Civilised Combat with a Band of Brothers

Commandant Stephen Molumphy of Ballyduff Upper. Served tours of duty in Lebanon, Thurles, Walsh Park, Croke Park and Chad. Captained the Waterford senior hurling team. He asks himself what Michael Cusack would think as he ponders the weekly puc about in Syria with his Defence Forces comrades. Stephen Molumphy has come to the firm conclusion that Cusack would be well pleased with what he sees. For a hurler and a career soldier whose ambition growing up scarcely extended beyond his club Ballyduff Upper winning a Waterford Championship let alone togging out for Waterford in an All Ireland Final, his career has exceeded his own expectations.

Home for three weeks during a six-month tour of duty, Stephen has an appreciation of how lucky he is in life.

“I’m a member of the 57th Infantry Group and we’re currently deployed in Syria in the Area of Separation which is essentially a buffer zone. Our tour of duty is of six months duration in total, it’s my first time in Syria, I’ve been in Lebanon in the Middle East, Chad in Africa and with the EU Battle Group in Sweden along with plenty of training courses in other countries. You certainly get around with the Army and every few years a tour of duty comes up and you have to tog out he laughs!

Stephen is 34 years of age, and he joined the Defence forces when he was 18 just after his Leaving Cert. “I was about to start Aeronautical Engineering at UL, I’d applied for the Cadets several months before and when the opportunity arose I went straight in. I’m a Commandant now in the Army but rank isn’t important, its whether you do your job correctly is what earns a soldier respect from fellow soldiers. I was looking for something something different, something active with an outdoor lifestyle. I’m a first generation soldier, I have no relatives or grandfather etc. that served, the attraction was that the Army was something active. The initial cadet training was 21 months and when I heard about how challenging it would be, I thought I’d like to go for that, I had no idea what I was getting myself into to be honest.

Stephen hurled for Ballyduff Upper, up there on the border with Cork, it’s the most western and one of the smallest villages in Waterford. And every time he mentions the village he speaks with a warmth and pride in his homeplace.

“We’re right on the border. Fermoy would be the nearest Cork club. Always a fair bit of banter the whole way up when I was at school and hurling, I went to secondary school in St. Colman’s in Fermoy, there we won two All Ireland Finals, we beat Kieran’s of Kilkenny in one in Croke Park and we beat Gort of Galway the year after.

The school had not won that title in twenty years but on that team we had three Cork minors, three Tipperary minors, three Limerick minors and three Waterford minors which I was one of. Our PE teacher and hurling manager was Denis Ring. He was manager of Cork minors at that time also, (actually he is currently the Cork U21 manager in 2018!). As one of the three Waterford minors on the St. Colman’s team, we were scheduled to play Cork in the minor hurling championship only a week before the Harty final, of which there was also three Cork minors on the St. Colmans team.  ‘Denis wasn’t happy with the fixtures as there would be three of his players on the losing side and then having to tog out alongside each other only days later, but we actually drew. Then a week after we played the Harty final and won, we played Cork the week after and lost by a point and they went on to win the All Ireland but sure that’s the way it goes,’ he adds with a rueful laugh. You can’t help but think that some of the experiences Commandant Molumphy has witnessed around the world have coloured his sense of perspective.

The Army

“Ballyduff Upper is very small village but the GAA club and how it is a family thing is of huge importance, I’m the youngest of five brothers and all five of us all wanted to do was play with Ballyduff Upper senior hurlers and win the Waterford senior title. We won it in 2007 against Ballygunner with the five of us on the team. It was probably and still is the most important and best sporting day of my life, you know because club was so important growing up and to be honest I never planned to play for Waterford really. For us, my brothers and I, our All Ireland day was winning that club title. I was fairly limited in my GAA ambition in Ballyduff Upper, it was always about winning the county. Winning that county title which was an unbelievable achievement considering the odds, I never looked outside that, not even when I got trials for Waterford in 2006.

“The first year I got trials I was a Second Lieutenant in the army and I was placed in charge of a Recruit Platoon which was about forty to fifty new guys joining the Army and you were responsible for their 16 week training programme. I remember turning down a Waterford senior hurling trial that year explaining that I have to focus on this and I wouldn’t be able to give it time, and actually funny enough one of the Recruits that came in was Eoin Larkin, he was playing with James Stephens club and was just breaking onto the Kilkenny senior team. Little did I know we would be chasing each other around the pitch years later.

