Monday 16 September 2019

Skibbereen still keeping an eagle eye on the world

‘Cork hurling hubris, even arrogance, was based on the fiction that there is some natural Cork hurling gene. There is no such gene’
‘Cork hurling hubris, even arrogance, was based on the fiction that there is some natural Cork hurling gene. There is no such gene’
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Field's coffee shop in Skibbereen is the place to take the national pulse. Last Friday morning the main topics were the weather, the recent O'Donovan Rossa centenary celebrations and the sad state of Cork GAA - which we blithely believe to be of national importance.

As the tables are close enough together to create the communal intimacy that west Cork craves, I was finally able to flush out an elderly couple who actually enjoyed watching Oireachtas television, to ask them what they thought about the testimony of Fintan Drury, the literally grey eminence of the Heritage dinner and Druids Glen outings.

Drury will not be surprised the couple had the same credibility problem as some of his friends in accepting there had been no discussion of Anglo matters at these convivial meetings.

But they answered Drury's rhetorical question as to why he would arrange a public outing, when he could drop into Cowen's office and close the door.

"Sure didn't he want to show off he was well in with the top man?"

* * * * *

The reason for the O'Donovan Rossa buzz is because last Friday night 3,000 people in Victorian and Edwardian costumes, lit by blazing sods of turf on pitchforks, marched through Skibbereen, led by the tall, imposing figure of Declan McCarthy, dressed as the legendary locally born Fenian, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa.

Later, standing on hay bales, McCarthy delivered O'Donovan Rossa's impassioned speech for Polish freedom, which deeply moved the Polish contingent present.

Last Friday's festivities vindicated McCarthy's visionary plans for a pageant, which included shop windows showing their stock and owners in 1915, while comely women cycled around the town in costume on ancient bikes.

Declan McCarthy also deserves credit for the pluralist tone of the festivities. After all, O'Donovan Rossa backed the dynamite campaign, the precursor of the Provo bombings in London.

As Dermot Meleady recounted in the Irish Independent last Thursday, he also refused to recognise the many improvements in Irish life secured by Redmond's Irish Party in the years before 1915.

Fenians just as tough as O'Donovan Rossa did so. Edward O'Meagher Condon, the man who had shouted "God save Ireland" from the dock in 1867 as he was sentenced to death - commuted - paid tribute to Redmond's party at a 1909 ceremony in Fermoy.

Condon said: "The Irish Party had been able to achieve results which they, who believed in force, had not been able to accomplish."

By the end of his life O'Donovan Rossa seems to have softened somewhat. He sent a telegram supporting the Allies in World War I. A Daily Telegraph reporter said he had mellowed into "a genial old gentleman".

All sides of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa the revolutionary, the reflective mature man and the romantic rogue, were perfectly caught by Declan McCarthy's pageant which saw Blueshirts and Sinn Fein marching comfortably side by side.

So did young scions of Protestant families, once prominent in the commerce of Skibbereen, who marched in top hats and tails in a good-humoured parody of tribal perceptions, cheerfully slagging and being slagged by their Roman Catholic friends.

Declan McCarthy is a Spielberg when it comes to marshalling the big picture. Do I have to spell out what his next career move should be?

* * * * *

Finally, fools rush in where experts fear to commit themselves. So let me list the five historical and human factors which caused the collapse of Cork hurling. None of them new, but no harm to put them in chronological order.

First, the loss of the North Mon and Farranferris schools, whose brothers and priests sublimated (mostly) their sexual energy on the sports field.

Second, the decline of the three great city clubs. So much so that in 1999 when a young Cork team won the All Ireland, and Manchester United won the treble, the latter's success was jokingly put down to former 'Barrs player Denis Irwin being on the United team.

Third, the players' strike. Donal Og Cusack's criticisms of the Frank Murphy regime are cogent. But he cannot carry all the blame for a complex collapse.

Fourth - and to my mind the most important - poor management, especially in the field of sports science.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy seems to think it's simply about skills. But Galway's rugby-style GPS (Global Positioning System), which monitors player fatigue and lactic acid, gave it a crucial edge as the match went on.

Significantly, Seanie McGrath, a doctor of sports medicine, was the physical trainer of the brilliant young Cork team of 1999. And here, Brian Corcoran's book, Every Single Ball, has lots to teach us.

Corcoran came back from retirement and played centre forward and full forward. His capacity to win ball, distribute ball and score was immense. He has not been replaced.

Fifth, Cork hubris and arrogance. In Greek tragedy, the hero becomes convinced he is a god. So it was with Cork.

Of course a certain degree of Cork elitism is essential. Winning, and a reputation for winning, matters both to a team and to its opponents.

Time was, Cork's rivals feared the jersey. So much so that poor Cork teams have won, or come close to winning an All Ireland, as nearly happened in 2013.

But the downside of hubris is that the Greek hero, having risen so high, also has a long way to fall.

Hence the complete collapse in Cork's morale against Galway and the shocked recriminations from fans that followed.

Cork hubris is based on the fiction that there is some special Cork hurling gene. That is no such natural gene.

True, Kerry and Kilkenny seem to turn out natural players. But they have embraced sports science. Just as Galway drew on the skills of a rugby fitness specialist to destroy Cork.

Recovery calls for a range of remedies. Sciath na Scol and the Development Squads will take time to come on stream. But sports science now must be fully taken on board.

Beyond that, Cork needs fresh thinking about fostering future talent. And that means a "mol an oige" policy.

In particular Cork schools need to fill the huge hole created by removal of Farranferris and the North Mon. The solution to that is staring the County Board in the face.

Call on the many Cork players walking around with All Ireland medals in their pockets. Ask them to give something back. And get ready for the rush.

Rush, because I believe many former players will answer a call to the colours - especially if the County Board creates a new 'academy of excellence' to accommodate their talents.

Finally, I wont funk the big question. Time for JBM to step down with grace and our gratitude.

There are two first-class contenders to replace him: Donal Og Cusack and Seanie McGrath.

In an ideal world, Cork would adopt the Abbey Theatre solution and appoint two directors: Donal Og as director of hurling and Seanie McGrath as director of fitness.

Then Kilkenny would live in fear again.

Sunday Independent

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