Tradition still counts for a lot in Cork's hurling heart
Cork hurling was cock of the walk then, top of the heap, its appeal computed in the record footfall shuffling through the stiles at Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the 1977 county senior final. This afternoon's contest between Blackrock and Imokilly has only one player, Seamus Harnedy, who started a championship match for Cork this year.
Back then you were spoilt for choice. The Cork captain Martin O'Doherty, who a few weeks before had lifted the MacCarthy Cup, was full-back for the Glen, who were reigning All-Ireland club champions. Left half-back was the hurler of the year, Denis Coughlan. St Finbarr's had Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Charlie and Gerald McCarthy, to name a few.
On a beautiful late September day, fit for mid-summer, the two city giants rutted their antlers before an unprecedentedly large audience of 34,151. Great as the two clubs valued hurling, they could not provide an attendance of that magnitude. The crowd came from all places. Many travelled from outside Cork. The previous record attendance had been a replayed final in 1955 at the old Athletic Grounds where 31,019 watched St Finbarr's win after a lapse of eight years, defeating the Glen, their ancient city rival.
In 1977 the three big city clubs, that also included Blackrock, were the backbone of the Cork county team then two-thirds of the way through winning three All-Irelands in a row. The city clubs were sweeping up All-Irelands too. Between 1972 and '79 all but one All-Ireland club winner came from Cork city's holy trinity. After UCC's win in 1970 no team outside of the three city giants won a county title until Midleton broke through in 1983, captained by John Fenton. The title return from the big three was down to just two by the 1990s and two again the decade that followed. It stands at two in the current decade.
Blackrock make a return to the final for the first time since 2003 today, although they are outsiders against Imokilly. St Finbarr's and Glen Rovers haven't met in a final since 1988 which was also the last final contested by two of the traditional big three city clubs. In the time since, 12 different clubs have won the senior championship. Blackrock haven't won in 15 years. St Finbarr's are 24 years without a title. Glen Rovers ended a 26-year wait in 2015.
The old world has been usurped and while recent years have seen revivals by Blackrock and the Glen, it will never be the way it was. In the match programme for the 1977 final, Jack Lynch had a piece in which he recounted the many past contests involving his own team, Glen Rovers, and St Finbarr's, like a man recalling old times over brandy and cigars. Those clubs also enjoyed the services of players from outside, from other parts of Cork, and from beyond the county. The newly-appointed Cork manager John Meyler was part of that invasion. After moving to Cork, from Wexford, in the early 1980s he won eight county championship medals in hurling and football with St Finbarr's.
"I thought the influx of outside players was a great addition to the game in general, they all helped enhance the game and created great interest," says Denis Coughlan, a dual All-Ireland winner with Cork and an outstanding player for the Glen. "I suppose it is a shame to see that that is gone. You went to county finals to see the really good players."
He remembers playing in that 1977 final when public interest reached a peak not seen before or since. Even with today's double-header, the replay of the football final between St Finbarr's and Nemo Rangers beginning the day's proceedings, there is little prospect of matching the crowd that fetched up 40 years ago.
"I'd say the average crowd was somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000," says Coughlan. "I played in something like 15 county finals and I would say it was never less than 20,000 anyway. It was in the midst of a great era, like the halcyon days of the 1950s, for hurling in Cork. If you went through the two teams nearly every player played for Cork at some stage. I do remember the match being delayed because another six or eight thousand had to be allowed in.
"It was a lovely day. We had won it in '76 and we were favourites to win. Christy Ring (a Glen mentor) reminded me after that we only scored a point in the second half and that was a free near the end. Christy's main concern at that time, and I was talking to him a few days later, was that we would go through the second half without scoring."
Changes to the urban environment impacted on the clubs over time. "I remember being a member of a committee in Croke Park and chairman of the Cork urbanisation committee," says Coughlan, "and we had to look into all that really. It just didn't happen in Cork; it happened in Limerick particularly, and to Dublin to a great degree as well. The likes of Mallow, Ballincollig, Midleton, Bandon, Carrigaline, they all became big towns in their own right over the last 15 too 20 years with populations of 20,000-plus. That all took from the city clubs.
"My own club Glen Rovers are in a part of the north side of the city that's surrounded by eight junior clubs. So the city clubs are dependent on the sons of ex-players coming back to play. All that happened gradually."
The Blackrock team that hits the field today is home-grown, organic, the product of recent successful underage teams. Back in the 1970s they were the most active recruiter of outside players of the three main city clubs. The great Kilkenny hurler Frank Cummins was one of their biggest catches. John Horgan originally came from Passage. It suited those clubs to circulate the idea that to play for Cork you needed to play for one of the big clubs.
