Seductive finale at Páirc Uí Chaoimh an Irresistible road trip down memory lane

Despite having the appeal of a bunker, attending the last provincial final is, well, tempting

The Dubs take over Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championships semi-final replay in 1983. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The Dubs take over Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championships semi-final replay in 1983. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho


Páirc Uí Chaoimh as we know it will host its last provincial final this coming Sunday, a landmark moment before a €70 million redevelopment.

It’s more than 25 years since I’ve been in the place, as charmless a slab of concrete as has been poured and perhaps the most awkward bit of Cork city to access. But there would be a certain synchronicity in going to the last final.

After all, I was at the first.

There’s an unavoidable danger of Dev-like, simpler-people hokum in pointing out the novelty of a crash barrier to a nine-year-old. But if the sum of a life comes down to a series of mental picture-grabs, then that’s the one I have from the 1976 Munster football final.

A YouTube video shows the crowd spilling on to the sideline, but it’s a piece of yellow-painted metal jammed into a terrace that remains in my memory. This was the real thing, a real stadium, of the sort in which you witnessed soccer fans rioting on telly. And it’s good that something registered because the game didn’t. Ten points each, a bore. But the replay was something else.

Cork had shirts with stripes, sending county-board Gaels everywhere into paroxysms of ethnic confusio

n. Jimmy Barry Murphy wore black socks like Manchester United, no one even pretended to hand-pass properly – the ball whizzed about as if made of compressed rubber. And the only person whose eyesight was poorer than the referee’s was the umpire who wrongly awarded Kerry a goal, thus enabling a great team progress to legendary status.

It was thrilling, colourful and confusing. Just like three years earlier at the same venue, before construction of the ugly concrete future, my father on a grassy bank at the old Athletic Grounds being asked which paper hat to get; red or green? Minutes after investing in green, Cork had scored three goals and teary demands for red were met with acquiescence. A year later, a similarly red hat dissolved in Killarney rain as Cork got cocky and Kerry chose to remember.

You’ll notice a football theme here, an inevitable result of a Cork-Kerry pedigree. Munster final day was an institution growing up. It was piling “the youngfella” into the back seat, screeching away and making for Killarney, hitting the road in spots. Or it was a day release from the tyranny of Irish college to make for Pairc Uí Chaoimh and watch Kerry win again at a canter. Until, of course, Tadhg Murphy’s goal in 1983 caught everyone on the hop, including many true Gaels who claim to have been among the small crowd in the rain but were not.

It was not just football though. A big-bellied Wexford hurler clad in a gold helmet was split right before me once. And Ray Cummins turned a full back with a fluency that produced spontaneous applause among the crowd. There were self-conscious school-sports days, a Cork-Dublin replay in 1983 at which the Dubs invaded; and yours truly discovered the nauseating sweet flavour of cider when it comes back up.

There was a time though when even getting more

drunk than that would not have tempted me back there. Even Oasis before their slide did not manage it. And any nostalgia for the place is probably rooted in geriatric longing for long-gone youth.

However, Cork and Limerick might be worth a self-indulgent trip down memory lane. The counties played in the 1976 Munster hurling final also, although I’ve no memory of it. But considering that recalling last week is now, to employ a most overused word, challenging, it is spooky to once again encounter vivid images that are almost 40 years old. There’s probably something regressive there, perhaps coincidental with how the last time I was in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was for another drawn Munster final. On that occasion Mikey Sheehy famously squirrelled his way through the Cork defence in the last minute and Billy Morgan threw himself down right in front of me.

Except childhood was in the past even then. And the place had already done its job, helping to firmly inculcate the sporting bug with what is still the unparalleled thrill of going to a game.

Becoming maudlin about concrete, though, is ridiculous; especially the heap in Ballintemple.

It is an eyesore, always was. An unimaginative grey structure that always looked like a suitable place for T-54 tanks to manoeuvre. Erase the memories and it has the aesthetic appeal of a large haemorrhoid.

Maybe €70 million can alter that. And perhaps the most advanced, brave new concrete future will in time achieve retro-chic rather than retro-god awful. Although it might be best not hold your breath.

The county board is not investing in a magic wand. What it might do though is help towards a road system to the place on match days that does not make interstate 95 into New York look uncongested.

But that’s a hopelessly middle-aged preoccupation that I didn’t give a care about when young, or at least not until the Old Man started to go tonto at some white coat flexing his unaccustomed authority. And rare is the thing that improves with time.

In fact it is remarkable in hindsight how much of my youth became intertwined with that kip by the water.

Yeah, I might go for old timers’ sake.

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