It was hot. Scorching hot. The whole county was a tinderbox, there had been a spate of wildfires during the week. One had threatened the hurling field, and neighbours had pulled together to repel the danger.

And Ferns was a parish as parched as the ground. One-hundred-and-thirty-five years of waiting for a county title, and we were so close you could taste it on your lips. Hurling was the only subject of conversation around the town and in the cornfields across the parish, or among the swimmers down at the Bann river. Flags and bunting in the red and white of Ferns festooned the streets.

The blood and bandages is what Cork call their jersey. The storied history of our parish means we have surely earned the right to wear those colours. The castle is a reminder of Diarmuid McMurrough and the arrival of Strongbow and the Normans. The Church of Ireland cathedral, which also dates back 900 years, is built next to the monastery founded by St Aidan in the seventh century. And the Celtic Cross honouring Father Murphy and the men of 1798 stands in the square, in the castle’s shadow.

Now a wrapped ancient car sits beside the monument. Perhaps ancient is an unfair word, because half a dozen of the Ferns team were well-established before it ever went down the production line. James Tonks, Benny Jordan, John Breen, Tommy Dwyer, Johnny Dwyer and Christopher “Bitzy” O’Connor had over 120 years chalked up between them. No group of lads ever deserved a county title more. Paul Morris was 17 when he helped lead Ferns into the senior ranks. Fifteen years later, he was still chasing that senior title. Ian Byrne had flown over and back from Dubai to help keep the club in senior in 2018; could he help propel us to the holy grail of the Dr Bowe cup?

But lots of teams that deserve success never gain it. If Ferns were to win, they would have to earn it, against a St Martins team that were clicking just at the right time. We had played a high-scoring and entertaining draw in New Ross only 21 days earlier. A lot was being made of the loss of Rory and Jack O’Connor, and rightly so, they are two fantastic hurlers. However, people outside the parish seemed not to realise that the loss of Ryan Nolan to an injury in the semi-final and Conor Scallan to suspension, added to Gavin Bailey’s absence for the whole season, balanced those books. There would be no excuses either way.

Paul Morris of Ferns St Aidan's celebrates at the final whistle. \ Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The game was open from the start, with both teams settling quickly. It was nip and tuck for 20 minutes, then the Piercestown men hit a purple patch. And as the half-hour mark came, and a lot of us in the stands were hoping for the half-time break, the match swung. A long ball from James Lawlor, a great catch from Corey Dunbar, two smart passes from Corey Byrne-Dunbar and Johnny Dwyer that set Patrick Breen tearing toward goal. He weaved through the Martins backs and buried the ball with his boot. We would carry a lead into the break.

I was reminded of a similar goal close to half-time, in the 1996 All-Ireland final. Would this goal prove as pivotal? As we loaded up on coffee, crisps and Coke, the players caught their breath. Everyone’s phones began to ping. The match was being broadcast to the nation on TG4, and it seemed that the whole country was watching. Messages of goodwill were landing in from all over the country.

A blur

The second half of a match often seems to pass slowly. This one went by in a blur. The standard never seemed to dip as players revelled in the hard ground, their touch sure in the August heat. We introduced Benny from the bench, he grabbed a trademark point from miles out. Beaner had been the hero in the semi-final, grabbing a late goal to help send the match to extra-time. This week, it was Bitzy who snapped up a loose ball and sent it over the bar to put Ferns ahead with time running out.

And then Johnny Dwyer stepped up to take that sideline in injury time. He’d had a great game, scoring three points. I was sitting right behind him, and as it bent over the bar the stand erupted. The funny thing is, Johnny might have been in the goal if anything had happened to James Lawlor. Michael Walsh, who had manned the goal for more than a dozen years had got married on the Friday, so Johnny was acting sub goalie.

So we had a two-point lead, it would surely take a goal to beat us. St Martins immediately won a free, and I was back on the Hill in 1996 again. This was exactly how the All-Ireland final had ended, with Larry O’Gorman grabbing the final Limerick free and bringing it clear to close the deal. Could they cope with the pressure? Could we cope with the tension?

But Joe Coleman tapped the free over. Was there more time to be played? Surely time was up, we’d had the prescribed three minutes of injury time. But he wouldn’t have tapped it over if it was the last play, would he? And so it was, that when referee Eamonn Furlong blew the final whistle, 135 years of waiting ended in a moment of confusion and disbelief. Followed by madness, joy and chaos. An hour of it on the pitch, as we savoured the sweetest of feelings, and watched as Dec Byrne and Gavin Bailey lifted the trophy, and then Dec gave a well-judged, passionate and eloquent speech.

Pure fun

The week that followed was pure fun. It started, as it should, with the team paying their respects and sharing the victory with many of those who had paved the way to this victory over the decades in the graveyard. We had gathered there the day before to say goodbye to Jack Byrne, who was a club vice-president in a lifetime of service.

Long summer nights ensued, as we packed the bars and poured into the streets to talk about the game and many other games that led to it. Decades of them. A bus from Piercestown arrived on Tuesday, to continue a noble Wexford tradition where the teams come together after the battle is over. We couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces.

Freed from Desire became the parish anthem alongside Dancing At The Crossroads. And that was fitting, because we finally had achieved our hearts desire, and were free to celebrate. And how we danced. We’re dancing still.

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