A few weeks ago, as part of the Cork podcast festival, Off The Ball hosted a terrific show at the Opera House.
The headline guest for their evening of chat and reminiscence was Jimmy Barry-Murphy, one of the greatest Cork sportspeople of all time. If you haven’t seen him for a while, there is no need to adjust the picture in your mind. He skipped on to the stage, lean as a greyhound, 69 since August, with no trace of the years on his face.
Looking around the theatre, the demographic of the audience was easy to read. Mostly, it was middle-aged men for whom JBM was the matinee idol of their childhoods. It is a peculiar dynamic: whatever childish stuff is lost, or abandoned, or hidden in the attic of our lives, childhood heroes have a protected permanence. It is like a toy for life.
Backstage JBM warned Tommy Rooney and Eoin Sheahan from Off The Ball that he wasn’t “an after-dinner speaker,” and he wouldn’t be bringing the house down with gags and punchlines.
The crowd in the Opera House, though, hadn’t come to be impressed with JBM; they had crossed that threshold decades ago. There was nothing he could say that would change their minds now.
Talking about his career in public down the years, JBM has sometimes been an unreliable witness. In interviews, he tended to be more expansive and blunt about the times when he came up short, or met outright failure. His triumphs were addressed with incomplete testimonies, as you can imagine.
On stage in the Opera House he was asked about his modesty and he gave the kind of authentic answer that makes people nod, instinctively.
“I don’t think I’m that modest,” he said. “We all like a bit of praise. As a player or manager you’re sensitive about criticism. I know when I was playing and managing Cork I got plenty of stick – particularly on a Monday morning, if you had lost a big game [on Sunday]. People didn’t spare you.”
In that vein, he was asked about his first spell as manager of the Cork seniors, which opened with a disastrous season in 1996. Cork lost at home in the championship for the first time since the 1920s, scoring just 1-8 in a 16-point beating from Limerick. After that game he kept a scathing newspaper article in his desk drawer for years, as if to keep the pain on file.
Three years later he led Cork to one of their most cherished All-Irelands. The triumph and the failure were in direct proportion; winning with JBM made it different for Cork people. That was the common feeling.
“My first couple of years managing Cork I look back on it now and it was a really tough time,” he said in the Opera House. “I walked into it very naively. I was very green. I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s embarrassing some of the things I was trying to do.”
The careers of even the greatest players are reduced to fragments in our memory. In that process there is an element of accidental vandalism. Sometimes we need to be reminded why we were so mesmerised in the first place. JBM? He is the only player in the history of the GAA to win All-Irelands in hurling and football at minor, under-21 and senior with his county, and club All-Irelands in both codes with his club, St Finbarr’s.
He will never have to share that distinction. The odds of anybody doing it were astronomical in the first place, but it is beyond impossible now, and forever more. By the age of 24, he had won two All-Stars in hurling and two in football. At the time, that must have been a sensation.
In a career on his scale the anniversaries roll from year to year. It was 50 years ago, last month, since he scored 2-1 for Cork in the All-Ireland football final, having scored 2-1 in the All-Ireland minor football final a year before.
It is 40 years since he scored arguably the greatest hurling goal of all-time in Croke Park, and captained Cork to successive defeats in the All-Ireland hurling final.
It is 30 years since he accepted his first job in intercounty management with the Cork minor hurlers, and 10 years, this weekend, since the Cork senior team he managed lost the All-Ireland to Clare, in a replay.
Pick a year from that gallery. Take 1983. In the All-Ireland semi-final he scored a goal of inexplicable brilliance: John Fenton drilled a delivery at shoulder height and JBM somehow met the ball in flight, deflecting it into the roof of the Galway net at warp speed.
The sceptics who tried to dismiss it as the random outcome of chance were tackled by Kevin Cashman in The Sunday Tribune.
“It is pointless to explain to such people,” he wrote, “about the patience and practise and concentration, and the unique natural gift of co-ordination of eye and limb, which went to make that stroke. It is best simply to tell them that the greatest shots of Bobby Charlton and Ollie Campbell and Steve Davis and John Lowe were all luck and chance too.”
A few weeks later he captained Cork in the All-Ireland final for the second year in a row, and just like the year before, he was held scoreless by Kilkenny in a Cork defeat. It was the greatest personal disappointment of his career.
“I’m convinced now,” he said years later, “that I wanted it so badly [captaining Cork to an All-Ireland] that I waited for other people to do it for me. Going into ‘83, I didn’t analyse it deeply why I had played so badly in ‘82. I was only hoping it would happen. The pressure got to me way more as I got older. The disappointment of losing in ‘82 and ‘83 was shattering. I needed to unscramble certain things in my head going into that game [in ‘83] and I didn’t do it. The pressure got to me again and I flopped on both days.”
Though he wouldn’t say it, coming back from that was one of the great chapters in JBM’s story. He won two more All-Irelands, and another All-Star. His final touch in Croke Park was a point with an overhead strike, another score of flashing brilliance.
How long ago was that? Thirty-seven years ago. Glorious and ageless.