“When I was training to join the Army, the Cadetship training was 21 months and it was very challenging. However it taught us all physical and moral courage, public speaking skills, time management and punctuality by being where you needed to be at exactly the time you needed to be there. And also if you were going to do something you had to do it properly and give it everything. I didn’t play hurling with Waterford during the Cadets, I was just 18 or 19 and I gave it everything as it demanded both academic and tactical assignments and then when I came out I played with the Waterford U21 team. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I turned down Waterford senior hurling trials the first time, I was offered. The second time I was offered which was the following year I went, but not exactly for the reasons one would expect. My older brothers and I were interested to find out what hurling drills they were doing, learn them and bring them back to the club. So I went down to the trial which was hurling drills with a full challenge match. You know the way in club matches you’d run all over the place, that’s what I did down there. The match went well for me as I just roamed all over the wing forward and midfield lines getting onto a lot of ball while my marker stayed in his position looking at me like I was out of my mind! I remember togging off in the dressing room afterwards and there I was thinking that’s great I’ve a few drills sorted to bring home and then the selector Nicky Cashin comes in and he says look we’d like you to join on the panel. I remember thinking to myself, that wasn’t part of the plan and does that mean I better start planning my work commitments now? When I got home, my older brothers sort of looked at me and said, ‘they did what?’

“The army is a great career and you see a lot of soldiers playing a variety of sports at international standards. Even better is that Army Barracks has an army hurling team and the rivalry before Corps and Units is very high. The army suits that, we’re professional soldiers that have to be fit and we all had to pass an extensive annual fitness test or your job is at stake. No other government agency has that.  Every day there’s time allocated for physical training and the onus is on each individual to maintain a high level of physical and mental fitness or it effects your career prospects in the Defence Forces.

“I’m in my 17th year in the Defence Forces and I have had to travel all over the country in that time. I completed my training for just under two years in the Curragh, was then posted to an Infantry Battalion in Kilkenny. From there I spent three years in University College Galway studying German and History but this meant unbelievable driving to and from Galway city to Waterford city to make hurling training. Then I got posted to Kilkenny and after some time back to the Curragh before being posted to Cork for two years. One thing is for sure, I don’t need a GPS to find my way around most of Ireland!

“I remember studying in University in Galway and Justin McCarthy was the Waterford senior hurling manager and we were in the national senior hurling league final against Kilkenny. He was announcing the team on the Thursday night before the final and I had a German grammar exam on the following morning back in Galway city. It was about a three hour and forty minute drive from Galway city down to Walsh Park in Waterford and your legs would be dead when you’d get out of the car attending training. Back then there were no motorways and plenty of traffic jams so I used to get audiobooks for the car journeys and I’d have a 20 hour audio book finished in 4 or 5 days!

“I remember asking Justin on the Tuesday night before the league final would he mind if I don’t come to training on Thursday because I have this difficult German grammar exam on Friday morning. Justin paused when I asked him, he was a man of integrity and he’d always be very honest and genuine and he said, ‘no you need to be there Stephen, the lads will expect you to be there as you are starting and this needs to mean something’. And he was right, while it as a crazy drive down and back to Galway that night at 2am, over seven hours in the car. But then that weekend we won the senior hurling national league title against Kilkenny and it was worth it. I passed the German grammar exam too so that was a bonus!

Looking back would he do it again?

“It was all worth it and I can see Justin’s point when I reflect on it. If I didn’t have a bit of that mental discipline developed in the cadetship and subsequent military training which always encourages devotion and dedication, I probably couldn’t have physically given the commitment. I remember the county board used to dread my fuel expenses. When I was stationed in the Curragh, I averaged 2,200 km a week.  It was spending over 24hrs , one full day in the car traveling per week. When I went to trade in my Audi A4 car after having it for ten years during which I was involved with Waterford hurlers, there was 508,000 miles on it. The guy in the garage didn’t believe me but when I brought it over he took a look at it and he said ‘I didn’t believe you when you first told me the mileage but I do now. I’m actually going to keep this car in the lot and show it to customers for what an Audi can do!’

“It was a fanatical distance I was driving each week, I would depart Ballyduff Upper after 5.30am and drive up to the Curragh to start work before 8am, you’d finish at 5pm and drive back down to Waterford city for training at 7pm, and then from Waterford city to my house was about another hour so it was like a triangle. You’d get back about 10pm or 11pm at night. I suppose I didn’t know any better and it was just a pattern of life I developed to maintain the commitment. I wouldn’t be able to do it now. The last year I finished playing inter-county hurling we had a new born baby, Jack, at home and I would only see him for the night feeds and for a few hours at the weekend during to training commitments. I couldn’t justify doing that for the following years and it can be seen today how the average age profile of intercounty players is around 23 years old due to commitments required to play at that standard.

“I was asked to speak to the Waterford U16 hurling team two years ago and intercounty hurling and I told them straight out that intercounty hurling is worth it and if you are willing to put your life on hold and give it everything for 5 or so years, then go do it. You do need an accommodating workplace and family but it’s definitely worth it.

