Cork GAA end of year piece, December 15 2008

December 18, 2008

ROY KEANE’S recent departure from Sunderland led to the usual ham-fisted comparisons with Cork people in general, and the current Cork hurling stand-off in particular.

The constituent parts of the rant can be assembled like a Lego castle: what is it in the water down there, always arguing, Rebels by name, look at the carry-on of Stephen Ireland, and so on.

In some ways the lazy arguments have a grain of truth: there’s often trouble in Cork. In GAA terms that trouble goes back a long way.

Anyone who picks up the Christy Ring/Peil DVD reissued by Gael Linn for Christmas will enjoy the plentiful extras on the disc, such as newsreel action from games in the ’50s and ‘60s, as well as a brief documentary on Ring himself, which begins with crowds swarming down the Marina to a Cork-Tipp NHL clash circa 1960. Beyond the choice details such as overloaded rowing boats bringing spectators across the river Lee, not to mention the players’ healthy approach to physical confrontation on the field of play, one aspect of the approach road to the then-Athletic Grounds ground caught our eye.

It is no exaggeration to say that the little dip in the road down from the Marina itself to the Athletic Grounds was in far better nick almost half a century ago, smoothly paved and devoid of potholes, than the cracked and pockmarked road that now leads down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Plenty of people have seized on the condition of Cork’s riverside stadium as an apt symbol for the GAA on Leeside at present: outwardly imposing yet riven with cracks, cutting-edge in its long-ago heyday, but now trailing behind; lumbering and forbidding, remote and uncomfortable.

That kind of personification may appear first to be more relevant to the offbeat psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and Will Self, writers who chronicle the emotional effect of different environments on the people who live in them, but you can tease out the parallels by visiting some significant places on the Cork sporting map.

A journey from the grey hulk of Páirc Uí Chaoimh into the city centre takes you along the Marina and up to Maylor Street, where Munster Rugby maintains an impressive commercial presence in the heart of the city. There’s plenty of branded merchandise for sale in the official Munster shop, as well as posters announcing, far in advance, the team’s next game.

Another snappy stroll takes one along the South Mall and over Parliament Bridge to the official Cork City FC shop.

Cork City has suffered plenty of financial troubles this year, including the ignominy of examinership, but it still maintains a highly visible outlet in the city centre to keep its brand and identity alive. There are plenty of City-branded goods on offer and nobody passing within 50 yards of the shop would be in any doubt about the details of the club’s next outing. The venture is supported by the top administrators in the domestic game: FAI chief executive John Delaney carried out the formal opening.

There is no corresponding GAA commercial outlet in Cork city, the second-biggest urban area in the Republic and a long-standing Gaelic games stronghold. There are plenty of sports shops selling jerseys and tracksuits, but nothing dedicated to the sale of Cork county or club clothing, tickets or other merchandise in the city centre.

Some weeks ago Páirc Uí Chaoimh hosted the county senior hurling and football finals, but you would not have been aware of it upon landing into the city that day. Nothing extra was done to draw people out of their homes and down the Marina for the game. Perhaps a simple billboard or poster on one of the city’s main thoroughfares to alert thousands of passers-by to the line-up, time and venue? As if.

That outlook bespeaks laziness when it comes to consumers, a dangerous attitude to have as recession gnaws at people’s disposable income, and taking your clients for granted can turn them off. Then again, consider the Cork County Board’s history with its own players.

IF YOU head back from the Cork City FC shop on the quay and back into the city centre, a turn or two will bring you to Cook Street, for many years the location for administrative meetings of the Cork County Board.

There is a long and inglorious litany of tense exchanges between players and administrators in Cork, and contrary to what propagandists would have us believe, the two sides have clashed for at least a century. Most people casting their minds back for examples cite the great dash for the train when the Cork footballers headed for Heuston Station rather than play extra time against Dublin in Croke Park in a national league back in the ’80s, or the tangled ‘three stripes affair’ of the ’70s, when Cork footballers faced suspension for wearing Adidas gear.

But the acrimony goes back much further. In the early years of the last century Jamesie Kelleher of Dungourney and Cork, one of the greatest hurlers of his time, sent a letter to local media filled with stinging criticism of GAA administrators within the county. The issues raised are wearyingly familiar even in the 21st century, with the poor treatment of players preparing for games top of his hit-list.

In 1931 the great Cork star Eudie Coughlan retired at the relatively early age of 31. His reason should ring a bell with anyone who followed last season’s stand-off closely; Coughlan took issue with the county board’s decision to remove from his club, Blackrock, the right to pick the Cork team in favour of a selection committee and stepped behind the line as a consequence.

Just over ten years after Coughlan’s retirement, another All-Ireland captain landed into Cook Street to question the conditions under which the Cork hurlers were preparing for an All-Ireland final. Jack Lynch would say later that he got “short shrift” from the board when he suggested that it was unsatisfactory for the Cork players to have their clothing soaked by a leaky dressing-room ceiling as they trained in the Athletic Grounds.

The dual star’s clear-eyed view of what was right and wrong showed up elsewhere. Readers of the new biography of Lynch, written by UCC Professor Dermot Keogh, will find the story of the player travelling to games to play for Cork in a taxi paid for by the county board. Their rules dictated, however, that only players could travel in said taxi, and Lynch recognised the ridiculousness of the situation, travelling alone in the cab as it passed his friends and acquaintances cycling or walking to the very same match. Cork succeeded in spite of those obstacles. Coughlan captained Cork to an epic win over Kilkenny in 1931, and Lynch collected the Liam McCarthy Cup 11 years later as well.

Even the greatest of them all had a withering view of Rebel administrators. Val Dorgan’s biography of Christy Ring includes the story of the maestro being stopped by a jobsworth on the turnstiles in Pairc Uí Chaoimh.

“Leave that man in,” said a county board official who happened upon the scene, “That’s Christy Ring, he won eight All-Irelands with Cork.”

Ring’s riposte was immortal: “And if I wasn’t carrying fellas like you I’d have won another eight.”

The obvious point to make is that the current officers of the Cork County Board are not the same men who tangled with Jamesie Kelleher and Eudie Coughlan. It is exactly 100 years since Kelleher wrote to ‘The Cork Sportsman’ and referred to the board with the words: “It’s time to wake up, take the bags from these gentlemen and show them the outside of the gates.”

While it sometimes appears that the rate of change is glacial at county board level, it’s not that glacial.

However, a particular culture can be perpetuated from generation to generation within any organisation. The reluctance of the Cork County Board to market its own greatest asset — the games it oversees — is an effect of that culture, a symptom that’s easily remedied: it just requires action.

However, the county board’s long history of conflict with its own players is different, and lies at the root of the divisions within the GAA in Cork. It proves that a toxic legacy of disrespect has become the prevailing culture within the organisation, that lessons have not been learned from the past, and that confrontation with prominent hurlers goes back to the beginning of the last century.

Those who blame the Cork senior hurlers for the current stand-off might bear that in mind.

Michael Moynihan is author of Blood Brothers: The Inside Story of the Cork Hurlers 1986-2008 (Gill and MacMillan, 16.99).

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