‘De Park’ – Cork’s oval-shaped coliseum on the banks of the Lee

Cork’s iconic GAA ground is part stadium, part museum piece now and there are just two big days for it left

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 11:30

It could only have been conceived in Cork and in the decades since it has come to embody all of the charms and peculiarities of that county. The overhead photographs capture it best: a perfect oval spaced oddity on the edge of the Lee.

The place has been hailed as the worst– those toilets, the notorious dressing rooms, the long line of cars crawling at snail’s pace, windows down, occupants sweltering, the cramped seats – oh, the complaints go on. Of course, it was also the very best. The pitch remains immaculate, all year round.

“No matter what the weather was like or how often it was used. Something you immediately noticed,” says John O’Keeffe, Kerry’s resident All Star fullback when football summers begun and ended with a trip to the city.

“Well, we would place the pitch as probably the best in the country, you know,” says Frank Murphy, Cork’s long-serving county secretary for whom the place has an office since opening day. As for the views within the ground, they are genuinely incomparable. The oval shape takes care of that: there is no better ground in Ireland in which to watch a ball game.

“Clear view is represented by a sightline of 125mm,” explains Michael Horgan, who was chief architect. “The lower deck of Croke Park, for instance, has about 56mm – less than half of that.”

During the opening day ceremonies, the party was led onto the pitch by Gerry Canty and Paddy Cantor, the last surviving members of the funeral body guard for Terence MacSwiney, the former lord Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in 1920. That was the mood and era in which the ground was opened in the summer of 1976.

The tone

Opening day was on July 5th and what happened set the tone for the decades to come.

 

Cork were playing Kerry in the Munster football final that year and if you ever wonder how the back-door system has diluted the magnitude of provincial showdowns, you need refer only to Páidí Ó Sé’s observation that afternoon. “To be honest, I would rather be beaten in an All-Ireland final than to lose today to Cork. To many people in Kerry, the Munster final is the most important game of the year.”

Kerry were All-Ireland champions: Cork had held the Sam Maguire three years earlier. Dublin had emerged under Kevin Heffernan as a pale blue, avant-garde force. But this was local: intense. The outside world fell away. Playing Cork in the city meant a morning journey by car for the Kerry men and an early lunch in the Imperial, which was usually bedlam outside. They always got an escort up the long narrow road up to the ground. Over the years, O’Keeffe came to enjoy Paírc Uí Chaoimh immensely, for all its kinks and oddities.

“For our team, it was a happy hunting ground. That is my overall impression. But you knew you had to play well there because you were against formidable opposition. The actual trip to Cork meant you stayed in your own home the night before.

“ The pitch was always in fabulous condition. The excitement around the hotel was incredible. And invariably we seemed to get hot summer days. It was always a full house. The contrast between then and now was that it was pure knock-out, which gave an excitement to the whole thing. And those games when I was involved could have gone either way. We felt if we could get over Cork we were well on the way. And a Munster title was highly regarded.”

Drawn match

Though Cork had won in ’73 and ’74, from 1975 on, Kerry oppressed their great rivals. The year 1976 has been seen as part of the series of Dublin-Kerry games but Weeshie Fogarty, the doyen of Kerry radio men, has blessed the ’76 Munster final replay as the best match he ever saw. The drawn match is recalled for different reasons. July 5th was a trip into the unknown for those involved in staging the event.

Paírc Uí Chaoimh could seat just under 50,000 but nobody was certain how many would show up. It was the first opportunity when the design and theory could be tested by a capacity crowd.

A rare burst of romance by the Cork County Board had led to the construction of the new stadium on the site rather than choose somewhere more navigable.

“The old Cork Athletic Grounds was the sports grounds from the beginning of the 20th century and it held many great memories for people, “says Frank Murphy.

“It was considered to be a location feature. It was the most modern stadium in the country at the time but it was built on a relatively confined space and we had to cut our cloth according to our measure . . .”

The Athletics Grounds won no beauty contests. “Corrugated iron roofing and fencing and barbed wire up to your oxters – very broken and earth-infested banks,” is Michael Horgan’s memory from playing there with St Finbarr’s. He had been there for the Cork hurling championship match in 1955 between Barrs and and Glen Rovers which attracted 35,000 supporters.

“It would still make you break into a cold sweat. By today’s criteria, the Atheltic Grounds would take no more than 12,000.”

