Barry Roche: The Cork tie that binds – bred in the bone

Come what may on Sunday, we are Cork and we are back

"Who knows where the time goes," sang folk singer Sandy Denny and with her elegiac imagery of the seasons and the years slipping by, she evoked a wistfulness that many a Cork hurling fan can easily identify with as one September eased into another without an All-Ireland win.

Eight years since Cork last reached an All-Ireland decider, 16 since the Rebels lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup and an entire decade elapsed without success, the current scarcity of silverware puts the previous famine of 1954-1966 into perspective. Did we ever, in our worst moments . . . ?

As a Cork fan growing up in the 1970s, I, like countless others, almost took All-Ireland success for granted – every few years, we would get to Croke Park and on the law of averages, we would enjoy regular success – occasional interruptions from Kilkenny aside – but more of that anon.

My first memory of an All-Ireland was as an eight-year-old watching on TV as Cork beat Wexford in the 1970 decider with Eddie O'Brien from Passage West the hero, scoring one of his three goals with a cheeky overhead palm to the net. Hat-tricks and flash tricks didn't just belong to George Best.


Although Eddie O went Stateside soon after, the 1970s were ultimately to prove profitable for Cork. But before such success came 1972 and the hard lesson every Cork fan must learn at some stage in life – Beware of Stripey Men – eight points up with 13 minutes to go and the Cats won by seven.

I was 10 years old and gutted. Suffice to say, it was not a case of Bogie turning to Claude Rains at Casablanca airport and predicting the start of a beautiful friendship. Instead, my feelings for the Cats have been at best a grudging respect, at worst something far more visceral and unprintable.

So where did my love of hurling and specifically Cork hurling come from – predating my unswerving support for Tottenham Hotspur and a more recent fondness for Munster rugby. The answer, I suggest, is from growing up in Blarney in the 1970s and more precisely, from being my father’s son.

A northsider (norries came later), my father Paddy was born and bred in Pokertown on Blarney Street and, while like many others he availed of the saor view from Shanakiel of soccer and rugby matches down the Mardyke during the Ban, bowl-playing, boxing and hurling were the games he sported and played.

He hurled with St Vincent’s and whether it was due to modesty or not, he never spoke much about his hurling prowess. But some of his childhood friends told me he was a handy bowl-player and a more than decent boxer who knew how to look after himself when push came to shove and more.

But while he may have hurled with Vincent's, hurling for him, like for every other sports-mad young fellow on Cork's northside at the time, meant only one thing – Glen Rovers from Blackpool and Christy Ring, with Ring's fellow clubman, future taoiseach, Jack Lynch, a close second.

Ring was, as the author of Dear Old City by the Lee, observed, “a little god is he, on the northside of the Lee” – an opinion I once heard echoed almost verbatim by RTÉ sports anchor and Barrs supporter Bill O’Herlihy. It was a thesis that would find no argument from my father.

A scrapbook

Ring was a hero for my father and, as a consequence, a legend for me and with the legend there was the lore as I devoured all I could about Cork hurling – fuelled by a series on Cork's All-Ireland wins by hurling historian Tim Horgan in The Evening Echo which I cut out each week to put in a scrapbook.

I can still remember the photograph of the moustached men from Aghabullogue who won Cork's first All-Ireland in 1890 and later successful county teams backboned by men in long baggy shorts like Jamesy Kelleher of Dungourney and Seán Óg Murphy and Eudie Coughlan of Blackrock.

But it was in the 1940s that Cork's hurling story really began to come alive off the scrapbook pages for me as I came to know the heroes of the 1941-44 four-in-a-row winning teams – swarthy Alan Lotty from Sars, the boyish Seán Condon from the Barrs, Billy 'Long Puck' Murphy from Ballincollig.

And centre stage through it all, Lynch and Ring – the stories of the games vividly brought to life by tales from my father – like how he was in Croke Park in 1946 when Ring won a ball on the halfway line and burst through for a rasper that send a torrent of raindrops cascading from the Kilkenny net.

And Ring was the constant. The team of the 1940s ceded way to the 1952-54 three-in-a-row team and Ring became the pre-eminent presence, flanked by a posse of fine hurlers like Paddy Barry of Sars and Willie John Daly and Matty Fouhy of Carrigtwohill, now cast in the roles of support players.

