Finding perfect haven
By Kieran Shannon
It was actually 25 years ago this weekend.
They headed down to Killarney and afterwards marched right through it and its heaving streets, Billy Morgan having told the bus driver to head off, that they were going to soak up every ray of sunshine and every cheer and backslap after walking under the yoke there for more than a decade. As Bomber Liston told reporters that evening, the circus was over, the guard had changed, a Bastille had been stormed.
There was something else Bomber noted about that day which years later over a pint he’d tell Larry Tompkins. The previous Sunday, Tompkins, in only his second game for Cork, scored an injury-time free down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh to bring the Munster final to a replay in Killarney. Tompkins had never before played in Killarney; didn’t know its quirks, its dimensions, had no relationship with its posts. So on the Thursday morning himself and his great buddy from Castlehaven, Christy Collins, hopped in the car, Christy having put a call through to one of the town’s and Kerry GAA’s great personalities, Eddie ‘Tatler’ O’Sullivan, enquiring if he and Larry could borrow the keys of Fitzgerald Stadium for a few hours.
So in they went with about a dozen balls in a netted bag, Larry kicking frees for about three-quarters of an hour and then kicking out of his hand for about another 20 minutes, with the faithful Christy retrieving all the time. Then they headed down to Tatler Jack’s to say thanks and grab a bite to eat before going back to West Cork, having no idea of the mayhem they had just set in motion back by the lakes.
That night Kerry trained, or at least were meant to, but instead they were preoccupied about how the hell had Larry Tompkins got in to practise on their own hallowed ground. What lunatic had let him in? Or had that lunatic from Kildare jumped the gates himself?
“It was only years later that Bomber told me about the rumpus it caused,” smiles Tompkins, sitting in the sports bar on Lavitt’s Quay which he and his wife Orla run. “Apparently that night Micko went mad. All their session that night was taken up talking about me. Their focus for that session was completely sidetracked. I had no idea when I went in there it would be such a knockback psychologically to Kerry. I was just getting myself right.”
The following Sunday in Killarney Tompkins’s freetaking would be masterful while Mikey Sheehy would literally leave his shooting boots at home, but his best demonstration of deadball kicking that summer had yet to come. In recent months on these pages both Donal O’Grady and Conor Counihan identified Tompkins’ equalising free outside the 45m line with the last kick of the game in that year’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Galway as the best pressure kick they can recall.
Miss and Cork were gone. Tompkins wasn’t thinking in such terms.
“When you’re in a battle in a game, you’re just totally involved in it, body and mind. It doesn’t enter your head that this is to win or this is to lose. The concentration, that focus, is that ball, that point. To me, there was no pressure. I was just glad to get that free.
“It wasn’t a case of it being a big deal, it was what I wanted, what I had dreamed about, to be in a position like that. When I was down kicking all those frees down in the Mardyke, I didn’t want my only audience to be the birds down there and never get to do it in front of a crowd. It was the ideal situation for me. When I looked up, it was as if the goals were right next to me, I was so sure from all the practice, it was going over.”
For years the Mardyke was his sanctuary, his playground, his home almost. Often he’d jump the gates there for fear of perturbing the groundsman’s wife, giving some credence perhaps to the mythical image Micko and the Kerry boys had of him.
He probably got that no-barriers mindset from Brian Mullins. In early 1985 Tompkins was on the Leinster Railway Cup panel and Mullins was not, the team management assuming Mullins had little interest or contribution to make to his province. Never assume. Leinster played Dublin in a challenge game in Portlaoise. Mullins played like it was an All-Ireland final and was colossal. After the game, management sheepishly extended him an invite to join them for training the following Tuesday in Clane. Mullins said he’d go on one condition. “I want to captain this team. I’ve never won a Railway Cup. I want to win a Railway Cup.”
They played that year’s final against Munster in Croke Park. When the team arrived the gates were still locked only for Mullins to decide he’d mount them. So he did, somehow negotiating the iron fortress, and then opening up the gates from the inside for his team-mates to follow. He would go on to dominate Jack O’Shea and finally win his Railway Cup medal but the tone for the day was already set.
“The biggest guy who toughened me up mentally was Mullins,” says Tompkins. “I’d like to think I always put it in when I was training with a team or on my own but Mullins really drilled it into you. If we were doing a kicking or catching drill and he’d spot you weren’t fully tuned in, he’d feck you out of it in front of everyone. You can saunter into training and go through the motions or you can commit to it and make sure you get something out of it.”
