This is Cork’s famine

That great Al Porter gag about the Irish’s love of euphemisms on The Late, Late Show last year?
This is Cork’s famine

It had already been done but sure it was worth another whirl. Long before Robert Benigni’s Guido character was trying to make a World War II concentration camp a game for his son Giosuè in “Life Is Beautiful”, we were appeasing that war as The Emergency and the violence in the North as The Troubles.

Sport, certainly hurling, can often indulge in the understatement too. Of the few straight red cards now shown in the game, most are often decried as severe punishment for “harmless enough” acts. Porter mentioned how The Famine was, during his school days, colloquially referred to as The Great Hunger.

It’s 30 years since Richard Stakelum stood on the steps of the Dr O’Sullivan Stand and declared that “the famine” was over as Tipperary bridged a 16-year gap to their last provincial success.

Fifteen years later, Waterford’s Fergal Hartley, with the same Munster silverware in hand, announced the “real famine” had ended as the Déise emulated their 1963 glory. On the face of it, using the same language to describe a sporting deprival as that which defined the country’s greatest disaster seems wholly inappropriate but not at the time and not when such an absence is being experienced.

It’s only three years since Cork last claimed provincial honours but if Jack O’Connor, as he did in 2006, could compare a year without Sam in Kerry to 55 in Mayo, what should stop Munster’s most decorated hurling county in thinking that their yearning can’t be equated to that of their opponents?

In their minds, their longing to be at the top of the provincial heap should be the same as that in Clare as they look for their first Munster title in 20 years.

Time isn’t exactly an accurate indicator of just how run down Cork senior hurlers have been since they avenged the 2013 defeat to Limerick either. They have lost both of their championship openers, the last of them against Tipperary a mere exercise in attaining a moral victory as William Egan was placed in front of the square to avoid a tanking.

Humiliations have followed in the losses to Tipperary in Croke Park in 2014 (10 points), to Galway in the 2015 quarter-final defeat to Galway (12 points) when Galway had 50 scoring opportunities and Wexford in last year’s qualifier, a historic first reverse against them in 60 years.

In truth, Cork might not be the least favoured team to win the Munster championship were they not facing Tipperary but when was the last time Cork, at 3/1, were so unpopular against their great foes?

A Tipperary win on Sunday would extend their championship dominance over Cork to five matches. They haven’t enjoyed such a stretch since the 1960s when, following on from the 1958 Munster semi-final triumph, they were victors on five straight occasions until Cork broke the run in 1969.

And yet it’s often been Cork who have slammed defending All- Ireland champions Tipperary to the ground. Mark Foley famously did that in the “donkeys don’t win derbies” 1990 game but then it too occurred in 1992 when a fresh-faced Brian Corcoran sent over two points from corner-back.

It also happened in 1972 following a semi-final replay and 1952 when Cork prevailed in the provincial decider.

Cork only love to soften Tipperary coughs but right now all they hear is refrains that “the GAA needs Cork” and “without Cork the GAA is half naked”. It should grate any upstanding Cork supporter. The sympathy, much of it the faux kind, that has been extended to them by their rivals in recent years must rankle both fan and player alike.

The GAA needs Cork? Not as much as Cork needs the GAA. The new Páirc Uí Chaoimh will inspire but as former captain Pat Mulcahy said in these pages in March the county needs to heal the wounds from its own version of The Troubles.

The fissions must be fused and success alone won’t do that. Had Domhnall O’Donovan sent that late shot wide in 2013, it’s very likely the divisions in the county would have even widened. Bygones simply must be bygones.

Those men who have felt ostracised enough to provide their skills elsewhere must be welcomed back to where they learned and honed them.

Nevertheless, a win or two wouldn’t go amiss. It’s 12 years since Seán Óg Ó hAilpín raised aloft the Liam MacCarthy Cup, making it the second longest break in the history of the GAA without it.

In that time, Kilkenny have bypassed them as the most successful senior hurling county and, as Fan Larkin mentioned a couple of years ago, now have their sights on emulating Kerry’s haul of 37 All-Ireland titles.

Cork are neither a county nor a team, as green as they are likely to be in patches, who have to crawl before they can walk, but a win over Tipperary in Thurles would be an enormous achievement. Because for them it’s an All-Ireland final — and that’s perhaps understating it.


Pain of provincial predictability

It says everything and, at the same time, little about the Munster senior football championship that many in Kerry are praying Cork will make the final this year. Now, if such a final meeting was scheduled for Killarney, then that sense of hope would be understandable given the local riches it would bring, but Kerry supporters are so worried about being undercooked going into the All-Ireland series they are rooting for their rivals and the prospect of opening Páirc Uí Chaoimh on July 2.

Obviously, Kerry too have to live up to their side of the bargain and beat Clare or Limerick and Tipperary’s twin towers of Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney could have a major say in proceedings, but Munster has become slightly tedious for the Kingdom.

In four seasons, Éamonn Fitzmaurice has yet to lose a game in the province. The same goes for Jim Gavin in Leinster.

For them, they don’t have local bragging rights so much as own the copyrights.

Instead of predicting provincial winners this year in each code, we will try and forecast the semi-finalists and winners in each All-Ireland senior championship. In football, Mayo v Kerry and Dublin v Tyrone look the pairings and Kerry bouncing on to deny Dublin the three-in-a-row.

In hurling, we find it difficult to look beyond the last four clashes of the past two seasons – Kilkenny-Waterford, Tipperary-Galway – only Waterford and Galway may have the provincial silverware and Tipperary a much-needed recalibration following a loss in Munster to go on and back up last year’s success.

Is calling ref ‘sir’ out of place in GAA?

It would have been lost in Jim Gavin’s expansive interview earlier this month but he did welcome the idea of referees speaking their mind. He didn’t mention Maurice Deegan or David Gough by name but it was obvious they were the men in black he had in mind and Deegan was again in the media this past weekend.

Hurling referee James McGrath was too and he talked about the respect he was shown by Trinity College players during a Fitzgibbon Cup game when they referred to him as “sir”.

“They obviously had that habit from rugby,” he told RTÉ, “but it was completely new to me to hear something like that in a GAA match. He added: “I would say a lack of respect towards referees is the main reason why match officials are not coming through the system at a healthy rate like they once were.”

The Westmeath man said he was “taken aback” by it but being called “sir” shouldn’t be anything new to him given he is a secondary school teacher. But is “sir” a little out of place in the GAA? We might suggest players referring to McGrath as “Mr McGrath” but then that too has teacher-pupil connotations even if it wouldn’t be half as arbitrary or as artificial as the pre-match handshakes.

As McGrath rightly says, the culture of attitude towards the referee in the GAA must change but then the culture of the referee might have to as well. We’re talking paying officials or even professional ones. At the highest level, if a player knows a referee has put more work into his craft than him, isn’t he likelier to respect him more?

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