Eddie Brennan spent longer than most at hurling’s summit.
A dozen years in Kilkenny’s black and amber earned him a panoramic view of unrivalled majesty.
Eight All-Ireland medals, 11 Leinsters, five National Leagues and a quartet of All-Stars speaks volumes for his reach.
He visited Croke Park in his capacity as a Graigue-Ballycallan man in 2001 as well, coming out the wrong side of extra-time to Athenry that St Patrick’s Day. All of which is a long way removed from today’s Leinster Club IHC decider against Portlaoise in Nowlan Park.
He has no truck with that. There is no sense that his exalted status and the heights he reached as a younger man have fostered any lingering sense of entitlement in Brennan who is still soldiering past his 40th birthday.
A wistful chuckle can’t help but present itself when he thinks about how crazy it would have sounded at the turn of the millennium if he had been told his next club title would be 17 years in the making.
And that it would be won at the intermediate grade.
But such is life. And such is hurling in the deep waters of the Kilkenny club scene where past glories are all too quickly washed away.
So no, there isn’t any sense of injustice in Brennan that intermediate has been the club’s residency for the past five years.
“There was a big downer in the club at the time,” he explains of their drop. “It was almost like a hangover for two or three years but I always felt that maybe it was beneficial to go back down a level, find your feet and start thriving there. Learn a little bit. And if you are good enough you are good enough. Nobody has a divine right to be senior.
“You might see yourself as a senior club but I find that a funny or a skewed concept to have. You have to earn your right to be up there and if you looked at the Kilkenny club scene of 10-12 years ago there are a hell of a lot of teams that were there in contention and they are down now.”
Graigue-Ballycallan had featured on the bill of a fair few quarter-finals in the years after that last senior title but the struggle to stay afloat became harder and was eventually lost in 2013 when, in Brennan’s one and only campaign as captain, they were relegated to intermediate.
There is nothing unique in that.
Dunnamaggin, another rural outfit, claimed their first item of silverware in close to a century of toil when securing the junior championship in 1994. They added the intermediate version to their pelts 12 months later, the senior in ‘97 and then … they were relegated again.
“That means you can’t take anything for granted,” says Brennan.
The changing face of the club scene can be dizzying. Five sides claimed senior championship honours in Kilkenny in the 1990s.
Of them, only Dicksboro are currently at the top grade and even they needed to navigate their way back up there after two relegations in the intervening years.
As for the others? Glenmore, Young Ireland’s and Tullaroan all played intermediate in 2018 – the last of that trio losing the final to Graigue-Ballycallan. Dunnamaggin spent the summer campaigning, successfully, to escape the confines of the junior ranks.
The comparative strength of the club scene in the county will be laid bare this weekend with Dunnamaggin and Grague-Ballycallan contesting their respective Leinster deciders today in Nowlan Park before Ballyhale Shamrocks take on Ballyboden St Enda’s in the senior final tomorrow.
Kilkenny clubs have annexed 19 of the 51 senior club hurling provincial titles. That percentage only increases with 10 of the 14 in intermediate and 13 from 18 in the junior division. Glenmore, pointedly, have conquered Leinster in senior and junior.
Brennan talks about Graigue’s final as “bonus territory” but it is a cliche that he dispels himself when remarking how the competitive hurling played now and, potentially, in the New Year can propel the club back into the Kilkenny senior ranks with momentum in 2019.
He knows too what the sight of a club captain holding a cup aloft can do longer-term. He was only nine when his father won a county intermediate title in 1987 and brought the cup to his school, and he still remembers the motivation all that instilled in his own generation.
Every morsel counts for a club of limited playing resources, in a county where the city clubs have once again begun to flex their muscles and one in which Ballyhale have yet again given lie to rumours of their demise after dominating the scene for so long.
County champions four times in a row in the noughties, Ballyhale’s success earlier this year brought their tally for the current decade – sprinkled more liberally through the period – to three and Brennan can’t help but marvel at the manner in which they pulled through again.
“They won an U21 for the first time in a good while last year and it was an excellent win for a club like Ballyhale just when the rest of us in the county felt they were going to hit a little bit of a transition period with some senior guys moving on.”
There’s shouldn’t be much shock value in this continued success. Not when Brennan reels off names like Joey Holden, Michael Fennelly, Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid who form a seriously strong spine on a team now managed by Henry Shefflin.
“I have always admired Ballyhale and in particular their older team and how clever they all played together. You can see that in this team already, that it is just ingrained in them. They play so well together and there is such an understanding of each other’s game. There is no doubt that they are coming again.”
That they never went away, in Kilkenny, is tribute in itself.