New grounds for optimism for GAA’s future in Cork

Redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh opens with two fixtures echoing its colourful past

On the weekend of its reopening it’s not widely appreciated that Páirc Uí Chaoimh created Cork as a modern hurling venue for the county during the past 40 years.

Two factors played into this: one, the historical preference for neutral venues that saw many of the great Cork-Tipperary matches played in Limerick and sometimes Killarney and two, the capacity limitations of the old Athletics Ground.

The old Athletics Ground staged five All-Irelands in the first decade of the 20th century but with the passage of time, as hurling evolved into mass-spectator sport in the 1930s, bigger attendances needed to be accommodated.

Some counties traditionally played championship there. Tipperary and Limerick or Waterford and Limerick met down the years but the crowds were limited to around 30,000 and averaged in the mid-20,000s. When Cork and Tipp won 12 of the 15 All-Irelands in the Christy Ring heyday between the 1940s and mid-50s the crowds ranged from 40- to 50,000.

Cork did have a home-and-away arrangement with Waterford but it wasn’t particularly box-office and in the 20 years up until the construction of the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1976, the only home match played by Cork in the championship was the 1972 edition of this fixture, a first round which drew a modest 7,686.

In the cyclical, echoing ways of GAA history, the two All-Ireland quarter-finals that open the new ground as a major venue this Saturday and Sunday both evoke famous contests of the past.

Clare – three wins, two defeats and a draw – and Tipperary played six championship matches in seven years in the old ground. Despite Limerick being a more traditional and obvious venue for the counties, Cork became the epicentre of an era-defining rivalry, which under the new championship dispensations would stretch as far as an All-Ireland final 20 years ago.

Earlier that summer the counties met in the Munster final before 43,560, a match won by Clare more convincingly than the result, 1-18 to 0-18, indicated.

Few of the players had the same influence as Brian Lohan at full back and not surprisingly he has fond memories of when he and his team were kings of Munster.

“I loved it,” he remembers. “We rarely lost matches there. If I was offered a choice between there and Thurles, I’d take Páirc Uí Chaoimh nine times out of 10. The biggest was in 1997 – a brilliant atmosphere down there. We had huge support and all of Clare were convinced we were going to win.

Perfect pitch

“In the Munster final two weeks ago, you could feel how small the Clare support was. When the Cork players’ names were read out there was a cheer for everyone. I was waiting for the same for Clare but there was no reaction. In ’97 I distinctly remember the roars for every one of us when our names were announced.

“It was a perfect pitch. It never dealt you a bad bounce or gave trouble rising the ball – just a great surface. Any time we played there seemed to be the height of summer, warm and sunny.”

The crowds, a good surface once drainage problems had been sorted out after the early years and the sense of the Colosseum gave a tremendous atmosphere to those matches. Tipperary's Michael Cleary agreed when asked about the Clare rivalry in which he'd been a participant in 1997.

“I remember going to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in ’99, 2000 and 2001 [he had retired by then] and my God, you’d cut the atmosphere with a knife. I remember [John] Leahy coming on in one of those games and he only lasted three minutes before doing his knee but the excitement in the crowd – and it was as much the Clare crowd as Tipp – lifted the stadium.”

In later years the shortcomings came to dominate attitudes to the stadium. The poky nature of the dressing-rooms – said to have been designed with soccer rather than GAA teams in mind – was an obvious drawback. There was also the bizarre ritual of the teams having to leave the dressing-rooms and cross a public concourse to access the pitch.

Frank Murphy has been the Cork county secretary since the early 1970s and a key figure in the development of both stadia. He says that many of the old stadium's problems were attributable to the lack of space available. At one stage it was under consideration that the county board should move the ground out to a greenfield site in Bishopstown.

“You would though have to judge it in the light of the difficulties in terms of that development; a new stadium being developed on a very small area of land. There was no scope for the expansion we have now.

