Cummins retains King Poc title
A LONE bagpiper sounded over the hills of the Cooley Mountains in Co Louth, signalling the start of last Saturday's All Ireland Poc Fada championship. Then 12 giants lined up in green and white next to the Irish flag, as Amhrán na bhFiannechoed through the crowd.
European boxing champion Bernard Dunne, who was there to watch, cut a slight figure next to the hurling giants, as the clouds parted momentarily for the anthem. Despite the rain a strong contingent of more than 100 supporters was present, and unlike this reporter they were well prepared for the weather.
The highly-fancied Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins was back for his third consecutive title, but the main rivalry in the competition was no doubt between Waterford substitute goalie Adrian Power and Waterford manager Davy Fitzgerald. The friendly rivalry drew much laughter at the competition's start when someone shouted: "He'll be dropped if he beats him."
Speaking before the competition, Fitzgerald predicted another win for Cummins, doubting his own chances: "The old age might be a bit against me. I'll be trying but it will be hard to get into the top five."
He added that he had not done any training for the contest, "which is very unlike me".
The predictions by two-time winner Fitzgerald, who has been involved in the competition for 17 years, came true, and Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins won the M Donnelly All-Ireland Poc Fada title for the third consecutive year.
Cummins completed the 5km course just one puck short of his record score of 48, winning the title for the fourth time in the last five years. (He missed the 2005 competition due to All Ireland commitments.)
Cummins said he was proud "to be continuing on a tradition that's been going for hundreds of years". He added that if ever there was a sport where participation was the main thing, Poc Fada was it.
Milwaukee hurler Dan McAuliffe made history by participating in the event, becoming the first American-born player to compete. It was overheard that upon arriving on the mountains two days previously for some training, the player from Milwaukee hurling club said: "Where's the field lads?"
McAuliffe said he was a little nervous, but excited as he has never done any competition like this. He had been training really hard over the previous few days, but it was difficult to get in a full training session with the poor weather conditions. His wife Corrine was more confident though: "I think Dan will do better than he thinks he will."
Following the trend of last year's All-Ireland Poc Fada contest, Ulster champion Graham Clarke finished in second place overall.
The Ballygalget clubman completed the course in 51 pucks. Third place went to Offaly goalkeeper Shane O'Connor with 52 pucks.
Leinster champion and 2007 Poc Fada champion Lyndsey Condell of Carlow won the competition's senior camogie category, just ahead of the Waterford under-16 captain Patricia Jackman. Down's Fionnuala Carr came in third. The under-16 boys' competition was won by Aaron Ryan of Limerick with 31 pucks.
Poc Fada (Irish for the "long puck") takes hurling to an individual level. Competitors must "puck" a sliotar with a hurley along a 5km course over the Cooley Mountains.
The player who finishes with the lowest number of pucks is awarded An Corn Cuailgne.
Poc Fada: the Cúchulainn connection
Poc Fada is an annual tournament testing the skills of Ireland's best hurlers. It was founded in 1961 by Fr. Pól Mac Seáin and the Naomh Moninne club. According to Donie Nealon, chairman of the National Poc Fada task force, the competition originates in the Irish legend of Cúchulainn, in which the young Setanta set out for King's court at Emain Macha hitting his sliotar before him as he walked.
Beginning on Annaverna Mountain in Ravensdale Co Louth each year, the 12 competitors must puck a sliotar to the top of Carn an Mhadaidh before continuing back down to finish at Aghameen. The winner is the player who completes the course in the least number of pucks.