Of the St Finbarr's team that defeated the Glen in '77, their goalkeeper Jim Power, was a native of Waterford, while left half-forward Barry Wylie, a winner of minor and under 21 medals for Cork, came from Carrigaline. John Allen came from Aghabullogue. Even Charlie McCarthy, though a club legend, started his career with a small club called Redmonds.
The Glen had a few too. Liam 'Barney' McAuliffe started with a small club called Rathpeacon and was on both Cork minor teams in 1964. Donal Clifford arrived from Cloyne and won a senior All-Ireland in 1970. Red Crowley, the centre-forward, arrived from Bandon, and while he didn't play for Cork he became a very highly respected and valuable club hurler. Mick Ryan hailed from Inniscarra, a brother of Bob Ryan the former Cork chairman. Before then Joe Salmon of Galway had hurled for the Glen while working as an engineer in Cork and he was followed later by another Galway hurler and engineer, Conor Hayes.
The intensity of the city rivalries stirred up huge public interest over the generations. In 1956, 25,000 turned up to see Blackrock re-emerge from a period in the doldrums, winning their first title since 1931 under the captaincy of Mick Cashman. They beat the Glen, with Ring well contained, in the final. Any match that had Ring involved was likely to pull a crowd. But the appeal remained after he retired.
Not all players moved to the big city clubs, some like Seanie Barry preferring to stay at home. Barry, an All-Ireland winner with Cork in 1966, hurled for UCC while studying for the priesthood. He went on to play in the junior championship with Bride Rovers, later returning as coach when they won a first junior 'A' championships in 1998. They went on to reach a county senior final, losing by just a point to Sarsfields in 2008.
For much of his childhood, Bride Rovers had no adult team. In the kitchen at home there was a calendar of the Sarsfields team that won the 1951 Cork senior championship which had some local players on it. In John Arnold's history of the club, Bride Rovers Abú, Barry explains that Bride Rovers was "in his blood" and that he grew up with stories from his father of the minor team that won the championship in 1932, beating Glen Rovers, featuring Jack Lynch, in the final.
"After Mass on a Sunday, my father would often point out someone and inform me that he was on the '32 team. He was very proud of those players who made the early '30s a golden era in the history of the club and his pride was passed on to me. The Bride Rovers song composed in honour of those heroes never failed to rouse me. I always had a deep desire to wear the green, white and gold jersey and I was never tempted to play with another club as long as Bride Rovers had a team."
He regards winning the East Cork 'B' Championship in 1966 "with my own neighbours and colleagues" as equally pleasing as winning senior and under 21 All-Irelands with Cork the same year.
The pressure to move cannot be underestimated. In 1966, Passage won an under 16A title, beating the Glen in the final in Togher. John Horgan was on the team but the captain, Jimmy Horan, was one of their most gifted young players before he received a serious injury. The same evening two members of one city club came knocking on Horan's home asking if he would like to join them.
When Barry coached Bride Rovers in 1998, travelling down from his base in Kiltegan, Imokilly went on to win their second county senior title, defeating Blackrock. Bride Rovers had representation on the team. The epic spell of dominance by the city clubs in the past often came at a cost to those less well equipped and resourced, many of whom lost their best players and were unable to grow and prosper. The thrill that sustains these small clubs is not winning county titles as much as having one ridiculously talented player in their number whose greatest pleasure is to continue to be in their number.
Denis Coughlan remembers another conversation with Ring after Cork had been beaten by Waterford in the Munster Championship. Coughlan volunteered the option that it would be good to see them go on and win an All-Ireland. "He looked at me and he said, 'No, it is important that the stronger counties keep winning'. It took me years to figure it out but I think he was spot on."
The point he was making, Coughlan explains, is that the stronger need to stay strong or the game will suffer. And the game suffering is not welcome for the greater good. He knows that that kind of view is grounded in traditionalist thinking. He knows it will be seen by some as elitist. But he feels that the decline of the traditional power-base is something that should be mourned, not celebrated.
He knows it will never be the way it used to be. "I don't think so. Ah everything has changed. We don't have the population on the northside, for instance, because there is no private housing going out that way. So many other attractions, like soccer and rugby. It is amazing how attitudes change. You went though a period when the Glen were hated and then we could not win for so many years and then the different things like anger and disgust and sympathy which was the worst of all."
This year though they were on the trail of three in a row before they were eliminated. And with Blackrock back in a final, tradition still counts for something.
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