Answering Dripsey's call
Thanks to unflagging drive and spirit, one Cork GAA club has come a long way fast, writes John O'Brien
O N the long march to Croke Park they remember different things, different flashpoints. Diarmuid O'Riordan thinks of a day back in August, a summer's evening borrowed from the darkest chambers of hell. They played Grenagh in the semi-final of the Mid-Cork junior championship. At half-time, they trailed by six points having played with a gale force wind in the first half. With a mountain before them, the story looked set for hibernation for another year.
O'Riordan remembers a 65 mid-way through the second-half. Among the darkening haze and the driving rain it was virtually impossible to pick out the incoming ball until it had snuggled nicely in the corner of the Grenagh net. All of a sudden the momentum was with them and they had the impetus to change the game and alter the course of their entire season.
Johnny Keane remembers the day against Glen Rovers in Ballincollig in the quarter-final of the county championship. They were leading by two points as the Glen came looking to burgle the game, a last-second shot coming off the post and, somehow, the rebound evading the Glen forwards eager to pounce on it. The whistle blew and they had survived. They had beaten the mighty Glen.
John Feeney thinks back a little further, to days when the bounce of the ball wasn't always going their way. A year before, they'd lost the divisional final to Grenagh. A point ahead with seconds remaining, Grenagh had forced an equaliser and six days later they lost the replay when three key players were absent. When the stinging pain of defeat had ebbed, though, they took solace from the knowledge that they were getting closer.
A divisional final. Winning Mid-Cork. That was their grail. Keane remembers John O'Riordan, the club president, telling him that if they got out of the division, they'd win the county. "They'll play better Johnny," O'Riordan would say. "The pressure will be off." And with the title in the bag and their sights set towards higher peaks, Johnny has never forgotten the wisdom of those words.
But beyond the county? In truth, no one saw life after Cork. The winter road through Munster and the ascent to today's All-Ireland final against Tullogher-Rosbercon, the Kilkenny champions, in Croke Park. Arranging weekend flights to the capital, block-booking a hotel on the southside, club officials flying home early on Monday morning to arrange a reception for the team, win or lose. The magic and improbability of it still stuns them.
They'd call it a fairytale only they know fairytales don't happen to GAA clubs who wait for them. When they held their annual dinner dance before Christmas, the centrepiece was a table laden with 10 trophies won during the course of the season. Around the same time they printed a 2009 calendar, a sort of homage to the previous year, dotted with pictures of winning teams and homecomings, the trimmings and trappings of a successful club.
At the start of the year, Feeney, team manager and club treasurer, negotiated a sponsorship deal with a local shop owner. He thinks of the headlines and publicity the club has generated and wonders if a business has ever enjoyed a better deal. Not that it was anything other than fair mind. "If you were to say to someone at the start of the year we'd win 10 Cups and reach an All-Ireland final, you'd be put in an asylum," he laughs. "No one would have believed you."
Perhaps fairytale isn't such a bad word after all. In any club in any county it would have been a wonderful season. In the story of Dripsey, though, it is nothing less than remarkable.
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ON the good nights he can make the journey from his home in Liscarroll to Dripsey in 40 minutes. Even then the road that snakes and winds its way from Mallow would make you concentrate. He's been making the journey twice a week for two years now and still there are parts of the route that catch him out, mad hairpin bends near Coachford that never fail to surprise him. Just outside Dripsey, he slips a CD into the player and John O'Riordan's voice echoes through the car.
'Oh 'twas in the fifth year of the century Where the Dripsey River meets the Lee Six rebel comrades stood together To proudly answer Dripsey's call'
Before they asked him to come and coach them, Johnny Keane knew little about Dripsey. He had a vague notion of the village's location, nothing concrete. His wife was from Grenagh, a few miles north, and her brother and his two nephews lived in Dripsey. He knew they were hurling-mad and that a couple of years previously they'd broken away from Inniscarra to set up their own club.
