Thursday 15 November 2018

A melting pot of codes, a factory for local heroes

Tommy Conlon

In search of Nemo, Tommy Conlon goes on a tour of a 'cradle of sport' in Cork city

IF you know your Latin you will know that Nemo means nobody. For more or less fifty years, Nemo Rangers were well-named. Over the last thirty they have become one of the most famous names in Gaelic football and the most successful club ever, bidding for a seventh All-Ireland title today.

With Cork already steeped in soccer, hurling and rugby lore, Nemo have added another rich layer to the city's vibrant sporting tradition. Based on its south side, their field and clubhouse is a small enclave in the parish of Turner's Cross, a short walk from the famous soccer venue of the same name and a similar distance from the venerable rugby ground, Musgrave Park.

A melting pot of codes and a factory for local heroes going back to the turn of the last century, this old community has been described as the "cradle of sport" in Cork. Last Tuesday they were finalising the new floodlights down at the Cross and preparing for the visit of Shamrock Rovers on Wednesday while, over the road, the Nemo clubhouse was buzzing with preparations for Thurles this afternoon.

But it's a city and large swathes of the population remain unmoved by their achievements, or committed to other sports and other teams. Nemo will have about 500 supporters on the train today a modest turnout for an All-Ireland final. Contrary to public perceptions they are not a big club, explains Dinny Allen, one of their most famous names. Not big say by Kilmacud Crokes standards, but a lot bigger than Ballinderry, their opponents today. But Ballinderry will be deserted from early this morning Turner's Cross will hardly miss the 500 gone for the day.

"If you went into the pubs around here," says Allen driving up Evergreen Road, "you could find 20 in there and none of them would be going to the match, they could be following Cork City or they'll tell you I don't follow Nemo you might even get a fella to say I hate 'em or something."

The tour of Nemo's hinterland doesn't take very long, it's a compact network of streets and estates with the Evergreen Road at its hub. "Evergreen Road is the main artery," says the Cork sports historian Plunkett Carter, "going right through as far as Turner's Cross Church. The estates and roads off it have produced dozens of brilliant sportsmen. For me Evergreen is steeped in sporting history."

In his book From the Lodge to the Box, Carter recalls that when the Republic famously beat England at Goodison Park in 1949, "starring for Ireland were Peter Desmond of Evergreen Street and Tommy Moroney from the (Evergreen) Road. Living about half-way between the Desmonds and Moroneys was Owen Madden, another scintillating international star whose blossoming cross-channel career was halted by the war. Around the corner from Owen in Friar's Road resided Frank O'Farrell, the one-time manager of Manchester United."

Then there were the "illustrious Gaels" who also emerged from the locality. "Left at Timber Cross brings you to a little square called Tyrone Place where the Cork darling Charlie McCarthy, captain in 1978 and winner of five senior All-Irelands, practised his skills. Right at the Timber Cross and you're in Eastville, Quaker Road, where Paddy O'Keeffe, architect of the modern GAA (General Secretary from 1929-64) resided.

"Further down the street across from the Reparation Convent lived a great friend of Paddy's, Sean Óg Murphy, Cork captain in 1926 and winner of three All-Irelands. A good sliotar puck up Windmill Road would land the ball close to Tonyville where the inimitable All-Ireland medallist Billy Morgan played his street football and where fellow All-Star Joe Kavanagh resides."

Morgan, of course, is the current Nemo manager while Kavanagh and two of his brothers, Larry and Derek, will line out today.

"Denis 'Rooker' O'Keeffe of Redmond's who lived in the whitewashed cottages on Evergreen Road provides a reminder of the great Cork All-Ireland hurling champions of 1902 and 1903. Evergreen National's hurling club provided three members, Stephen Hegarty, John Cullinane and John O'Connor of the Cork team which beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final of 1893 and retained the trophy by beating Dublin a year later."

Dinny Allen's father, Denis, 93 and still with a bit of fire inside, was five when Nemo was founded in 1915. He recalls hearing from his older brother Jack that the inaugural meeting was to be held in the front room of his father's house at the junction of Douglas and Ballinlough Roads. But a big crowd turned up and the meeting was held across the road in Galway Square.

The name originally belonged to the hurling team that represented the famous North Monastery school in 1910-11. Hurling had in fact been banned by the brothers rugby was the only game promoted. But two dissenting brothers and a lay teacher assembled a hurling team anyway and christened it Nemo.

