Former Cork captain Kieran Murphy once claimed that captaining Limerick IT to Fitzgibbon success in 2007 was up there with his finest hurling achievements. I think this is a big statement from a man who won two Liam McCarthys with the Rebels and four county titles with Sarsfields.
That 2007 Limerick IT team contained a plethora of inter-county stars. In addition to Murphy’s fellow Cork man Eoin Cadogan in the engine room, Kilkenny’s Jackie Tyrell was at full-back along with Tipp’s Conor O’Mahony and Shane McGrath in the half-back line. A decent Galway contingent consisted of Cappataggle’s James Skehill between the posts, Ardrahan’s Iarla Tannian at wing-forward, Mellows’s Aonghus Callanan top of the left, and the one and only Joe Canning of Portumna at 14.
However, the man to whom many attribute LIT’s success of the 2000s is Davy Fitzgerald. As LIT’s director of hurling, Fitzgerald oversaw a period of great success Shannonside. Fitzgerald went on to win it all as an intercounty manager. Murphy said of Fitzgerald’s famous sessions, “Some of the hardest training we ever did was at six o’clock in the morning, but you’d feel great coming away from it and it helped to build team spirit. We had a lot of hurling sessions at that hour. We might not have trained for very long, but it was short and sharp – high quality stuff.”
After a 706-day hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, the Fitzgibbon Cup gets back underway this month. 14 teams, including NUIG, will compete for the premier inter-varsity hurling competition with the semi-finals and final to be played in Carlow IT on February 19 and 20.
The Fitzgibbon Cup, and its football counterpart the Sigerson, have been integral parts of the GAA calendar for decades. The inaugural Fitzgibbon tournament was in 1912 and for its first 34 years the tournament was contested only by UCC. UCD, and UCG (now NUIG). Queens University Belfast first took part in 1946 and were subsequently joined by Trinity College in 1963 followed by Coleraine (now part of Ulster University) and Maynooth in the 1970s.
By the late 1980s, non-university teams were admitted to the competition and the National Institute for Higher Education, Limerick (now UL) became the first non-university champions in 1989. Institutes of Technology quickly became strong competitors in the Fitzgibbon. In fact, LIT’s 2007 victory was the fifth of six consecutive victories by either themselves or Waterford IT.
Although the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon cups are very important parts of the GAA calendar, it is up for debate the true percentage of Ireland’s quarter of a million third-level students that are even aware of them let alone follow them. This, however, as Kieran Murphy’s testament proves, doesn’t detract from the importance of these tournaments to students competing in them, regardless of their personal reputation off campus. Their involvement in their college’s Sigerson or Fitzgibbon team puts them in a social circle that many of them will have for life.
As the GAA continues to worry about player burnout and increasingly demanding schedules for inter-county players, it is not surprising that the Fitzgibbon has come under scrutiny. Take our own NUIG Fitzgibbon team for 2022 and the Galway senior hurling team for example. Some members of the NUIG panel (Concannon, Niland etc.) are established inter-county players while others (Fitzpatrick, Fleming etc.) will be looking to get some solid league and championship game time this summer.
But the most damning evidence of all that the Fitzgibbon is a competition to be taken seriously is the inclusion of Limerick’s Cian Lynch in NUIG’s panel this year. Arguably the best hurler in Ireland will don the maroon and white in the Fitzgibbon this year. If the Fitzgibbon is not to be taken seriously, I wonder why would the hurler of the year even bother? Especially considering he already has two Fitzgibbon medals from Mary I’s consecutive victories in 2016 and ’17. As for the retired armchair athletes such as this writer, we can only applaud and watch on with nothing but appreciation.