Of course Tompkins was a Leinster player then because he was a Kildare one too but it all changed that summer. He was out of work so he headed to the bright lights and building sites of New York. He’d come home to play championship for Kildare, the county board having agreed to cover his return flight, but then Kildare lost that first-round game and the board reneged. In saving themselves a couple of hundred quid over a transatlantic flight, they paid a much higher price.
The plane ticket was just a breaking point. Tompkins had been playing senior football for the county since he was 17 and never missed training. Every morning he’d leave home in Eadestown at 6.30am and either walk four miles or thumb a lift to get another one with John Murphy, God be with him, to take him into Kilcullen where he’d work on the sites for the next 10 hours. Then he’d get a spin into Naas, grab a sandwich and a cup of tea in a shop there, before walking half an hour or so to train with the county. After training he’d set off with is bag on his back and walk another five miles or so before thumbing down another lift. By the time he’d get home and have his dinner, it would be 11.30pm. That’s just the way it was, no one was going his way, but then when the board wouldn’t at least pay his way back to the States, he’d enough.
“Finishing up with Kildare wasn’t a decision I took lightly. My family are in Kildare. I loved playing for Kildare. But I think those set of players that I played with during that time, established, serious players like John Crofton, Paddy O’Donoghue, they understood the situation that was in the county at the time and understood why I took the stand that I did.”
He never left Kildare for Cork. He left to go back to New York and play with the Donegal club out there. It was as good as any inter-county setup at home, better than Kildare anyway. They’d train hard, they’d win and they’d party together too. Tompkins bonded in particular with the team’s Castlehaven contingent. There were two brothers, Anthony and Vincie Collins, Martin Connolly who had played U21 for Cork, and another clubmate, Martin O’Mahony. The four of them were right good footballers and they were right good lads too, often telling him about this tiny little hotbed of football in the wilds of West Cork called Castlehaven and what winning their first ever county title would mean.
“It wasn’t a case that I was looking to go somewhere. I was quite happy in America. But you know how it is when you’re an emigrant away from home, you’re still lonely and still talk about home and your friends and your club to anyone who’ll listen. And the boys would keep talking about this place and how the four of them were all going to back the following summer to get the club that county and what if I was to team up with them.
“Sure it only went in one ear and out the other — for awhile. But after awhile I just sensed they were so passionate and sincere and their heart was just so engrossed in football that it became meaningful. And then I started doing the sums. ‘Right, there’s the four boys. Niall Cahalane, that’s five. John Cleary, that’s six…’
“It was supposed to be only for a few months. Playing for Cork never came into the equation. It had nothing to do with Cork. Sure if it was always about going to Cork, why didn’t I join Nemo Rangers and be guaranteed to win five out of every eight counties? It was all about Castlehaven and Castlehaven could have been in Carlow or Timbuktu.”
Before he knew it, he was living in Union Hall, living with and working for Christy. “My first job was out in Sherkin Island. It was some change from New York. We were building a priest’s house and ended up building another house over there while we were at it. You had less than 30 people living on the island at the time. You might go a whole day there without seeing another person. Every day I’d hop into the old telephone box in Union Hall and call my mother and wonder what the hell was I doing down here?”
Ultimately it was the drive he and the locals had for football that sustained him. Nora Maguire, mother of the county reserve goalkeeper Michael, was a particular rock, lending her ear, feeding him his dinner and nurturing all their dreams. He needed her. By May his transfer still hadn’t gone through. He had been advised that the best way to secure it was to seek an inter-county transfer but when he met Frank Murphy, Tompkins warned him Kildare’s Seamus Aldridge was quite the GAA politician himself, and would be loathe to grant it. Murphy assured Tompkins. “I’ll sort that fella out.”
In early June Frank suggested he start training with Cork so in he went. The following weekend Frank told him he should join the team on the train for a challenge game against Dublin and bring his gear. So Tompkins went along and that Saturday as he sat in the dressing room Murphy came over and extended his hand. “Welcome to Cork. I sorted that fella out.”
Everything changed after that, for Tompkins, for Castlehaven, for Cork, for Gaelic football itself as he became its most dominant player for five years. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. A week after kicking 11 points against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final replay, Tompkins finally got to play for Castlehaven in the club championship. It was down in Clonakilty, against Muskerry. Three came back off the upright. He must have had another three or four wides. In the end the ‘Haven were beaten by a point.