"Nemo stood for the 'Nobodies'," writes David O'Kelly in The Nemo Rangers Story, "outlawed by the powers that be."

A correspondent for the Cork Sportsman who operated under the pseudonym 'Banba' attended one of their earliest games, against St Colman's College, Fermoy in January 1911, and delivered a fantastic rant for his paper on the occasion.

"The patriotic juveniles of North Monastery turned up in large number to witness their heroes playing that grand old Irish game of hurling, and to cheer them on to victory ... It is a terrible state of things to see those Irish Catholic monks belauding and encouraging a game which was originated and played by the very class who, no less than 100 years ago, plundered and ravaged every monastery in Ireland, killing the monks or driving them into the woods to let them provide for themselves.

"Who were the people who defended and sheltered them? Surely it was not those who mingled in Saxon society and spent their spare time in Saxon recreation. No, it was the honest Irish Catholic peasant, and those are the men who were the forefathers of our present day Irish Catholic boys, the blood in whose veins is naturally saturated with hatred to everything English, and those are the boys who are forbidden to play their national game." Hear hear.

In 1922, the seven-year-old Nemo amalgamated with an older neighbouring club, Rangers, to form the club that thrives today. Its first chairman was Paddy O'Keeffe, who would later serve as GAA general secretary for 35 years. O'Keeffe served one year of a ten-year sentence imposed for his activities in the Irish volunteers in Parkhurst Prison and Wormwood Scrubs.

Denis Allen knew O'Keeffe back then. "He was, (with) the ould IRA business and all that. They were quare ould bleddy times, all my brothers were IRA and the Black and Tans, sure you wouldn't have a minute's peace, coming in all hours of the night pounding the doors down. They'd be looking for my brothers and them way up the country, getting you out of bed and asking you questions and they knew bleddy well they weren't there."

Denis played with Nemo and Douglas and Cork. He remembers Nemo playing in the field that is now Turner's Cross during the 1920s. Many of them also played for the Southern Rovers team that reached the Free State Junior Cup final in 1931, famous local figures like Darby Madden and Gully Wade. At one county board meeting a Blackrock delegate referred to the club as "Nemo Rangers/Southern Rovers."

Whatever about their soccer skills, Nemo's senior football side was no great shakes. They lost 3-7 to 0-1 in the first round of the 1931 championship, against Beara. A report stated that Nemo's tactics left the referee "wounded" from whistling. In 1932 a report in the Cork Examiner on their championship match with Redmonds described the game as "a libel on Gaelic football."

Mr Allen says the players "weren't excited (about it) either way. They didn't take the interest. A lot of fellas that time were very fond of beer. You don't get so much fellas now walking the streets falling head over heels but that time you'd see fellas coming along and they falling all over the place."

The club went into almost terminal decline in the late 1930s and only began to re-organise in the years after the war. "You had good sensible fellas came into it then," says Denis, "Joe Forrest and all them, and they straightened it out a bit."

The opening of a secondary school by the Presentation Brothers, Coláiste Chríost Rí, on Capwell Road in 1960 was a pivotal development. "They're practically indelibly linked," says Carter. "The skills were nurtured in Coláiste Chríost Rí and the quality players that came through in the '60s graduated to Nemo."

In 1972 they won their first senior county title and the honours, at all levels, have flowed in since another 11 senior championships included.

"They're a small closely-knit club but a huge family," says Carter. "And one thing you notice is that the great players who played with them, they have never left, they're there all the time, the likes of Dinny Allen, Jimmy Kerrigan, Shea Fahy, Timmy Dalton. They seem to be able to draw on their former greats more than the other clubs and that must be inspiring for the young players coming through. They see all these guys still with the club, urging them on and being emotional."

Dinny Allen, captain of the All-Ireland winning Cork side in 1989 and an FAI Cup medal-winner with Cork Hibs in 1973, says people sometimes have the wrong perception of the club's ethos.

"Just because we're supposed to be big, they think that we don't have this sense of loyalty to our club and love for our club, which is the furthest thing from the truth because whether we're going to win or lose on Sunday we're still going to love our club on Monday and we're still going to be training Tuesday."

And, as his father says, "That's the way boy."

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