‘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
A section of the crowd at Cork versus Kerry in the 1976 Munster football final.
A scramble near the Kerry goalmouth as Cork’s Denis Allen gains control of the ball in front of a powerless Jimmy Deenihan in the ’1976 Munster football final.
Cork v Tipperary in 2008: Fans look on as both teams line-up. Photograph: Inpho
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.
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.”
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.