Casting around for a word to describe the lavish surroundings, the first to come to mind was ‘galántacht’. In another life the Cork hurling coach is principal of the North Monastery’s prestigious all-Irish section, Scoil Mhuire, and the first two weeks of September are busy enough for him without any piffling entries in the diary, like an All-Ireland final.
Still, it’s not as if hurling and the Mon are easy to separate in the first place; practically every student at the school has, at one stage or other, walked up to the old Mon field above St. Vincent’s grounds, or skipped past the Brothers’ cemetery and the Monastery itself, to the pitches above the school.
The best of them wore the famous blue and white jerseys in Harty Cup combat and generations of hurlers have posed for victory photographs taken on the steps leading up to the old AG science laboratory.
The latest candidates for legendary status are the Ó hAilpíns, Sean Óg and Setanta, but that rank isn’t easily awarded in the school which produced the only GAA player ever to win six senior All-Irelands in a row (Jack Lynch) and the only player to win two All-Irelands in the same year (Teddy McCarthy).
Even the student teachers can be a little special; in an ecumenical gesture one Nicholas English was accepted for teaching practice in the school during the 1980s.
Donal O’Grady was the coach in a golden era of Harty Cup hurling in the Mon, when four consecutive Harty finals were contested. Past pupils will recall the singing of An Mhainistir Thuaidh Abú to fire up supporters, the ‘Monsoon’ newspaper produced for the occasion complete with pen pictures and dubious interpretations of Shakespeare, and the legendary ‘Harty soup’, a mysterious concoction served in secret to the players.
O’Grady the coach was a mixture of the thoughtful and the forthright even then; his injunctions to look up before clearing the ball instead of belting it aimlessly co-existed with a dismissal of minor cuts and scrapes as things to boast about after the match. Observers may see a similar pattern in his Cork team, which blends a structured, pre-game warm-up with plenty of passion once the whistle goes, most obviously in the crunch Munster semi-final against Clare.
“When I went to the Mon first in the mid-60s Peter Curley (of Brian Dillons) was the star man,” O’Grady recalls now. “Pat Moylan was playing around that time too. Other colleges were very strong as well; Coláiste Chríost Ri had great sides in hurling as well as football around then as well, particularly their 1968 team.”
Although O’Grady was the name of the Mon captain in 1970 when the school won its first Harty Cup in a decade , it was Donal’s brother, Des, who led the northside school to glory. “I played in goal in the first round of the Harty and for half of the final,” Donal recalls. “I remember that St. Colman’s had a very good team at that time also, with Seanie O’Leary as their star, but Limerick CBS beat them.” The victorious Mon side was coached by Brothers Barry and Miniter and Murty Murphy; the last named would reappear later in O’Grady’s coaching career.
When he returned to teach in the AG in 1978, O’Grady served something of a colleges coaching apprenticeship, taking charge of teams at the under 14 grade, but by 1979-80 he was coaching the school’s senior team with the same Murty Murphy who had trained him. The combination worked well, with the blue and white jerseys of the Mon going on to appear in four consecutive Harty Cup finals.
Asked about the best players on those sides, O’Grady exhibits the reluctance to pick out individuals that has marked many of his post-match interviews as Cork coach: “We had very good teams. People would know the likes of Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan and Paul O’Connor, who all went on to play for Cork, but we had other very good players like Martin Lyons from Blackrock, Jim Murray - a great centre-back - and Paddy Connery of Na Piarsaigh, John Drinan, Robert Allen and of course a very young Teddy McCarthy in the latter years. There was a very good mix of country and city fellas.” O’Grady’s colleges coaching career tapered away as he nailed down the full-back slot on the Cork senior team, contesting the 1983 and 1984 finals in the number three jersey, but the coaching bug wasn’t that easily shaken. “In the early 90s I was involved in coaching minor teams with Jimmy Barry-Murphy out in the Barrs, and since then I’ve helped out with Saturday morning coaching for under 14s and under 16s; I had Ronan Curran at that grade, for example.”
Finally, did the Harty soup really exist? He laughs: “The Harty team would gather in the canteen around half-ten and Miss Smith and Miss O’Sullivan would bring soup and bread down, though I remember we graduated to cheese sandwiches at one point. I suppose the original idea would have been to feed country lads who’d be cycling in early, but it was also great bonding for the team.”
One more legend in a school already full of them.