Cocky Cork and GAA tradition stand in way of Banner triumph

There ain’t a Cork hurling fan in existence who right deep down in their marrow believes Clare have an earthly

Cork is Cork, so when it gets serious – and it can hardly get more serious than an All-Ireland final – Cork wins, boy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Cork is Cork, so when it gets serious – and it can hardly get more serious than an All-Ireland final – Cork wins, boy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mon, Sep 2, 2013, 06:00

Tradition is a biggie in the GAA, not just in terms of sepia-tinted flim-flam, but apparently a factor in what can happen on the pitch. How often has it been said the only thing separating various counties isn’t so much talent but belief? And this Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final is a prime test of this dated, un-aerobic, non-glycogen, lactic-free tradition theory. Because there ain’t a Cork hurling fan in existence who right deep down in their marrow believes Clare have an earthly.

That’s got nothing to do with the Munster Championship result earlier in the summer, or bookmaker odds, or the prospect of Davy Fitz going “tonto” on the sideline. It’s just that Clare is Clare and Cork is Cork, so when it gets serious – and it can hardly get more serious than an All-Ireland final – Cork wins, boy.

Such a view inevitably contributes to the caricature of Cork arrogance, while simultaneously feeding into that pose of near-Texan separateness that some of us born and bred in the Rebel county like to assume occasionally. All that people’s republic crap, with Michael Collins, Roy Keane and assorted other headcases sculpted into a red-and-white Rushmore psyche programmed to affect disregard for what everyone else thinks.

And of course the truth behind the front is very different. Cork thinks very deeply about what everyone else thinks. Specifically, it is absolutely preoccupied by what Dublin thinks and consumed by the insecure suspicion – accurate as it so happens – that if Dubs think of Cork at all, they tend to consign it to that all-encompassing wasteland beyond Newlands Cross reserved for rednecks.


Leeside overconfidence
But everyone else outside the capital is fair game for that “shite from a height” stuff in which Rebels love to indulge. So when it comes to an All-Ireland hurling final – even though no one close to the Cork team will ever admit it and despite how very unfashionable such old-school traditionalism is – deep, deep down, swimming around in all that Leeside haughtiness is the conviction: “f***ing Clare, no problem.

And the real beauty of this in terms of GAA tradition is that Clare realise it too. They know that Cork realise that they know how this is supposed to pan out. It’s irrational and infuriating, but there all the same. Whether it’s irrelevant or not is another matter.

Tom Kenny will be the only player on view this Sunday with an All-Ireland medal in his pocket. But rare is the Cork hurler who has ever stood in Croke Park on All-Ireland day and didn’t think “about time I’m here” rather than “wow! I’m here”. Does that constitute confidence, arrogance, delusion or the sort of belief that can give a team a crucial edge?

Too old school? Then ponder why the reverse is true when Cork play Kerry at football? There ain’t a Kerry man out there who isn’t mortally offended when the Kingdom don’t beat their neighbours when it matters. Why do Wexford always give themselves a chance against Kilkenny despite decades of evidence that any joy against the Cats is fleeting? Or those queasy moments when Tyrone face up to Derry? Fill in your own examples anytime you like. It’s not like there’s a shortage. And all of it because of that vague intangible that is tradition.

It’s an irony of GAA culture that so much of its identity is based on the largely arbitrary scrawl of a Whitehall pencil in drawing up county boundaries, prompting centuries’ worth of cute Kerry, mean Cavan, cocky Cork, jackeen Dubs and all the other superficial portrayals that are so deeply burrowed into our DNA like cartoon ticks.

Logically it’s ridiculous. Why Youghal should feel separate from Dungarvan but not Castletownbere is irrational.


Uniquely Irish
But we’re talking Ireland here, and the deep sense of place that makes a broke, wet rock on the edge of everything believe it is in fact the centre of the universe, a belief inextricably bound up with Gaelic games, and provoking, many believe, a set of assumptions that are as real in practise as they are silly in theory.

This combination of place and tradition is the sporting equivalent of the bee that mathematically shouldn’t fly but still manages to get around pretty well. And if it pertains to Sunday, then there’s only one winner. Because forget about form lines, tactics, motivation and any uber-hydrated sacrifice of limbs on the altar of an All-Ireland “megal”. There is a fundamental belief within Cork hurling that you do not lose to Clare when it counts.

It’s 35 years ago now since Clare went into a Munster final half-time only a couple of points down and with the prospect of a force 10 gale at their backs, convinced it would propel them towards breaking that notorious Munster championship hoodoo.

Apparently, the atmosphere of presumption in the crowd was tangible. The Clare team started singing in the dressing-room, so the story goes. And then Christy Ring famously and bluntly reminded the Cork team of their responsibilities, along the lines of: “We are Cork and we don’t lose to them.”

Quite what the relevance of something like that to 2013 should be is questionable, but dismissing such an inheritance in terms of belief is too pat. Of course the responsibility to live up to it can be a load too, but that would be to acknowledge that Clare might have a shout this Sunday.

And believing that is not on. Tradition says so.

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