“Everything that was built was built with a limitation,” he says, “including that tunnel under the stand and players had to exit the dressing-room through the tunnel to get to the playing area. Essentially the patrons were up and down the same tunnel.”

The squeezed nature of the development taught lessons and the new stadium wouldn’t be developed unless the GAA could acquire additional land.

“It’s the best part of a decade since we started to think of a redevelopment and set aside some money towards that.

Home advantage

"The crucial element was that we needed more land to develop effectively. Even the size of the dressing-rooms was dictated by the space available to us. So until we were able to acquire six-and-a-half acres from Cork City Council on a purchase basis, we wouldn't have been able to develop as we have developed now."

The main South Stand now extends back an additional 35 metres, creating a significantly larger footprint. For example county senior administrator Diarmuid O’Donovan was at a meeting during the week and his yet to be updated Apple Maps located him out the back in the middle of the old Agricultural Showgrounds.

The old Páirc Uí Chaoimh hit the ground running in the summer of 1976. It hosted the Munster football final between Cork and Kerry and its replay – then as now Kerry owed their neighbours a fixture or two – a Munster hurling final, the first since 1943 in which Cork had home advantage.

Then curiously the All-Ireland hurling semi-final (there was only one each year, as the Ulster champions weren't involved and Galway used to rotate the Munster and Leinster champions) pitched Wexford into the stadium. The county hasn't played championship in Cork since.

As fate would have it, Wexford are back this weekend for Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Waterford 41 years after they helped to mark the opening of the stadium’s predecessor. Like the Munster football final the match went to a replay before Wexford won by a goal.

A potential controversy passed without incident. Frank Murphy was at that stage an established inter-county referee. He was also a Cork selector but that didn't stop the GAA's Activities Committee appointing him to take charge of Galway and Wexford. This was done before the Munster final in which Cork defeated Limerick to reach the All-Ireland final. So Murphy was refereeing the teams who would provide Cork's opposition in the final. That wasn't to be his only problem.

His running of the drawn match passed without controversy and although he was actually reappointed for the replay, as was the convention at that time, he decided not to risk it and formally withdrew in the light of his own county’s involvement.

“I was a selector with Cork in 1976, which was a factor although I don’t think refereeing was subjected to the same critique-ing as it is now. I was actually away when I was appointed so I needed to return home but my car broke down in Holland. I had to abandon it to make sure that I was back in time to referee the match.”

Interest rates

In the days before government grants and municipal funding, bearing the cost of such projects wasn’t easy and the old county board offices in Cook Street were sold along with the Bishopstown land.

“The original contract was something under a million (pounds),” says Murphy but it ended up at 1.7 million. It was a time of terribly high interest rates and before the stadium even got off the ground, costs had escalated and there were some terribly difficult times when we couldn’t even meet the interest payments some years but the stadium itself played a role.”

Sometimes the core activities had to be tweaked in the interests of revenue. The big stadium concerts would come in the late 1980s and in the early years the GAA helped to promote Siamsa Cois Laoi, featuring Irish acts. One year, he recalls, there was a collision.

"We had an All-Ireland semi-final clashing with Siamsa Cois Laoi and we made an application to Central Council to change the date and they said, 'talk to Galway,' so we went to Galway. Phelim Murphy was secretary at the time and we met him in Gort. First thing he said was, 'now, come on in lads for a bite to eat'.

“I remember anxiously enquiring

-         “Would we have the meeting first, Phelim?”

-         “Meeting about what?” says he.

-         “About postponing the All-Ireland semi-final so we can go ahead with the Siamsa?

-         “That’s agreed, boy. That’s agreed. Let’s get in and eat.”

Similar good wishes will be extended this weekend below the glinting windows of the houses high up on Tivoli, as the new stadium opens and with it the world of potential sporting adventures, achievements and calamities.

A future that will outlast many of those in attendance but a future secured for the GAA on the banks of the Lee.