Kelly and McGrath referee All-Ireland finals
April 30, 2009
Top referees Barry Kelly and James McGrath ensured that Westmeath was represented on hurling's two biggest days by taking charge of the respective All-Ireland senior and club hurling finals.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Paddy Collins was regarded as Gaelic football's leading referee. After taking charge of two of the last three All-Ireland senior hurling finals, Barry Kelly has emulated the achievements of his fellow county man and is now recognised as the top official in the small ball code.
Not far behind Kelly in the pecking order is another Westmeath man, James McGrath, who was the 'man in the middle' for the recent All-Ireland club hurling final between Galway kingpins Portumna and De La Salle of Waterford. Similar to Kelly, McGrath has progressed from refereeing juvenile club matches to the big inter-county fixtures, and it would seem only a matter of time before he too graces Croke Park on the first Sunday in September.
"I enjoyed this year's All-Ireland hurling final even more than the one I refereed two years ago," Kelly said after taking charge of the 2008 decider between Kilkenny and Waterford, which the hugely impressive Cats won in a canter.
"I enjoyed the whole occasion and the colour and the singing of the National Anthem and the atmosphere right up to the throw-in. It was a pleasure to ref, just a pity that the competitive aspect disappeared so early from the game."
The Birr-based schoolteacher first took up the whistle when, during his school days at St. Mary's CBS in Mullingar, he was asked by teachers Richie O'Donoghue and Sean Cleary to referee a colleges match. From there, he progressed to refereeing underage club games and soon made his mark. A memorable under 12 football final between Bunbrosna and Maryland/Tang went well for him, and with Paddy Collins - who refereed four All-Ireland senior football finals - looking on, Kelly soon made the next step.
Around 1997, the St. Oliver Plunkett's and Mullingar Shamrocks clubman was contacted by current Westmeath football board secretary Tommy Glennon and asked to attend a course in Portlaoise for inter-county referees. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kelly began refereeing at inter-county level in 1998 and the following year he took charge of the Leinster minor hurling final between Kilkenny and Wexford, and the Railway Cup decider between Connacht and Munster. The big games continued to come his way and in 2000, he was appointed referee for the All-Ireland minor final between Galway and Cork.
Barry, whose regular umpires are Michael 'Cosy' Coyle, Anthony Gavin, Seamus O'Brien, Noel Nugent, refereed the All-Ireland club hurling semi-finals in 2001 and 2002 before refereeing the final in 2004. He also refereed the 2004 All-Ireland under 21 final and had taken charge of the Leinster, Munster and Ulster senior finals before becoming the first Westmeath man to referee an All-Ireland senior hurling final in 2006 when Kilkenny defeated Cork.
"It was a great honour not only for me, but for my club and county as well," he said at the time.
"Thankfully, everything went well for me and the rest of the officials. I had been very close to getting the 2005 final, but Seamus Roche from Tipperary got the nod ahead of me. However, after I refereed the All-Ireland quarter-final between Waterford and Tipperary, I had a fair idea it was going to happen for me. It's usually a good sign when you don't get a semi-final."
At local level, Barry has refereed four senior hurling finals (1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004) and two intermediate football finals. Apart from the All-Ireland final, the 38-year-old's other big assignments last year were the National League final between Tipperary and Galway, and the Leinster final between Kilkenny and Wexford.
In the week prior to the All-Ireland final, Kelly - who trains five times a week during the championship season - held a meeting with the linesmen, stand-by referee, fourth official and umpires. On the night before the game, he stayed in a hotel with his umpires in Castleknock, away from the pre-match hype.
On the day of the final itself, Barry and his team arrived in Croke Park at around 1pm. "You don't want to be there too early. You just want to watch the first half of the minor game and then go down and tog out.
"I was nervous in the hotel before the game, but once out on the pitch, I felt much more at ease than I did two years ago. Kilkenny were fantastic to watch, but Waterford just didn't play to their capabilities. Kilkenny have raised the bar, so it's up to the other counties to follow suit."
Although seven years younger, James McGrath's refereeing career has run parallel to Kelly's, having also commenced his inter-county career in 1998. He too boasts an impressive CV, with his biggest assignment to date being the All-Ireland club final on St. Patrick's Day last.
"It was a great one to get as it's probably only second to the All-Ireland senior final in terms of importance," the Turin clubman said.
"Without doubt, it has been the highpoint of my refereeing career so far. It went well for me, though there was no real needle in it because it was such a one-sided game. Portumna are a super team - they're as good as some of the teams in Division 1 of the National League."
A member of the teaching staff in Athlone Community College, James now hopes to follow in Barry Kelly's footsteps by taking charge of an All-Ireland senior final, but isn't banking on it happening straight away.
"Refereeing an All-Ireland senior final is the ultimate ambition for any referee, and I'm no different. But I'm realistic enough to know that a lot of things have to go your way for it to happen. I have yet to referee a senior championship game in Munster, and until such time as that happens, I cannot expect to get an All-Ireland final.
"But the one big thing I have in favour is my age. I'm only 31 so youth is still on my side."
McGrath, whose umpires are Davy Clune, David Hennessy, Tom McNicholas, Johnny Fitzpatrick and occasionally Johnny Weldon, began refereeing in 1996 and within two years, had graduated to the Leinster panel. He joined the national refereeing panel in 2000 and has since refereed at every level. In 2006, he took charge of the Christy Ring Cup final between Antrim and Carlow, and in 2007, was the 'man in the middle' for the All-Ireland senior quarter-final between Wexford and Tipperary, and the All-Ireland under 21 semi-final between Galway and Cork.
His big assignments last year included the All-Ireland intermediate final between Kilkenny and Limerick, the drawn All-Ireland Colleges final between De La Salle, Waterford and Thurles CBS, and the All-Ireland under 21 semi-final between Tipperary and Derry. So far this year, he has refereed the NHL clash between Dublin and Galway, the All-Ireland intermediate club semi-final between Cappataggle (Galway) and Kilmessan (Meath) and, of course, the All-Ireland senior club final.
Despite his busy refereeing schedule, McGrath still found time to manage the Westmeath minor hurlers in 2007 and continued to line out for his beloved Turin up until recently.
James is delighted with the progress of other Westmeath inter-county referees such as Pat Fox (Rosemount), Peter Daly (Athlone), Sean Carroll (The Downs), Robbie Cornally (St. Oliver Plunkett's) and the county's latest additions to the Leinster panel, Mick Mannion (Garrycastle), Niall Ward (Garrycastle) and Damien Maher (Ballynacargy).
"It's great to see those lads making their mark at inter-county level. As everyone knows, it hasn't been easy to recruit new referees in recent years, but there is clearly a great interest in Westmeath and all of those lads are capable of going far in this game," he concludes.
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