And it was a match from the 1950s that my father recalled when, on a drizzly grey Saturday in 1973, he brought me to Fitzgerald’s electrical shop on the Grand Parade in Cork to meet Ring as the maestro signed copies of The Spirit of the Glen, his own image adorning the green and yellow cover.

My father was a tall man, brimming 6ft, so I still can’t quite figure out how it was he looked up to the stocky, balding man in a sports coat that day. But look up he did as Ring autographed the fly page of our copy of the book and my father recalled perhaps one of his hero’s greatest ever exploits.

I saw him cry as he shook his head in disbelief and  repeated `Ringy is dead, Ringy is dead'

“This man scored three goals against Limerick in 10 minutes,” he said reverentially, thumbing at Ring, who smiled shyly as my father recalled how that same year, 1956, the Wexford players shouldered Cloyne’s finest from the pitch after Art Foley denied him an ninth All-Ireland medal.

Ring went on to serve as a selector when the great Cork team of the late 1970s almost emulated the success of Cork in the 1940s, stringing together three All-Irelands in a row between 1976 and 1978 only to be caught by Galway in the 1979 All-Ireland semi-final.

It was bliss to be a Cork fan then and I remember watching on TV with my father as Cork clocked up the All-Irelands with a team featuring the swashbuckling John Horgan, the elegant Denis Coughlan, Charlie and Gerald McCarthy, the thrilling JBM and the cerebral Ray Cummins who changed full forward play. Happy days.

Bleak reality

Of course I was changing too – my ties to church and State sundering in the fervour of teenage rebellion. But amid all the debates about religion, politics and the revolution, the one tie that connected me to my father was hurling and never did I recognise it more than on a grim day in 1979.

A strong man and a tough man, my father had come home from work at CIÉ and was sitting down to his dinner when, for only the second time in my life, I saw him cry as he shook his head in disbelief and repeated “Ringy is dead, Ringy is dead”, struggling to come to terms with a sad and bleak reality.

Awkward and unsure how to react then, I look back now with some regret as I think it was perhaps the apotheosis of the hurling bond between us, first forged that day in 1973 when he took me to my first Cork match – when they beat Kilkenny in the Oireachtas final down at the old Athletic Grounds.

I can still remember the acrid stench of the urine from the toilets under the old galvanised stand and him bringing me down after the game to get the autograph of fellow Vincent’s clubman, Cork goalie Paddy Barry, and the fact Barry knew my father sealed the deal. Proud as Punch, I was.

My father was a reasonable man talking hurling – naming John Keane of Waterford as the finest centre back he had ever seen and Jimmy Smyth of Clare the finest hurler never to win an All-Ireland, while he was happy to extol the skills of the Rackards, the Doyles, the Mackeys and the Connollys.

But once the Blood and Bandage were involved and the sliotar thrown in, he became a Cork chauvinist, par excellence. Think Roy and Rog rolled into one. An uber-ultra for whom no Cork player could ever transgress and every decision against Cork was the most heinous and grievous of wrongs.

I still recall that day in 1987 when Tony O’Sullivan was adjudged to have been in the square before finishing the ball to the Tipp net in Killarney.

“That was no square ball,” he raged in a mixture of insistent authority and adamant injustice – and all as he listened to the match on the radio!

Arthritic hips had put paid to our days heading to matches together but we would still watch the games together on TV– defeats to Kilkenny in 1982 and 1983 before success in 1984 when the peerless John Fenton lifted Liam MacCarthy, a feat repeated in 1986 by classy Tom Cashman.

He died suddenly on May 21st, 1988 at the age of just 61 and we buried him on a sunny day in the old cemetery in Garrycloyne, beyond the spreading sycamores and across the valley, his workmates in CIÉ stopped the Cork-Dublin train for a minute or two in silent salute to a proud railway man.

He never lived to Cork see do the double in 1990 when Teddy Mac and Denis Walsh made history by winning medals in both codes but I think what he would have savoured most about those wins would have been Tomás Mulcahy and John Fitzgibbon, Glen men both, rattling the Galway net.