“I spent my final intercounty hurling year under the management of Derek McGrath and he was excellent, a brilliant man manager. However with my newborn son Jack and with being a Captain in the army, responsibilities had increased ten fold. At that time I was part of the EU Battle Group and we had army tactical exercises in not just different parts of the country. But in Sweden and Poland.  At one stage I was in Tralee for two weeks on a tactical exercise and I missed two trainings, from there it was a three hour trip back to Walsh Park and I was justifiably asked by management was there an issue. There wasn’t any issue, it was just the nature of my job. I knew my time playing with Waterford was coming to an end. I couldn’t give the same commitment. I felt if I couldn’t give the same commitment that I would’ve expected from my fellow players as captain of Waterford for three years, then something had to change.

“When Davy Fitzgerald came in as manager, back in 2008, I was conducting a two-month tactical and weapons course at the other end of the country and I missed one or two training sessions. I remember Davy sat down with me at the end of training one night and asked me what’s going on? I explained and Davy understood, he gave me the flexibility to miss one or two sessions, I was still playing well and keeping my place and I think he maybe got a few questions from other players but I appreciated the bit of flexibility. I remember thinking fair play, he was putting himself out there for me and I better reciprocate on the field. If you’re selected for county everything goes on hold. With intercounty being professional in everything but name, the commitment required of players overwhelms all over commitments. Counties, depending on the strength of their pool of players can be different in their approach to this as weaker countries cannot enforce the same commitment levels when they are fighting to keep all their stronger players on board.

  • I always remember the buzz in the All Ireland and going into civilised combat with fourteen brothers that will do anything for you. It’s something you’ll never forget. It’s the same now with the men and women I soldier with.

Commitment and hard work characterise Stephen’s approach to hurling and to life in the Forces. “When I applied to join the Cadets I had to do three interviews, a physical test, an aptitude test and psychometric test. It was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Straight away from the start of my military training, being a functioning part of a team with high levels of motivation, determination and work rate is one of the most important aspects in the army. While I was playing, I spent a large time in the forward line where the rest of the  long serving Waterford forwards were over 6 foot except myself.

My job was to win the dirty ball, to go in to the rucks and melees, get the ball and if blocked, give it to those lads who would have lightening pace and unsurpassed shooting abilities. One night at training we were discussing tactics about the upcoming championship match and a teammate said, ‘send Molumphy in, he’s a dogfighter, he loves all that fighting in the rucks because that’s what they do everyday in the army!’. That was my forte. The value of the team was something that’s drilled into you in the Army and the importance of putting the team first.

“We, the 57th Infantry Group, are deployed to monitor the Area of Separation between Israel and Syria and to monitor and report if either side bring unauthorized weapons or equipment in to this area. There are 130 soldiers in our Infantry Group and we are responsible provide a Quick Reaction Force 24/7, 365 days of the year at 15 minutes notice to move. We are also responsible to protect United Nations Military Observers who observe the daily activities in the area. It is a tragedy what is going on over there. The first month we deployed was a culture shock. One can see villages and infrastructure destroyed and the locals just trying to live their life in the middle of it all by building makeshift villages etc. Observers would watch local kids out kicking around a football and an artillery round would landing nearby shaking the ground, but it was just part of normal life for them, the kids would look over and see it and then just continue on.. to them it was normal. These experiences make you really appreciate what we have here in Ireland and the importance of our own nations defence capabilities. I’m at home now for a few weeks leave and you really appreciate what you have at home, the peace and tranquility. Over there, there is interactions between various fractions on a daily basis. The Middle East is not going to change in the immediate future, and every time you come home you realise how lucky we are.

Stephen sees himself as a career soldier, and job security and satisfaction is important. He’s very happy in the Defence forces doing something active and making the difference. At the minute he feels the Defence forces are making a difference and he points out also to the help they offer at home for example during flash flooding, extreme snowfall, medical, fire fighting, search capabilities and other related emergencies.

“You’re happy to help and I’m happy to promote it for sure to people who are looking for an active lifestyle or something out of the ordinary, it’s a great career and one I’d advocate for.

“Hurling has its part in life in Syria and once a week twenty lads come together for a puc around. Our mission is a dry mission meaning no alcohol, so physical training is part and parcel of our daily routine. Each week a different soldier takes the training and there’s a bit of craic and banter.  The chat is all about the club and county scene back home. Did you see the match etc. We have a canteen called the GPO so we watch sport games when we can. You’d invite other nationalities in and tell them this is a real game you’re watching, especially during the World cup it was good banter watching soccer players rolling all over the place while the GAA games espoused true leadership and integrity. Soldiers from other countries all over the world wouldn’t believe that these GAA matches they were watching were amateur.