It was death that brought him to the village. His wife's mother and father passed away within 15 days of each other in 2006 and, for those weeks, he was always among them, forging bonds, absorbing the passion of the place. "It was one funeral after another, one drinking session after another. I'd be codding the two boys, 'Ah you broke away from Inniscarra'. I'd call them Dipsey. 'You're going nowhere'."
When the banter was done, they ended up making him a proposition. They knew Keane had coached Cork to two intermediate All-Ireland titles, beating Kilkenny in the final both times, and they coveted his pedigree. The previous year they'd won a junior B county title in football but hurling was their game. Keane noted their hunger and ambition and hitched himself to the wagon.
Dripsey were two years old then and thirsting for success. The birth, in the spring of 2005, had come after a tough labour and an acrimonious split with Inniscarra under whose banner they had played for more than a century. The lack of loyalty it implied enraged Inniscarra officials and, for sure, the hurt lingers. But, for Dripsey, the urge for self-regulation was too strong, the need for a separate identity too pressing.
In mind of other high-profile disputes, the intriguing thing was that the impetus came from the players themselves. Towards the end of 2005, O'Riordan was one of six players to resign from Inniscarra intermediate team and announce their intention to form a new club. Within a month, Dripsey had held a public meeting, convened an executive and set about lobbying the county board for affiliation. Their battle for survival was under way.
The notion of Dripsey forming a club hadn't been born overnight. Feeney heard talk of it when his family moved to the village in the 1960s. O'Riordan heard it floated intermittently among the older heads in his family and in porter-filled nights in the Weigh Inn. "A few people thought Dripsey was an area where a club could survive," he says, "but nobody wanted to grasp the nettle."
Late 2005 seemed an auspicious time. For O'Riordan it wasn't that Dripsey players weren't getting a fair crack of the whip on Inniscarra teams, though that perception was shared by several Dripsey officials. When O'Riordan looked behind him he could see little talent coming through in the Dripsey area. Why, he wondered, was it so? Why weren't young players bursting a gut to come through?
More than that it felt like a destiny they had to reach for. They'd seen Newtownshandrum win an All-Ireland title the year before and they were even smaller than Dripsey. O'Riordan had read somewhere that 10 of the Newtown team had started primary school on the same day. There was no essential difference between them, only that Newtown had their own club.
He smiles now as he remembers the December evening he sat with three other players in John Hogan's Ford Fiesta, working out their strategy as they began a long night combing the village, knocking on doors like a political party on canvassing night. A complex knot of questions coursed through their minds.
"We sat in the car and talked. There was excitement; anxiety. Are we doing the right thing? Are we going to do it at all? Like, if this doesn't work what then? We couldn't walk back to the Inniscarra boys and say, 'Lads, we're back'. If it didn't work out, we'd have to sit out our time and see if some other club wanted us. We were enthusiastic and very naïve. We felt we could make it happen."
They knew the right doors to knock on: William Buckley, Martin Griffin, John Feeney, John Buckley, Valerie Feeney. Most of them had, at one stage or another, been involved in the running of Inniscarra. A well of experience was there. "We knew six young pups couldn't run a club," says O'Riordan. "We weren't going to get the respect of the county board."
They anticipated fierce resistance from Inniscarra and resolved to face it down. As one of Cork's bigger parishes, some 60-square miles reckons Feeney, they never had any doubt that it could sustain two clubs. Though Inniscarra disputed the figures, they estimated the total population of the parish at around 10,000. By going alone, Dripsey would be cutting off a mere 10 per cent.
Initially the county board ruled that they could only affiliate at junior and U21 grades but to nourish and sustain a healthy entity they knew they needed an under-age section, the lifeblood of any club. After another battle they won the right to field a minor team but in seeking to transfer 10 players from Inniscarra the dispute went up a notch, almost landing in the High Court before ending in the then newly-convened Disputes' Resolution Authority.
Dripsey lost the case and, although they would win a junior B football title within eight months of their foundation, with much the same team that will contest today's All-Ireland junior hurling final, Feeney knew their first major success had come before that when they had somehow managed to field an U18 team in the championship.
