Where retirement isn’t an option

Seamie Harnedy represents more than Cork on Sunday — he will cast reflected glory on the GAA’s ideal of the smallest club enjoying its greatest day.
Where retirement isn’t an option

SUNDAY’S All-Ireland final has, as always, thrown up some odd statistics. Try this one for size.

There is no St Finbarr’s player starting on the Cork 15 but there is a St Ita’s player. One of the most famous and decorated clubs in Ireland will have a presence on match day with the mercurial JBM in his second coming as manager as well as selector Ger Cunningham and Eoin Keane will be on the panel. But starting 15? Not this time.

In the battle of the saints, Ita’s trumps them this year. Local boy done good, Seamie Harnedy has seen to that.

It is all rather unbelievable even to seasoned hurling observers. Where is St Ita’s and who are they? And who is Seamie Harnedy? are some of the main questions of the summer. Many of those asking are from Cork.

Nestled between the parishes of Killeagh on the west side and Youghal on the east side sits a tiny club with a hinterland near the tiny village of Gortroe. Ita’s has its own pitch on the edge of the beach in Pilmore. Few mod cons. Containers serve as dressing-rooms. The pitch enjoys one great advantage. There is so much sand in the soil that it is an all-weather pitch without the expense.

Players down here are not mollycoddled; togging out in Pilmore on a winter’s day with the sea breeze freezing everything and everybody in sight ensures it is survive or retire. Most can’t retire or else the club wouldn’t have enough players to field its one and only team at Junior A.

Ita’s is one of, if not the smallest club in Cork. Ita’s cannot field any juvenile team on its own. The population just isn’t there.

But they can claim they share something with giants UCC (something apart from Seamie Harnedy, who is a student on the Western Road). It concerns that GAA story about UCC turning up to Páirc Ui Chaoimh one autumn day before a county final and the UCC players observing the thousands of supporters from the club team they were playing flowing like a river through the turnstiles. And the UCC manager turns to his players on the bus and says. “Lads the club we’re playing has, as you can see, thousands of followers. Our whole club is sitting on this bus.”

Ita’s can trot out that line any weekend. They could fit all of their 60-odd members on to that bus if they had a mind to. But one or two of the members would stand out.

Harnedy will on Sunday become the first Ita’s player ever to line up in an All-Ireland senior final. He’s actually the first Ita’s player to ever tog out on All Ireland final day; any all Ireland final from U14 up. He is the first of his kind.

But on that bus there is arguably a better known member of St Ita’s than the precocious Seamie and that is the well known entertainer Art Supple, star of the show band era and still belting them out.

Art is a proud man this week. He has erected a huge banner on his premises on the edge of Gortroe village with ‘Go Seamie’ emblazoned on it. Art, as well as the outstanding singing and entertaining, was always the public face of Ita’s throughout their history — which usually featured them scrapping it out in the B grade championship — that’s if they could field at all.

“I played in my first Junior B match in 1954 at the age of 13. I played my last Junior B match in Pilmore in 2000 (at the age of 58). I played hurling in the 50’s, 60s, 70s, 80s 90s and 2000’s. Down here you wear the jersey to ensure the club survives and that there is a club for the next generation.”

Incidentally Art played on and off with his son Shane for the bones of 20 years; Shane now taking over the mantle of the club’s longest serving player in his 33rd season with the Juniors.! During most of those years there was no Seamie, no red jersey and certainly no Croke Park salad days, but there was always club pride. There is even more now. “It could not happen to a nicer lad. The thing about Seamie is his attitude,” says Art. “His enthusiasm knows no bounds. He’s such a positive lad to deal with. Such respect for everybody. A club coach can say something to him and Seamie will do his very best to carry it out. He’s a great club man, a great lad to deal with.”

His UCC coach John Grainger adds that this excellent attitude is easily explained when you meet his parents. “They are spot on, friendly and very well grounded people.” And a bit more besides. Mum Cathy (Landers) had a storied career with Cork camogie, winning multiple All-Ireland senior medals and an All Ireland club medal with Killeagh in 1980 and dad Seán had a long and successful career with Shamrocks of Knockanore in Waterford.

When the parents of the 30 starting senior players sit together in the Hogan Stand on Sunday and look on in hope, there can’t be many who have walked the walk.

Flame-haired Cathy did it a multitude of times. She is a first cousin of ’99 All-Ireland winning captain Mark Landers who ended up coaching Seamie seven years ago when the under-age amalgamation of Killeagh/Ita’s won a county title at minor level.

He remembers “a very small player in stature. He was U16 that year but we carried him on the minor panel. But Seamie even then had loads of potential. He was quick, brave, very committed and like all small lads had an excellent first touch. But the best thing about it was his attitude. He was always listening, soaking up everything he could learn. At about 19 you knew he had a good chance of making it with Cork. Jimmy gave him his chance and he has done exceptionally well.”

If Cork manage to pull it off on Sunday, Gortroe will welcome Liam MacCarthy with open arms and more colour than any other village. No bus, however big, will squeeze in those ready to converge on this lovely village.

And maybe Art will tog out one more time.

This article appeared in the Examiner's All-Ireland Hurling Final supplement on Saturday September 7.

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