Donal Lenihan: The afternoon I discovered my dad was a Kerryman

My first sporting memory
Donal Lenihan: The afternoon I discovered my dad was a Kerryman

A link to the past: Two-time All-Ireland football winner Mick Gleeson with the jersey he wore when he won his last medal as left corner-forward in 1970, wrote to Donal Lenihan about the raw passion and deep rivalry that existed between the footballing factions of both Cork and Kerry, which provided our columnist with his earliest sporting memory. Picture: Don MacMonagle

A link to the past: Two-time All-Ireland football winner Mick Gleeson with the jersey he wore when he won his last medal as left corner-forward in 1970, wrote to Donal Lenihan about the raw passion and deep rivalry that existed between the footballing factions of both Cork and Kerry, which provided our columnist with his earliest sporting memory. Picture: Don MacMonagle

With so much time on our hands at present, sports columns, podcasts, and Twitter are awash with sentimentality.

The best ever finals, the greatest ever goalkeepers or, as my sports editor referred to recently in a tweet, your first sporting memory.

For him, a long-suffering Arsenal fan, Charlie George’s brilliant goal in their 2-1 extra-time win over Liverpool in the 1971 FA Cup final was the moment. When writing my autobiography a few years ago, my mind stretched back through the decades and became fixated on a specific incident, a moment frozen in time.

There I am, a small boy sitting with my dad on the freezing concrete seats that ran the length of the old Athletic Grounds for a National Football League game between Cork and Kerry. I clearly recollect two players being sent off after a punch up on the edge of the Cork square and described the incident as follows in my book, My life in Rugby.

“At the time, Gaelic football was my passion and all I wanted to do was play for Cork. I was brought up going to Cork-Kerry matches, national league and Munster Championship games in Cork and Killarney.

“Although my dad had played for Cork he was a passionate Kerry man and, as a young boy, I was a bit confused trying to figure out which he was. One Cork-Kerry clash in the Athletic Grounds stands out, however, and sorted any confusion I may have had as to where his loyalties lay.

“Mick O’Dwyer was playing for Kerry and was being marked by Seamus Looney, a great young dual player for Cork. Looney must have been giving Micko a hard time so Kerry switched Mick Gleeson in on him. Within minutes there was a massive digging match and both were sent off.

“We were sitting on the freezing cold concrete seats in front of the old stand. Gleeson, who came out worse from the clash, was being helped off around the perimeter of the pitch with the whole of the Cork crowd booing, shouting and roaring at him as he passed.

Next thing I know, my father jumps up and starts shouting and clapping furiously: “Well done Mick Gleeson.” I thought we were going to be killed!

It obviously helped that many in the Cork crowd knew he was a heavyweight boxing champion but I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Even in later life, with his memory fading, if you suggested to my dad that he was a Cork man, he would take the head off you...”

When writing about the incident for the book, I was entirely dependent on the memory of a nine-year-old boy on an incident that I estimated had taken place in 1969. While I was pretty certain the two protagonists were Gleeson and Looney, I was unable to clarify it with 100% certainty.

Months after the book was published a letter dropped into the hallway one morning. It was accompanied by a handwritten note on headed notepaper. Kerry Independent Alliance. Councillor Michael Gleeson. I’m in trouble here, I thought.

The letter read as follows:

Greetings Donal,

At present I am trying to plough through the Old Testament, some of which is very convoluted and almost intelligible — even to a Kerry person! But what oft times comes across very clearly is the terrible isolation and loneliness that is endured by people living in exile. This features regularly from the enslavement in Egypt to the Babylonian Capacity.

This sad sense of being elsewhere and far from where one was begotten and reared is also so tangible in Solzhenitsyn’s Gilag Archipelago.

Those terrible feelings of living among strangers whose customs, habits, and language are alien are the stuff of nightmares for so many forced to bed down with strangers whose principal literary pursuit is something hollered in a strange accent as E-O (Echo, I presume) in Pana.