But the spirit of the decision was inarguable: that patch had become the home of Cork GAA. It housed memories and ghosts. And it presented Horgan with an architectural conundrum. The ground was hemmed in by the Showgrounds property on the south, east and west. The river and swamp took care of the north.

A protracted series of negotiations – including an unsuccessful attempt to persuade a man using a few cattle for grazing rights in a field to relinquish his property for a sum which would have bought him an entire herd – meant that every inch counted. Thus, the bowl shape was conceived and the internal tunnel, included after consultation of the newly published British blue code on stadium safety circled the ground and became the central feature of the interior.

It also meant the dressing room exits led directly out onto the thoroughfare. The press box was cantilevered onto the roof of the stand and is among the most unusual press facilities of any existing stadium, like watching a match from the window of a low-flying Spitfire. Micheál O’hEithir, the famed RTÉ commentator, refused to go up there, citing vertigo. He called games from the rear of the stand. On opening day, Paírc Uí Chaoimh was the jewel in the GAA crown, a fabulous departure from conventional rectangle stadiums.

Ferociously tough

When Kerry and Cork took the field that afternoon, the atmosphere was extraordinary. The match was ferociously tough and finished at 0-10 apiece but is chiefly recalled for the crowd. Thousands of spectators watched the game from directly behind either goal, almost spilling over the end line. Paddy Downey, in his match report for the Irish Times, had been told that even though 40,000 people were already inside, an unprecedented crowd had gathered at the locked gates shortly before throw-in. “Two main gates burst open and an estimated 10,000 people entered the stadium without paying. Several thousand of those who entered by force sat on the perimeter wall and this led to some trouble behind the goals.”

Patrick Horgan, the architect, was also chief steward that day. It later emerged that around 57,000 people showed up for the game. Although policy was to close the big exterior gates when the house was full, a senior guard took the decision to call for the gate at the Blackrock side to be open to relieve the swell outside.

“It was an excellent decision, retrospectively,” Horgan says.

“I spent most of the match shushing people back. Jimmy Barry Murphy has told me he always remembers taking a sideline kick as I was trying to clear people back.”

On the field, John O’Keeffe had his hands full with Declan Barron but during every break in play was conscious of the crowd. “Right in on top of us. It was like a cauldron that day. But not enough to give you an excuse to be distracted.”

Paddy Downey noted that both goalkeepers, Corks’ Billy Morgan and Paud O’Mahony from Kerry were being intimidated and a seven-minute delay took place while the gardaí and stewards tried to organise the spectators on the sideline. They got a bird’s eye view of a drawn match with 63 frees.

It was only when the teams returned to Paírc Uí Chaoimh a fortnight later that John O’Keeffe began to notice the unique dressing room facilities. The stadium was fitted with six dressing rooms, all centrally heated. But the spatial restrictions meant they had to be tight.

“They were compact,” agrees Frank Murphy. “You have to remember that panels have increased from 21 to 30. But they were compact.” For the gargantuan Kerry team, they seemed farcically tight.

“The rooms were so small and the walls so thin you could hear exactly the pep talk next door,” laughs O’Keeffe. “They compromised and gave us two dressing rooms but the team is disjointed then so it was difficult to have the whole squad there. It was very unsatisfactory. Then you might have the minors in there too.”

Into madness

Getting changed was half the battle. The exit door of the dressing rooms brought players straight onto the dark, looping tunnel with the slanting roof, always raucous and busy with supporters making last minutes repairs to and from the bar or toilets or snack stalls. Into madness, in other words.

 

“You’d come out the door and you would meet hundreds of supporters. And they weren’t always supporting you! Coming in at half-time, you could meet anyone, depending how you were doing or not doing.”

The problem was solved by having gardaí form a human wall so that the teams could take the field. It was rare, it was different: it was Paírc Uí Chaoimh.

“On major championship days, you had to have gardaí and stewards to basically shut off the tunnel area until the teams took the field and likewise at half-time . . . . ,” says Frank Murphy.

Over the years, visiting teams came to accept those changing rooms as a classical example of Corkonian knavery. In his weekly Irish Times column, Darragh Ó Sé delighted in the exquisite misery of preparing for games there. “You’re there starting to get pumped up, in the zone, and then all of a sudden you can’t see the man three feet away from you because a big cloud of steam that has come in from the shower,” he recalled two summers ago.

