Keith Duggan: Cork are on the march again and what a Grand Parade it is

From Micheál Martin to Reggie from the Blackrock Road, the tide is high right now for all Rebels

Cork manager Kieran Kingston and Patrick Horgan celebrate after the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kilkenny at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Cork manager Kieran Kingston and Patrick Horgan celebrate after the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kilkenny at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

The old giddiness has returned to Cork. You could sense a kind of rising Corky energy drifting up through the Republic all summer.

You could see it too in the face of Micheál Martin on his television appearances during the week. There were days during the endless and intolerable pandemic winter when the Taoiseach, understandably, looked worn out. This week, though, he looked refreshed and sounded lighter.

That’s what happens to Cork people when Cork hurling teams play in a way that reflects the essential optimism and delight that comes with being from the place. On Wednesday night, the Cork under-20s swept to the All-Ireland hurling title with a performance of princely assurance against Galway. Thurles was filled with light, fleet-footed young Corkonians hurling with an irresistible gladness of soul. Their minors will look to make it a double over the young Tribesmen on Saturday night, and tomorrow, of course, the Cork senior team will play for the county’s first All-Ireland senior hurling championship in 16 years.

Being locked out and not winning stuff doesn’t suit the Cork disposition. The county turns morose and the river city itself becomes drained of colour. Thriving and celebrating is the essence of Cork. What is the point in being from Cork if you are not winning?

The opening quarter of this new millennium has been tricky for Cork. Any time you visit Cork city you always get a sense of a place that hasn’t fully evacuated the 20th century, at least not spiritually and emotionally. You flick through the compendium of Cork’s sporting achievements – and it’s as thick as the Domesday Book – and imagine what it must have been like through those decades: endless seasons of silverware lifting and back-slapping and a ferocious obligation to keep winning.

Since Cork won its last All-Ireland in 2005, Kilkenny, their rivals and opposites, have lifted eight MacCarthy Cups. They moved silently past Cork on the all-time honours list, with 36 heavenly hurling summers marked while Cork remained stuck on 30. Nobody in Kilkenny ever explicitly pointed this out because of their belief that trumpet-blowing is not a Noreside virtue. And besides: there was no need to. The sweetest words are left unsaid. But imagine how bewildering the sight of those annual ticking of Cody-successes must have been for Cork men and women.

Those of us not from Cork – and there are billions of us – can’t ever expect to truly understand the place. Cork city’s facility for excelling at sports is bewildering. It is, of course, a hurling city. But it’s also a soccer town and it’s a basketball labyrinth. The county has produced the iconic modern Irish track athlete in Sonia O’Sullivan and every word of Roy Keane’s waspish, funny football observations can be traced back to the streets of Cork city.

There will always be a generation of Corkonian men and women who will never quite get over the fact that Jimmy Barry-Murphy is no longer 25. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
There will always be a generation of Corkonian men and women who will never quite get over the fact that Jimmy Barry-Murphy is no longer 25. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The pubs and streets are tripping up with local sporting gods and legends. But the truly intimidating thing about the city is that if you so desire, it will present itself as a music town, as a waterside winter dream, as a literary haunt and as a photograph, through which all visitors move, all shadows and angles. It’s whatever you want it to be.

Sport is just an obvious means of expression. During the World Cup in Russia, Keane took English football culture to task for basking in World Cup final glory before they’d even played the semi-final. The more he chides them, the more the English love him. Ian Wright laughed and retorted by trying to imitate the Cork pronunciation of ‘final’: the flat first syllable emphasis. Keane rolled his eyes to heaven.

There’s a wonderful description in an essay by John A Murphy, emeritus professor of history at UCC, which includes a passage on an old BBC documentary about Cork. After interviewing a number of workers in a northside brewery, the producers at the Beeb decided that there was nothing for it but to use a translator. The local reaction, Murphy wrote, “was torn between resentment at the depiction of their standard English as a patois and pride that interpretative help was essential to unravelling the mysteries of their highly distinctive speech.’

And few tribes pour as much energy and imagination into the pronunciation of words in such luxuriantly different guises as the Corkies. The long pandemic has been brightened by the parodic sermons from Reggie from the Blackrock Road, one of the Captains of Cork Industry, who is perpetually obsessing about what ‘to do’ about the hordes of commoners trampling on sacred Cork soil.

In one episode, he bemoans “the situation on the Marina”, subject to unwelcome visits from the residents from the north of the city. The Captains set up a checkpoint in which visitors are identified by having to pronounce certain words. “Pilates. Norries can’t say pilates. They say: Pil-Ah-Des of Bila-teeez. Everything’s a performance with them.”

It’s a big hearted send-up of whatever trace of merchant-prince class snobbery still exists. But more accurately, it’s a celebration of everything Cork, including the truth that even if they laugh along with the joke that Cork people feel blessed to be from Cork. They believe it too.

There will always be a generation of Corkonian men and women who will never quite get over the fact that Jimmy Barry-Murphy is no longer 25. Who can blame them: there’s never been a more nonchalantly glorious Gaelic star of Gaelic games?

The folklore of Cork hurling in the 20th century was so dense and eventful and so much of it revolved around the pulsing intensity of Christy Ring’s charisma that it was always going to be a tough act to follow. It’s all contained in that echoing closing exit Val Dorgan wrote in his elegiac biography, Christy Ring.

‘The older man in the bar said: “He never left us down.” His friend asked him if he had heard what Paddy Barry of Sars said after the relay of friends, including many Cork team-mates, had borne Ring’s coffin to the grave. Barry said: “We carried him at last.”

The 21st century opened promisingly for Cork hurling with the back-to-back All-Irelands of 2004 and 2005. But looking back, those were achieved on the vapours of the old regime. Donal O’Grady was, and is, Cork city royalty. Donal Óg Cusack and Diarmuid O’Sullivan and that gang were and are scholars of those who wore the jersey before them.

For a full decade Cork seemed caught between the two centuries. Maybe it took the felling of the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh to snap them out of it. The ghosts, the inadequacies and the shambolic grandeur of the place: maybe they had to erase it all and start again to unleash this new wave of irrepressible Cork hurling happiness. Anyhow, here they come.

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