Paul Rouse: Cork hurling's hunger game

That this is a big league season for the hurlers and footballers of Cork is stating the obvious.

HOME ARE THE HEROES: Thousands greet the victorious Cork team at their homecoming after 1966 All-Ireland SHC final victory over Kilkenny. Victory ended a 12-year wait for All-Ireland glory for the Rebels. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive
HOME ARE THE HEROES: Thousands greet the victorious Cork team at their homecoming after 1966 All-Ireland SHC final victory over Kilkenny. Victory ended a 12-year wait for All-Ireland glory for the Rebels. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

For the Cork footballers, down in Division Three, there is the expectation of an immediate rise through the ranks.

This is a rise that is anticipated to continue until Cork are back in Division One and, ultimately, competing with Dublin and Kerry for the All-Ireland Football Championship.

They may find Division 3 isn’t quite as easily navigated as is presumed.

It’s a pure dogfight and there are teams down there that are much better than they are given credit for.

Indeed, the gap between the middle of Division 3 and the bottom of Division 1 is not particularly wide.

Nonetheless, it is fair to imagine Cork footballers will be promoted and will progress.

If there is expectation around the footballers, there is undoubted pressure on the hurlers.

Indeed, what must it be like to be hurling for Cork at the moment?

It is now 15 years since the last All-Ireland senior hurling title was won, the longest wait in the county’s hurling history.

How does a county so accustomed to success cope with defeat? And in what ways do the burdens of this historic failure fall on the current players?

Previous to the current catalogue of losses, the longest stretch without All-Ireland success endured by Cork ran from 1954 to 1966.

There is a brilliant insight into the anxiety that that era of failure caused Cork hurling people in David Guiney’s forgotten gem of a book, ‘The Days of the Little Green Apples’.

Guiney was a fine writer, and in this collection of personal stories about his engagement with sport, a lovely central chapter tells the story of the 1966 All-Ireland hurling final.

As Guiney writes, Cork had finally made it back to an All-Ireland final and were faced with Kilkenny: “For every Corkman in Croke Park, players and supporters, the hour ahead was a long, long one, with the promise that every moment would be a special agony.”

Behind that agony was the confusion of past success with present failure. As Guiney acknowledged, there was “the red-and-white arrogance of Cork supporters”, but there was nonetheless apprehensions and a deep fear that “the long wait might not be coming to an end.”

Guiney had managed to get five tickets for the match, but one of the tickets was a single seat on its own. Among Guiney’s friends there were fierce arguments as to who should sit where and — in the way of these things – the man who got all the tickets ended up sitting on his own.

The thing is that Dave Guiney was a talker and anyway, as he writes, Sunday, 4 September 1966, “was not a time for any Corkman to be alone. This was surely a time for Corkmen to be together to offer up one or two communal prayers, to bolster the confidence, to ease out all the anxieties and worries that were hovering in the air with the menace of a praying mantis.”

The man now sitting beside him was not for talking: “He arranged himself neatly in the seat beside me, pulled out a newspaper, read it diligently from front page to back and possibly took in the small advertisements as well — and never uttered a word, good, bad nor indifferent. He was a latter-day Sphinx.”

The Sphinx smoked a pipe, puffing himself out of breath and then again.

And The Sphinx displayed no emotion when the teams came out onto the field, stood quietly through the anthem and then through the parade.

He burrowed down into his seat for the start of the match and remained burrowed for the next hour.

This profoundly irritated Guiney. How could such a man, yet again, secure a ticket for an All-Ireland hurling final, when they were in such demand.

It was one thing to be strictly neutral, but altogether another to sit apparently disinterested in the thrills unfolding around him:

“Never by the flicker of an eyelash, the movement of a hand nor even by the tiniest of sounds, did he show a feeling or an emotion. For all the occasion did to him, he might have been taking afternoon tea with a disappointed mother-in-law.”

The game raged on until Cork — led by captain Gerald McCarthy, top scorer Seánie Barry and hurler of the year Justin McCarthy — won out by 3-9 to 1-10.

Guiney says that what followed after the full-time whistle was a “great, great moment”:

“For a fragment of time there was silence. Then the moment of victory exploded in a hurricane of sound and a sea of red and white.” But the best of all was The Sphinx: “Gone was the composure, gone was the indifference, gone was the grave-like silence. The neat, methodical, totally disinterested neutral had been transformed into a savagely ecstatic, passionate, lunatic Corkman.”

The Sphinx stood and grabbed David Guiney and roared into his ears: “Glory….Glory …. Glory. We’ve done it….. We’ve done it…. Glory.”

The Sphinx was now hysterical in his happiness.

Later, after the presentation and after a state of calm had descended, the two men walked from the ground and The Sphinx told Guiney: “I just couldn’t cheer during the game. I was afraid we wouldn’t win it and I was prepared for the worst. I have been waiting for this day since 1954 and I didn’t really believe it was coming until that final whistle went. The bad years take a lot of confidence away.” And Guiney was later to write that he understood what The Sphinx was saying.

He could feel the emotion that had gathered and had come to suffocate.

Does it matter for 2020s Cork hurlers, that no senior All-Ireland has been won since 2005 or, indeed, that just two All-Ireland finals have been contested since that year?

Does it matter that Kilkenny have passed Cork in the roll of honour and streaked out into the distance with 36 titles to their name — Cork having 30?

Or that Tipperary’s victory in 2019 puts them on 28 titles, closing in steadily?

Is it a burden that Cork holds more GAA clubs than any other county and, if the logic of Dublin football is followed, should be the big beast in every hurling championship and should certainly win far more frequently than it does?

Presumably, there are players for whom none of this matters at all, players who see the past as an irrelevance.

But there are others who will feel it more and who, as their career slips on, will surely feel it more and more.

The thing for Cork hurlers is that they have always made a lot of the importance of their tradition.

It is something that is used to facilitate a certain cockiness, even arrogance. And that’s fine, indeed it makes sense.

But it’s hard to walk convincingly with a swagger at senior level when your county’s last All-Ireland minor title was in 2001 and their last All-Ireland Under-21/20 win was in 1998.

Instead, it looks like more of an act than anything else. As things stand, there is obviously much work being done underage in Cork and there is a progressive board and, given the scale of the county’s resources, this should manifest itself relatively quickly.

There are obviously no guarantees in any of that, however. It is not as if Tipperary and Limerick and Kilkenny and Galway and the other counties with ambitions of winning the All- Ireland are not, themselves, looking to progress.

Meanwhile, The Sphinx — consumed with anxiety – will not be free to roar “Glory, Glory” at the Cork hurlers until the Liam MacCarthy Cup is won again. Will that be this year or will another year slide past?

The longer that question is asked, the greater the challenge — and already this challenge is even greater than that faced by the hurlers of 1966.

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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