“It was the most galling defeat of my career. I must have stayed in the dressing room for three hours afterwards. The groundsman thought I was a madman.” That night he went back to Union Hall, didn’t drink, and the following morning was down in the club field where he’d stay for two hours, purging himself.
The following summer he and his four New York / Donegal team-mates would return from the Big Apple again to try to win that county but they lost to Nemo Rangers in the first round and in a classic by a point. That was the end of the dream for the New York quartet but by now Tompkins had committed himself to winning an All Ireland with Cork as well, and when he bought a pub in the spring of 1989, there was literally no going back.
That was the year it all came together. Cork finally got their hands on Sam. Then Castlehaven sneaked through to the county final where they played the mighty St Finbarr’s.
“The night before the final, I walked down to the Showgrounds beside the Park [Páirc Uí Chaoimh]. There was a show down there and they’d asked me to go around the stalls and do a bit of PR for an hour. When I left the bar across from the railway station there had only been a hazy light rain. By the time I got down to the Showgrounds it was bucketing down. While I was down there, I went into the stadium and knelt down. ‘This is the one I want. Promise me that I get the best out of myself tomorrow and have the game of my life’.”
He did. They won. The pact he’d made with his four friends had finally been honoured even though they hadn’t been on the field to share the moment with him. But it was worth it. To see the joy and tears in Nora Maguire’s eyes, and in the Collins and in the Clearys and to get to soldier with a warrior like Cahalane. Looking back, the man upstairs had looked after him two years ago as well. “I didn’t even know where Castlehaven was,” says Tompkins, “but it was like as if God himself said ‘This is where you belong, Larry. These are your kind of people’.”
He wonders will Seanie Johnston ever have that relationship with the people of St Kevin’s and Kildare. He thinks it would be a shame for Johnston’s talent to go to waste, that it belongs on the inter-county stage, but it’s hard to say whether or not it should have gone through or not when we don’t know how concrete his connection with Kildare is or is not. We know he still teaches in Cavan but now has a postal address in Straffan. That’s it.
“For me, the biggest move in all this was him leaving his club. It takes a lot to leave your buddies. You grow up in a place, you’re friends, go to school, work and live with those people; those are the best people in your life. There must have been for a genuine reason that he left them to go play in Kildare. But if he left his club just to play football for another county he has no connection with, I cannot relate to that mentality and it [the transfer] shouldn’t have happened.
“We don’t know enough [about this case]. People say he has no connection with Kildare but how do we know he doesn’t? Maybe he’s going out with someone from Kildare. Maybe he wants to get a job in Kildare but right now there isn’t work in Kildare in his job.
“You’ll just have to gauge it over the next year or two and see what happens. If he has a valid connection with the place, there should be no one blocking the transfer and it was only right that it went through. But if he doesn’t…
“I don’t know Seanie Johnston, I’ve never met the man and I don’t know him or his thinking. If his heart wasn’t in his own club in Cavan [Gaels] then I would have doubts about how genuine the transfer is. But again, we don’t know enough.”
What he does know is that Kieran McGeeney is doing a terrific job with Kildare and his old buddy Conor Counihan is doing another with Cork. Tomorrow could go either way.
“McGeeney has eroded a lot of the weaknesses, mentally and physically, that had been in Kildare football for a good number of years. Has he won any championship silverware? No, he hasn’t, but you need a bit of luck to go your way and maybe they’ll finally get it this year. Castlehaven didn’t have our strongest team in ’89 but we got a bit of luck to get over the line. Cork have a fantastic team, but after the layoff, will they be at championship pace? Kildare will test all that.”
How will he feel? Probably a lot like he did when the counties met in 2008. Kildare ran out and a little shiver shot along his spine as he thought of the days he wore that Lilywhite top. Then came Cork and his heart swelled too, thinking of how the Cork people took him in like he was one of their own. Now he is one of their own. 25 years on from Sherkin Island, he’s still living and working among them. His two kids, Kate (8) and Jack (5) were born and live in Cork.
He even still coaches the game here, having agreed last year to give Mitchelstown up the road a hand. Last year they reached their first county final since 1965 before losing to an Aidan Walsh-inspired Kanturk. This year they’re undefeated, having beaten Colm O’Neill’s Ballyclough in the league final.
“People say it must be a real drop down, going from coaching Cork to coaching a junior football team but the same kick is there. We have three or four minors and it’s fantastic to see the way they’ve matured in the last year, as people as well as players from the discipline of training. It’s great to see progress, to see lads train hard and enjoying the game.” The game he gave so much to keeps giving back as well.
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