WHILE the people of Cloyne prepare for an historic day, one family has a story that can stand on its own. In the O'Sullivan home, size counts for a great deal: all five sons of Jerry and Gearoidine hurl in the club's first senior county final this afternoon.
Locals might wonder what Christy Ring would have thought. When he died 25 years ago, Cloyne were a junior hurling team who had had only brief stabs at senior hurling in the two decades previously. But a year before Ring's death, Diarmuid O'Sullivan came into this world; things were about to change.
"Maybe if Christy had been playing for us down the years, who knows?" states Jerry. "That's just speculation. But, I mean, Christy himself always said, the best hurlers haven't come yet. He's right; the guys that we have now, the preparation and effort they put in is huge, and they're all very good hurlers."
Diarmuid was the O'Sullivans' second child - after Martina - and the first of five boys born over the next 10 years. Paudie arrived in 1988, the last of them, and lines out for Cloyne today aged 15, joining Diarmuid and the three others sandwiched between: Eoin, Colm and Domhnall. Four of the boys still live at home.
"At times it's tense enough," admits their father. "You might feel it on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. We don't really talk about it, we talk about it after. But the way players prepare now, they prepare mentally as well as physically. The days of thumping the table are gone. They're all very clear about what's expected of them, what they have to do."
Jerry O'Sullivan hurled for Cloyne for around 30 years, won a couple of intermediate championships, and was still playing four years after Paudie was born. He quit in 1992 aged 41 after they'd lost an intermediate final. He also served as club chairman from 1976 for 16 years. It was during his time as chairman that Ring passed away.
He easily remembers hearing the news. "At 5.0 in the evening I got a phone call. The annual dinner was on, which was a big event for the club - his (Ring's) nephew Willie was the secretary of the club. I'll tell you now, I got such a shock I just couldn't believe it."
They had issued tickets and were in a quandary over whether or not to postpone the event. Ultimately, they felt it was too late to cancel. "You couldn't describe it, there was no atmosphere, everybody was so dejected. Some didn't bother going. 'Twas a disaster, a flop really, we would have been as well off to postpone it. Even the music stopped early the same night. There was no point, nobody was interested."
Ring's brother Willie John, now in his mid-eighties, still lives in Cloyne and is the club's president. He has been in charge of teams down the years and previously chaired the club. The spirit of Ring, the greatest hurler of all time, lives on in him. "If you met Willie John now you'd find it difficult to get away from him because he'd talk hurling 24 hours a day," Jerry laughs. "Often I'd be in a rush and there were occasions I'd have to dodge him, it's an awful thing to say, but I knew if I stopped to talk to him I couldn't get away. He's the father-figure of the club really."
Jerry was particularly close to the late Paddy Joe Ring, another of Christy's brothers, who played in goal for Cloyne in his time. "He'd be the proudest man in the county," he says of him, were he alive to see this day. But what of Ring himself? He came back to Cloyne frequently after moving to Cork as a young man when he got a job working for Esso and began playing for Glen Rovers. But he never got involved with teams in Cloyne after retiring in the late 1960s.
"Well," says Jerry, "I'd say that when he was alive, no one would have foreseen the day that Cloyne would be contesting a county senior final. That's just the way the championship was at the time. City clubs dominated and small country clubs didn't feature. We were only a junior team at the time and not a very outstanding junior team. These guys have brought it to a new level."
'I'd say that when he (Ring) was alive, no one would have foreseen the day that Cloyne would be contesting a county senior final'
Having struggled for some time, Cloyne's junior win in 1986 returned them to intermediate and this time they stayed there. Ten years later they lost to Newtownshandrum in a replayed intermediate final, but bounced back 12 months after to win the title. By then Jerry was manager and Diarmuid and Eoin were on the team.
Newtown were never far away and he sees the two clubs as having taken roughly similar paths in recent years, rising up from junior ranks to become forces at senior level. In the 1998 senior championship they met Newtown and won, but then ran into Imokilly, at their peak, two years in a row. In 2000 Jerry O'Sullivan stepped down as manager.
Tomás O'Brien took charge last year and the team made a charge to the semi-finals where they lost to Blackrock. With the last puck Diarmuid O'Sullivan hammered a penalty off the crossbar with Cloyne two points down. The ball ricocheted past him on the way back. This year they have followed through on that promise.
Six of the Cloyne team won a county senior medal in '97 with divisional side Imokilly, then chaired by Jerry, before they went up senior a year later. But to win a senior title with Cloyne is a dream yet to be realised. Michael O'Brien, who retired from school teaching locally in 2001, having followed his parents into the vocation in 1962, has seen all the hurlers pass through his doors. "It's wonderful really," he states simply.