On the downside of being away.

“Last time I came back from overseas duty, my first child was born only weeks later. My wife, Niamh is expecting our third child at the end of the year so I’ll be back for that, please god. Niamh is from Lismore and played Camogie for Waterford so she knows what’s involved in hurling and was totally supportive and accommodating, but going overseas is especially very difficult for the partners back home. I was in Chad in 2009 and we used to get ten minutes on the one computer to Skype back home, so by the time it connected it was even less. Now there’s WhatsApp so I can see our boys Jack and Fionn and chat to them every day, but it can still be tough. When he retired from the county, he was able to do a bit more with the Army.  Depending on where I get posted in Ireland when I get back from overseas this time, I’d like to tog out with the club.

One of the highlights of his career was Waterford’s rivalry with a very good Cork team. “Yeah, we beat them in 07, 09 and 2010.  For me the Cork games were important, growing up in the area around Ballyduff Upper right on the border with Cork. To play in the All Ireland final was fantastic too, it didn’t go the way we had planned but that’s sport. I knew at half time it was a mountain to climb, and the mountain got bigger after that. But all you can do is take your own patch of ground and keep fighting. In my head was something ingrained into us in the cadetship by one of my Sergeant instructors, ‘you can never be defeated if you always keep fighting’.

That was my plan for the second half. I remember working hard to get every ball and just going straight in getting a couple of frees in the last quarter. Looking back that experience was a bonus to myself. Playing in Croke Park with the Waterford seniors was even a bonus two years earlier.

“Every day I can’t believe how lucky I was, from the small village on the Waterford border to Croke Park. Remembering being out there on the pitch, trying to communicate with a team mate only 10 yards away with 80,000 supporters roaring and he couldn’t even hear me and I was thinking ‘this is Croke Park’. I believe intercounty players are only cogs in the wheel, we represent the county for a couple of years, we do the best we can then hand over the jersey and support the next player who steps up to the challenge. I look back and think, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

“I think of the players I played with and how lucky I was to battle along side them. I played with Tony Browne and he was in his prime before, during and after I was there! We had larger-than-life characters on the team. I remember how honest they were on the pitch, their passion for hurling, they wore it on their sleeve and it was infectious. I remember traveling on the team bus to my first Munster final in Thurles and Ken McGrath was at the back of the bus, he was so excited and enthusiastic chatting away. No fear, no nerves, that kind of rubbed off on you and you gained in confidence seeing his confidence. His attitude was believe in yourself, go for it, don’t wait for anything to happen on the pitch but make it happen yourself.

“Those players were exceptional and people remember them more so than others because of their passion and how they played hurling. It was an honour to battle alongside with them and an even greater privilege to captain the Waterford team for three years. I remember trying to justify to myself how can you lead these players knowing what they’d done for Waterford hurling and I could only do so by leading from the front and always giving everything on and off the field.

  • The team is everything and if you are part of it, then you must play your part. If you are going to do it, do it right!

Now, Stephen wouldn’t particularly be a fan of the Waterford system with one full forward marking three full backs although he says, ‘I’ll take any win we can get and Davy for example had a great system but we didn’t have that frame of mind to defend as well as we attacked. We were all out attack but our problem was our forward lines didn’t defend as a whole, which with the current system is at the complete other side of the spectrum. However I was at the All Ireland final roaring on Waterford to win and whatever you say about the system, remember Waterford were only one score away from winning an All Ireland title in 2018.

After losing the All Ireland Stephen admits it was hard. “Was difficult yes, in training everything was going great the week before, we had a match A against B and it was brilliant we thought we’ll lose three or four though injury the way these players were going at it.

“On the day we tried so hard and it didn’t go right but the players involved learned lessons they could use again. Two days later we got a team bus and traveled through the whole county, finishing up here in Ballyduff Upper. I remember on the way to the village, one of the players from a club in the city turned me and said, I cant believe Ballyduff is this far away, I would never play intercounty and go training four times a week in the city if I lived up here’, I replied that we still had 15 minutes to go until we got to Ballyduff! We as a team stuck together, it was one in all in, when things happen in sport you have to take the bad with the good. It was and always is an honour to have been part of that team and that era of hurling.

His career given him perspective. “Different countries, you see the value of life, human rights respected and disrespected, you come back with a different perspective. After Chad where our engineers had to build our own camp and dig our water wells, you appreciate back home and turning on a tap to get clean purified water. Out there we could only have thirty second showers, once a day!

“I always remember the buzz in the All Ireland and going into civilised combat with fourteen brothers that will do anything for you. It’s something you’ll never forget. It’s the same now with the men and women I soldier with. The team is everything and if you are part of it, then you must play your part. If you are going to do it, do it right!

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