Tuesday 23 May 2017

Vincent Hogan: The flames of battle obscure a shared spirit of great rivals

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

FOR a little while yesterday, crazy ideas sounded perfectly sensible.

We imagined Cork opening their shoulders and hurling with wonderful gusto before being reined in by a black and amber reality. Fleetingly, you dreamed they might even have Kilkenny’s measure.

It took only six seconds, however, for any such pre-match fantasies of a classic to disappear into utter oblivion as Kilkenny strode fearlessly into the final.

In another time, these two teams would have grown old together, but, at some point, their destinies just scissored wildly.

The popular view is that they house a deepseated hatred of one another, that their Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personalities delineate some kind of vast philosophical gulf. Cork, we are told, despise Kilkenny’s conformity; Kilkenny loathe Cork’s self-regard.

Donal Og’s book bench-pressed those differences and, intentionally or not, muscled up a view that the only common ground that exists between them is a bed of nettles.

I sometimes think that people who have never met him must see in the great Cork goalkeeper a wretchedly solitary figure forever tyrannized by his own ambition.

At around three yesterday afternoon, it hardly took a leap of the imagination to hear his name being tossed about within the four walls of Kilkenny’s dressing room.

Cusack wouldn’t have an issue with that. He has never ducked from a belief that those who speechify have a responsibility to front up in the face of any repercussion. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea (and the homophobes still belch their cretinous bile).

But he is no precious blossom, either. This column offended the Cork team some years back by questioning the distance they put between themselves and players from other counties during a Railway Cup trip to Boston.

Maybe eight months after the article appeared, I travelled to Ringaskiddy for a prearranged interview with Donal Og.

INCLINATION

He hadn’t much liked the article from Boston and now felt no inclination to conceal the fact. For maybe half an hour, we argued furiously. He believed that Cork should not, as he put it, have to “put up with that kind of s**t.”

We resolved nothing, yet the argument cleared the air like a thunderstorm. Thereafter, he proved a congenial and candid interviewee.

That is his way. The man is pathologically incapable of sly politesse. Two years on, we drank together in a New York bar during the All Stars tour. What began as a large group of maybe 20 people gradually dwindled through the afternoon to just three.

Myself, Donal Og and a Kilkenny hurler. Theoretically, this should have been awkward company. Cusack’s views are well offering a helping hand.

Maybe we demand too much of our samurai. At times in Croke Park yesterday, the intensity flew to a worrying height and it was easy to believe that the men going to war would never, could never countenance anything but profound dislike of their opponents.

Yet later this year, Cork captain Kieran Murphy and Kilkenny corner-back Jackie Tyrell – house-mates in college – have a trip to the US planned to see an American Football game.

Beneath the flames, resides a gentle commonality. We should remember that hurling is what they do, not who they are. documented on what he has long interpreted as Kilkenny’s lack of support for stances taken by Cork, stretching right back to the 2002 National League final.

Yet, these sworn ‘enemies’ got along famously that evening as a deep dark slipped down between the skyscrapers. When all the angst and stress of the rivalry was stripped away, they were just two hurling men with their stories.

I was reminded of this recently, reading Tony Griffin’s beautiful book, ‘Screaming At the Sky’. The Clare man breaks down a thousand stubborn stereotypes with such gentle, easy intelligence, that the basic artificiality of county boundaries comes vaulting into the consciousness.

Bear in mind, the labels of our summer faith were essentially decreed by some English cartographer just after the Norman Invasion. In other words, Cusack’s beloved Cloyne might just as easily have been declared part of Waterford.

Griffin writes of his own dwindling commitment to Clare hurling and his difficulty with the kind of psychological fine-tuning that has long been de rigueur in GAA dressing rooms.

Clare faced Tipperary in the 2008 Munster final and, as Griffin recalls, their players “were asked to hate our opponents with a great and deep hostility” in the build-up. This proved difficult for him on a number of levels.

Firstly, hatred was never a natural instinct of Griffin’s. Secondly, he understood the essential lie being cultivated here.

Historically, there is a consensus that hurling at championship intensity is impossible without the diesel of hatred in your veins.

Griffin, instinctively, questions that consensus. It seems to him that hurling has a natural physicality, a kind of gusting selfexpression that doesn’t have to be fed in almost by syringe.

In ’08, he knew he didn’t hate Tipperary. Much as he wanted to beat them, he couldn’t sit at home in the evening, looking across at boats moored on the opposite side of Lough Derg and tell himself that they belonged to people who filled his head with venom.

The following November, he recalls taking a phone call from Tipp’s star forward, Eoin Kelly. The Mullinahone man knew Griffin had struggled all year with hamstring trouble and, on the basis of his own personal experience, was now ringing with words of reassurance.

A supposed hate-figure, in other words, offering a helping hand. Maybe we demand too much of our samurai. At times in Croke Park yesterday, the intensity flew to a worrying height and it was easy to believe that the men going to war would never, could never countenance anything but profound dislike of their opponents.

Yet later this year, Cork captain Kieran Murphy and Kilkenny corner-back Jackie Tyrell – house-mates in college – have a trip to the US planned to see an American Football game.

Beneath the flames, resides a gentle commonality. We should remember that hurling is what they do, not who they are.

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