O'Brien played league matches for Cork and hurled with Ring in a few of them in the early '60s. Of the five O'Sullivans he taught - he also taught, and hurled with, Jerry - he rates Paudie as the most skilful. "I think he's the best of them though I don't think he should be playing (at 15) a county final. He has a brilliant turn of speed, he's lightening fast, ambidextrous, and has great skill."
Jerry feels the time is right for Paudie, who won't turn 16 until November 28. "He's a very good head even though I say that myself, very good to lay off a ball - he sees things. I've been taking him to games since he was so high and he surprised me, he got so involved, he studied it so closely from a very young age, he'd notice things I may not notice, coming home in the car afterwards he'd say something."
He tells a story about Paudie when he was eight. They went to the 1997 All-Ireland hurling final with a neighbour, Paddy Kelleher, but had only two Hogan Stand tickets and found that the ground staff wouldn't allow Paudie over the turnstiles. Paddy said they couldn't disappoint the child so he went off in search of another ticket. He ended up watching it in a pub nearby.
There they met a Clare lady who soon learned that Paudie was Diarmuid's younger brother. Earlier in the summer Diarmuid had made his championship debut for Cork and played against Clare. "The following February or March," recalls Jerry, "an envelope arrived in the post, 'Padraig O'Sullivan, brother of Cork hurler Diarmuid, Cloyne, Co Cork.' He still has it at home. And a match programme inside signed by the entire Clare panel and management. I could never find out who the lady was. I thought it was a tremendous gesture. He treasures it."
Paudie hasn't missed a final since. He made his senior club championship debut against Glen Rovers this year. With the Ring connections to both clubs, and the fact they'd never met, there was a huge surge of interest in the match. Hardly a quiet introduction, but he held his ground. In the semi-final Colm O'Sullivan, the Cloyne centre forward, scored 1-4 from play off Pat Mulcahy. Eoin and Domhnall play on one side of the defence, with Diarmuid on the other wing. No one can argue but they're all there on merit.
Jerry says that the current team are too focused on the task ahead to be distracted by the significance of the year in terms of Ring's legacy. Michael O'Brien believes that the modern players feel more of a connection to Setanta Ó hAilpín and Joe Deane than they do to the Cloyne legend. But there's no escaping him, the striking monument in the town a reminder for anyone whose memory may lapse.
Twenty five years ago, two days after he died, an estimated 50,000 people squeezed into Cloyne for the funeral. "The turnout was astronomical," recalls Jerry. "We genuinely we did the very best we could. We didn't have Gardaí, we tried to do it ourselves with the local people but it was impossible. We carried the coffin from outside the village into the town and we managed well enough until we got to the graveyard. Jack Lynch did the oration at the graveside and there were a number of the old hurlers, like Mick Mackey and John Doyle, we wanted to get in, but it was impossible to keep the crowd back after that. Thousands got nowhere near the church or the graveyard. There wasn't room for it."
He has his own special memory of Ring, though he only saw him play once - in his last county final for the Glen. "I remember in '76 we were playing a championship match in Pairc Uí Chaoimh and he came in to me at half time. I was a lot lighter that time and he caught me there (motions to his left shoulder) and he was squeezing and he didn't realise how much he was hurting me. He had such a ferocious grip. And I can still practically feel it."
Ring's sister, Mary Agnes, lived near the local GAA field, close to the current monument. Ring used to visit her regularly after he'd moved to Cork. She took care of his mounting medal collection. "People called just to view them, it was a museum really," recalls Jerry. "They were always very close."
When she died, her husband feared a break-in so the haul was moved from the house and is now believed to be stored in a vault in a Cork city bank. "It's sad in a way because these things should be on public view. We have been tossing it about here in the club that maybe we could incorporate some place in our new development to put them on display," says Jerry.
His impressions of Ring aren't unique. "Well, he wanted to win everything anyway, no matter what kind of a game it was. I'd be the same myself. If you're in a competition you might as well try and win it. He was very competitive. In fairness, to this day, Cloyne would be regarded as a very competitive team. Ok they've had good days and bad days, but they've always had that reputation - hard to beat."
They've had good days and bad days, but they've always had that reputation
- hard to beat
He says there was always a big chance that his own lads would hurl. "I never believed in trying to push a player. You encourage them as much as you can. There was always hurling in the house. We were going to matches, I was playing, Cloyne were playing, so I suppose it came naturally really. And we always hurled in our own garden at home. 'Twas big enough. If I wasn't around they'd hurl away on their own."
The wicked determination the country has witnessed in Diarmuid is true of the others as well. "That's one thing they all have. The will to win I call it, it's very, very important. Maybe that was always my own philosophy as well, I wanted to win everything I played."
Never as much as today.