"I remember seeing the crowd applaud this team off the field even though they'd been beaten by something like 10 goals. They'd pulled on the jersey. There had been comments made when we started that Dripsey would never field a minor team. Even without 10 players, we still fielded. That was a proud moment."
From his vantage point, Feeney likes to think that Dripsey's arrival has improved standards all round. In the year after they formed, he says, 20 new teams appeared in the parish. Only 13 of those were from Dripsey. So Inniscarra, he thinks, were forced to up their game to cope with their new rival. That year the two clubs were drawn together in the first round of the junior football championship and both managed to pick panels of 30 players. "Give them the opportunity," he says, "and they'll play."
Their success, he thinks, is their ultimate vindication. Today they take a panel of 26 to Croke Park. With no Dripsey, Feeney is certain, 18 of those players would not be playing hurling now. Nor would he or any of the other officials be involved in running the sport. All that talent and energy would either be spent on other sports or lying dormant.
"It's a big bugbear of mine about sport and developing it among kids. You have 100 kids as eight-year-olds and by the time they're 12 there's a panel of 30. So where are the other 70 gone? They're lost. There's no system where if you're not getting a game here you can go to the next team. They say Ballincollig has the same population as Kilkenny city but they only have an intermediate hurling team. Kilkenny has four senior teams."
Dripsey just look after their own house. How tidy it looks. In their first year, they won four trophies and beat Cloughduv in the league. Cloughduv would generally have beaten the pick of Inniscarra parish. That indicated the potential they had and what they could achieve. In all, Dripsey have won three Mid-Cork Leagues. But they regard leagues as old hat now.
Instead they see the little off-shoots of success: teams catered for all the way up from U10 to adult, a ladies section established in 2007, John Carey, their right-half back, named Cork hurler of the month for January. Pride of place goes to the U12s coached by Diarmuid O'Riordan who won a Grade D title this year. What made it special was the fact that they were the first fully home-grown team to represent the club.
They see their appearance in today's All-Ireland final as a product of their overall health and sense of professionalism. From the start they would have a physio every night at training, a team doctor at every game, ice baths for quick recovery after each session. They think it is no accident that in most of the 12 games they played to reach Croke Park they outscored their opponents in the last 10 minutes, sometimes significantly so.
On Wednesday, they invited John Allen to address the players, hoping to feed off the former Cork coach's knowledge of Croke Park and what it takes to win there. In Tullogher-Rosbercon they know they are facing a team who have been beaten by the eventual All-Ireland champions for the last two years and with a side that, with the exception of O'Riordan, has never played on the sacred ground. Yesterday there would be the chance to familiarise themselves with the pitch.
It is the Dripsey way: nothing left to chance.
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YET Feeney worries. He can't help it. It is what good club treasurers do. "One question I ask is what's going to happen on Monday? When Sunday's over. It will be a huge situation.
"For the last few months the whole area has been totally engulfed in this thing. We've 100 rooms booked out in Dublin. Talk of recession is on the back burner. There's a feel-good factor. The bandwagon rolls on."
He wonders how, win or lose, they'll cope with the sense of anti-climax when it inevitably comes. He sees the 2009 season looming, the intermediate league just around the corner. The team will have to cope without a break. Then there are the other teams to prepare too. Business as usual. It is the price of success, he supposes, problems other clubs would kill to have.
The future looks secure. They've gone too far to see it fail now. The recession has cast a cloud on the proposed GAA field to be built as part of a housing development in the village, but they imagine they'll prosper one way or the other. Feeney doesn't see a stampede of lads leaving the area. Hurling can keep them. He did some sums a few nights ago and concluded that the lads on the junior team had won 14 medals each in four years.
"Some of them wouldn't even be playing if there was no Dripsey," he says. "They'd be lost to the game." In the Dripsey story, in the sure-footedness of their journey, he can think of no better bottom line.