The Canon a key contributor to Cork honours list
Archdeacon Michael O'Brien inspired a generation of hurlers by getting the best out of them, writes Dermot Crowe
Yesterday at the Mardyke, on the final weekend in January, UCC hurlers took on Cork in the Canon O'Brien challenge cup – Cork emerged victorious 2-19 to 1-14. Archdeacon Michael O'Brien, simply known as 'the Canon,' is an indispensable figure in the UCC tradition and one of the county's most respected coaches. Though now long retired, he won All-Irelands with Cork in 1984 and 1990.
The college is the leading light in Fitzgibbon hurling. During the Canon's time, they had their most illustrious period, winning eight in succession from 1981-1988. Granted, he had a fine squad and able assistance from Dan Beechinor and Willie J Smyth but the record is unique and his influence widely acknowledged. In total, he was involved with 10 Fitzgibbon wins over 11 years.
Fittingly, the Canon O'Brien cup is modelled on the Fitzgibbon Cup, and was donated by his family. The cup was first presented to the Canon after UCC won three titles in a row 30 years ago. They are seeking to achieve the same distinction this year. O'Brien was unable to attend the inaugural cup challenge last year due to ill health which has kept him out of the public eye for some time.
In his heyday he was one of those implacable figures whose passionate rhetoric enlivened many dressing rooms, from the time he established his reputation at St Finbarr's, Farranferris in the early 1970s, spinning out four Hartys in a row and two All-Ireland wins, then transforming UCC in the 1980s, and finally making a mark with the Cork senior team in two famous championship wins.
When he arrived in the Cork senior job along with Justin McCarthy in the GAA's centenary year, the county had lost two All-Irelands in a row. John Fenton, the captain, had first encountered O'Brien as a Cork minor 11 years before.
"He was a larger-than-life character," says Fenton. "I would have come up from the country (as a minor), and he would have been very involved with Farranferris at the time, they had a star-studded team. Certainly, we were in awe of him, if not intimidated by him. I distinctly remember Johnny Crowley saying don't let him get to you, his bark is worse than his bite. Johnny already knew him in Farranferris."
In the Cork coaching grand tradition, Fenton regards the Canon as a natural successor to Jim 'Tough' Barry, the colourful trainer who won his first All-Ireland with Cork in 1926 and his last 40 years later, one of the most cherished, the surprise win over Kilkenny in 1966 that ended a 12-year wait. Johnny Crowley, one of his early pupils, is now a senior county selector, with Jimmy Barry-Murphy a graduate of the same philosophical school, ensuring the same basic principles are upheld, those tenets that Cork hold dear and intrinsic.
"He was a great motivator, you fed off of things he said," Fenton remarks. "I could not recall everything he said but I remember he spoke to us before the All-Ireland final in '84, we stayed in a convent, and he talked about what it meant to wear a Cork jersey. Where the game was being played (Thurles). The significance of the occasion. And it was a pure form of Cork hurling, there was no messing with opponents, (he told us) just go out and play hurling the way it should be played. There was a purity in his approach and his language and the way he wanted you to play the game."
Fenton and his players were resolute in their determination to atone for losing two All-Ireland finals, ideal material for any management team. But he remembers the Canon telling them that if anyone in the panel didn't think they would win an All-Ireland in 1984 then they would fail. "Everyone had to buy into it," says Fenton. "His style was simple. Keep it moving, get the ball into the forward line. Don't complicate it. Be aware of the heritage of the jersey you are wearing and play to that standard."
O'Brien's second senior hurling success came four years later. Tipperary had taken over Munster but that summer saw their grip broken, with Babs Keating's remarks on being asked about Canon O'Brien's influence leading him into trouble. If the Canon made full use of the slip, a reference to donkeys not winning the Derby, then it doesn't surprise Fenton.
"He would have been very good at homing in on that and blowing it out of proportion to get what he wanted for the team. A lot of guys when they reach that level, they don't need a lot of motivation. What he brought was that extra five or 10 per cent."
O'Brien had success with Cork clubs, guiding Blackrock to a county senior championship, and he won two intermediate titles with Ballinhassig. Tracton also availed of his services, winning junior and intermediate titles with his help. From Innishannon he hurled in school but was not a prominent player. There is a story that while a curate in Blackrock he spotted a youngster hitting a ball against a wall one day using the wrong grip and approached him to correct the flaw. The player was Tom Cashman who would go on to become one of Cork's finest stickmen.
While he was a formidable presence and authoritative by nature, O'Brien is also fondly remembered for his liveliness in company outside of the confines and pressures of competition. And sometimes within. There is a story of Kevin Hennessy being in a Cork dressing room when the Canon entered at half-time obviously incensed by a poor first-half showing. The Canon opened by stating that only three Cork players were exempt from rebuke. Hennessy piped up: "Who are the other two?"
"To sum him up, he was inspirational," says Fenton. "He was passionate, he was knowledgeable and a great communicator."