“And the young lads are screaming at the scalding they are getting. There could be 40,000 people outside thinking there is all sorts of careful planning going on in the dressing room; meanwhile, you can’t make out who’s talking to you because it is like a Turkish bath in there. You look for that nice shirt you brought with you for heading up the town afterwards and you find it on the ground and some lad using it as a towel to keep the dirt off his feet. Even when I was sitting there and suffering, part of me was thinking: ‘Fair play to ye lads, no point in making it easy for us’.”

The mythology grew that down the corridor, Cork teams prepared in spacious, air-conditioned luxury, lounging like Greek gods before taking the field. But as Donal Og Cusack makes clear in his autobiography Come What May, the Paírc was no picnic for home athletes either. Recalling the Sunday when the senior hurling team got caught in traffic before the 2001 match against Limerick, Cusack explains how they arrived to find that the visitors were using both dressing rooms. Cork had to tog out in the gym, which had no toilets. So the Cork hurlers had to use the public facilities, squeezing through the supporters in their gear. Getting out onto the pitch was a relief.

In 1976, though, the Paírc still had its new paint aroma. The old firm christened it with a game to remember. For the replay, the crowd was managed smoothly but in a relentless match played at what RTÉ’s Mick Dunne described as “ a pace crippling on this warm, dull heavy day in Paírc Uí Chaoimh”, the atmosphere was intense. Cork led by seven points halfway through the second half and still led by for when the day turned mischievous on them. The match revolved on two incidents: Cork’s full back Brian Murphy stopped a shot from Sean Walsh but was ruled to have and carried it behind the goal line, a call that looks debatable almost 40 years on.

Shortly afterwards, Cork’s Sean Walsh floated a free into the Kerry goalmouth which Declan Barron punched to the net.

“I was involved in that, Declan Barron jumped for a high ball and was adjudged to have been in the square,” O’Keeffe says.

“To this very day I believe he was. But when you are in the stands, you are going to go ballistic when that decision goes against you. They were incensed.”

The confusion meant the scoreboard showed Cork leading by two points at the end of the match and the announcer had to appeal for calm on the tannoy while the score was checked. The sides were level: 2-16 to 3-13. In extra time, Kerry’s extraordinary collective fitness saw them win out by five points but the brilliance of that game has been wrongly eclipsed.

“That was very unfair on Cork,” O’Keeffe says now “Because we had some tremendous tussles with hardly a kick of a ball between the teams and they are not given the credit for being right up there during that period.”

Famous replay

That was the first of over 30 Munster finals which Paírc Uí Chaoimh would host. Two All-Ireland semi-finals – including a famous replay between Cork and Dublin in 1983 which the visitors won by 4-15 to 2-10 – were also held there.

As the seasons passed, players and supporters alike came to accept Paírc Uí Chaoimh as a singular championship experience. It was inevitably left behind as other stadiums were developed across the country. The place was a relic of the mi-1970s, perched out there on the edge of the city, stubbornly and magnificently impervious to modernisation. Og Cusack best captured the conflicted mood of local players in his memoir: “It’s home for us and I actually like to train there, with our voices echoing the empty stands and terraces. When training moves to Paírc Uí Chaoimh, the championship isn’t far away. But even those of us who love it there know it is ramshackle and a disgrace to Cork GAA.”

Still, those echoes are what count. Brand new stadiums are impressive but they cannot match the essence of what makes stadiums different: atmosphere. The legacy of great games and players who electrified earlier days can only be achieved over decades. Cramped as those changing rooms are, when novice players walk in they may think: this is where Páidí Ó Sé once sat. This is where Cusack sat. This is where Darragh Ó Sé sat. The list is long and distinguished and the names don’t matter. The atmosphere does. You can’t redesign that. The new stadium has been reimagined with the the old one in mind. The entire ground floor has been dedicated to players’ facilities and the new dressing rooms will be without compare. The hope is that patrons will still recognise the old stadium.

“I think they will,” says Frank Murphy.

“The configuration will be retained and it will have a greater feeling of being a stadium within a park because the council is developing 90 acres there. Apart from the players facilities, it will have extensive facilities for food and refreshments which we didn’t have . . .”

But for tomorrow’s Munster football final and the hurling showdown a week later, the Paírc gets two more big days out. It is is part stadium, part museum piece now. Two more Sundays to savour what might be the one of the most unique sports theatres. Nobody grumbled about it as often or as passionately as Cork folk. It was their place, their beloved kip, their stadium. It was de park.And once it is gone? Nowhere like it, boy.

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