Similarly, he would have enjoyed another Glen man, the elusive Seánie McGrath, screwing over a point from almost the corner flag to help Cork beat the Cats in 1999 by 0-13- to 0-12 in a sweet reversal of Jack Lynch’s acerbic observation about Kilkenny winning by their customary one point.

Short puck outs

What would he have made of the team of the 2000s? I suspect he would have struggled with Donal Óg’s short puck outs but he would have liked the Rock’s thundering solidity, Seán Óg’s athleticism, marvelled at the wristwork of Ben and Jerry [O’Connor] and Deano and admired the craft and cut of [Brian] Corcoran.

And the current team? Although he thrilled at seeing Ring on a solo run, he would point out that nothing was faster than the sliotar in flight – “Let the ball do the work” and nothing frustrated him more than a man failing to whip on a ball and clear his lines – “None of this tippy-tappy stuff”.

Yet, he was shrewd enough a judge of hurling to know that you adapt your game to the players you have and their strengths and if what you have is speed, then you use it – especially if your opponent is bigger and stronger, a lesson I suspect he learned and profited from in the boxing ring.

And I have no doubt he would appreciate what a more than handy hurler Pat Horgan is – as good as I've seen in almost five decades of watching Cork – and I could easily imagine him leaping from his seat, arthritic hips and all, fist in the air at Hoggie, a Glen man, who else, rattling the net – "That's the hammer!"

I look at Sunday's final and I see Limerick as deserved favourites – they have outstanding hurlers and should really be going for four-in-a-row and, in John Kiely they have a coach with the same stern ruthless intensity that Cody, O'Grady, Loughnane,and Sheedy and all great coaches have and need.

Before the 2004 All-Ireland, I interviewed 1941 All-Ireland winning Cork captain, Connie Buckley of the Glen and asked him what advice he had for the modern Cork custodians of the flame, given the Cats had beaten the Rebels in 2003 and were going into the game as champions and favourites.

Connie, who also played in the 1939 Thunder and Lightning final when the Cats pipped Cork by a point on the day that Nazi Germany unleashed Blitzkrieg on Poland, said the only way the Rebels would win was to play ground hurling and get low fast ball into their forwards.

The days of ground hurling may be gone but if Cork go high and long against Limerick, their half-back line will rule the skies like the Luftwaffe did over Poland – better to run at them from midfield and deliver good low angled ball into Hoggie, Kingston, O’Flynn and the other fliers in the Cork attack.

My head says Limerick but my heart says Cork, but even if we lose I’m more confident for the future than I’ve been in years with one under-20 title in the bag, another hopefully on the way and a minor title up for grabs, all before the senior game. Come what may on Sunday, we are Cork and we are back.

Crew aboard

But to end on a personal note as I observe how much has changed from those days going to games with my father – the tissue-thin red and white paper hats replaced by all classes of colourful headwear and replica shirts and flags. Not to mention the stadia. Plus, I no longer travel by train.

Now I drive to games with the usual crew aboard, Tadhg riding shotgun, my wingmen, Martin and David and maybe StJohn or Donal or Ger squeezed between them in the back. But whether it’s Thurles or Limerick or Dublin, I have a ritual amid the banter that brings me back to another time and place.

Some years ago the Evening Echo produced a CD of Cork sporting songs which included The Boys of the County Cork, written in 1944 by one Cornelius O'Donnell of Dublin Hill and sung by Cork troubadour John Spillane about the then record-breaking four-in-a-row Cork team of the 1940s.

“Some came from St Finbarr’s, Sars, Blackrock and Glen/From Valley Rovers, Buttevant to help in Cork’s fourth win/ From Ballincollig, UCC, they all joined in the work/The boys that broke all records were The Boys of the County Cork,” sings Spillane and the sepia-tinted images come flooding back.

I don’t know yet if I have a ticket for Sunday but if I do head for Croker, somewhere along the way, between getting the dander up with the MC5 blasting Kick out the Jams and Philo and Lizzy announcing The Boys are Back in Town, I will give Spillane and The Boys of the County Cork a spin and I will think of my father and how my love of Cork hurling, the tie that binds, was bred in the bone.

Barry Roche in the Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times