It is therefore a source of great joy and a little permissible pride that my long walk along the sideline in the Athletic grounds was the cause of instant joy and renewed feeling of belonging for your dad.

The howling hoarders, thirsting for some pure Kerry blood, were but grist to his mill. The fevered invitations to do unspeakable acts were stark reminders that he was in truth among a dangerous and alien breed.

All of this reinforced the message imparted to me as a child by my beloved uncle who for some reason or unreason took up residence by the River Lee as he tried to bring some order and sense of time to the city’s bus service. Such was the joy he felt when he crossed back into the Kingdom one Christmas long ago that he and his driver ended up, bus and all, in the Carrigeen Bog close by the village of Barraduff — though after a wee stop there. Oh, what ecstasy, free and at large in his Kingdom.

But being an indispensable Kerryman he was not only forgiven but received a commendation for remaining in love with the county of his birth and ultimately was, of course, not only reinstated but promoted to the rank of Inspector, much to the chagrin of the city natives.

Poor John Moloney, the ref from Bansha, most likely got distracted by the baying of blood of keeper Billy (Morgan), who undoubtedly was a truly great keeper but unfortunately suffered from an extreme phobia about players from Kerry, particularly those in the full-forward line.

It was in an effort to cure him of the aforementioned malady that we made a particular point of rushing in to allow him to get a feel of the Green and Gold jersey. It is commonly called: A Rub of the Relic.

It obviously worked because not only did he play well in 1973, he also spoke with a rare and patriotic passion on the hallowed steps of the Hogan Stand.

I do hope that those moments of terror inflicted on you in The Park toughened you for the sight of enormous New Zealand sheep farmers as they charged, almost savagely, for the line. But thanks to my self-sacrificing walk you were ready to show that true and proud Kerry blood coursed through your veins and it inspired you to inspire others to glory.

Indeed I have heard it said that you as an inspirational captain kept the Northern Ireland boys onside by speaking of your shared royal blood, they little knowing that you were referring to the one and only real Kingdom, the one that gave you a Father that was so proud of his own that he risked life and limb on that windswept day by the Lee. Thanks Dad.

Le Gach Dea-Ghui

Michael (Mick) Gleeson

PS: It’s a good job that you opted for rugby as you could have posed serious problems, even to Kerry, if you had become a towering No. 14 on the edge of the square. Dad would never have forgiven you if you scored the winning goal in a Munster final, especially if it happened in Killarney.

Around the same time, I bumped into one Dr Seamus Looney in Douglas one afternoon. A decorated dual player, the St Finbarr’s man had a phenomenal underage career, winning back-to-back All-Ireland’s with the Cork minor footballers in 1967 and 1968.

Following that he landed three All-Ireland U21 hurling medals in a row between 1969-71 and back-to-back All-Ireland football medals at the same level in 1970 and 1971. Also on the Cork senior hurling team that beat Wexford in the first 80 minute final in 1970, incredibly Looney had amassed eight All-Ireland medals by the time he was 21.

He too had read the book and, with a wry smile, recalled the incident all those years ago while proclaiming that the Kerry lads were hardly innocent bystanders. Indeed! What comes across vividly from Gleeson’s brilliant penmanship in his much appreciated letter, is the pride in representing where you come from, along with the raw passion and deep rivalry that existed between the footballing factions of both counties.

For a variety of reasons, that appears to have waned somewhat in recent times but with the Cork footballers making great strides in the National League before this Covid-19 interrupted season, following on from the great All-Ireland successes at minor and U20 level last year, Cork football is clearly on the way back.

That said, Kerry have the makings of a magnificent side and look set to offer a real challenge to Dublin’s audacious bid for a spectacular six in a row when this horrific pandemic is finally put to bed.

Half a century has passed since that dual sending off and my dad’s passion-filled response on the sideline were cemented indelibly in my mind but that’s what sport means to so many of us.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too much longer before the third coming of the Athletic Grounds, Páirc Uí Chaoimh as it is now, bears host to new childhood memories for the next generation of young Cork and Kerry hopefuls.

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