is probably true. Naturally, it stands to reason that clubs which dominate their county scenes are better equipped to achieve provincial and national distinction. Since 2000, Crossmaglen, Dr. Crokes and most recently Corofin have all maintained strangleholds on their respective provinces, despite emerging from their county championships relatively unchallenged.
Although it could be argued that for certain clubs, it has had a detrimental effect on provincial aspirations. St. Gall’s of Antrim won 13 club championships between ’01 and ’14, yet won only two Ulster titles in that period. Down’s Kilkoo won six club titles in a row between ’12 and ’16 before finally scratching their provincial itch last year. Meanwhile, Portlaoise’s ambitions in Leinster have been routinely thwarted, despite their unnopposed command of the club scene, where they’ve reigned supreme since 2007.
With the truncated club championships taking centre-stage in the coming weeks, RTE and TG4 have ensured that GAA supporters can satiate themselves on parochial rivalries from around the country. Although the atypical nature of this year’s championships may level the playing field somewhat, it is probable that in most counties, familiar faces will emerge unperturbed. In the dog-eat-dog world of Clare hurling or the cut-throat domain of Wexford football however, it remains anyone’s game.