Southern Lights

Whitbread Prize-winning poet Bernard O’Donoghue from Cork pauses from his work at Wadham College, Oxford to tell Michael Moynihan his memories of Cork-Kerry Munster finals.

Q: Tell me a little more about the 1955 final you mentioned as your first; what's your abiding memory of it?

A: "1955, when I was nine, was the first heatwave summer of my lifetime, and we all got burnt by the sun in Killarney (sunburn was thought good for the health in that era: not that there was much danger from it). Travellers went around calling out 'Sixpence a bottle for water'. Jim Donovan, the Cork full-forward, scored a goal at the beginning of each half, but Kerry won 0-14 to 2-6. It was a great Kerry team of course Tadgie Lyne, Paudie Sheehy, John Dowling and the rest and they went on to beat the celebrated Dubs (Ollie Freaney, Heffo, Snitchy Ferguson) in the final."

Q: What's your all-time favourite Munster final, and why?

A: "My all-time favourite Munster final was the following year, 1956, when Cork won the replay in Killarney with a famous last-minute point by Niall Fitzgerald. It was particularly wonderful because the previous Sunday at the Cork Athletic Grounds, in teeming rain, Cork had 90% of the play and 26 wides (including 20 in the first half, right in front of where I was sitting: they led 0-6 to 0-0 at half time; and of course Kerry were the All-Ireland champions). I can still see Neally Duggan, bearing down on goal time after time, to kick wide from ten yards out. And of course they were caught with a sucker punch goal by Jim Brosnan (at the same end in front of us) at the very end.

In those days, the players wandered back to their own cars at the end, holding their boots by the laces. We were in step with the great Paddy Harrington, Pádraig's father, on the way to the car. A long-faced friend said to him: 'Terrible result, Paddy.' Harrington beamed at him and said 'How bad it was!'

"And of course he was right: the replay the following Sunday was our day in the sun. Tom Furlong punched a goal for Cork in the first five minutes, in front of us on the Dick Fitzgerald Hospital enclosure. 1956 was also significant as the first Munster Final by Mick O'Connell, aged 18. He was incomparably the greatest footballer I have ever seen. People talk about Jack O'Shea and Maurice Fitzgerald; but even they were not in the same league.

"1987 was a repeat: the first year of the great Morgan era. Mikey Sheehy's late (fluke) goal seemed to have won it unjustly for Kerry in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but Larry Tompkins's free drew it. All our Kerry neighbours on the border were jubilant at their 'Houdini act' (I am quoting one of them); but of course Cork's new team the Kildare men, Davis, Counihan and the rest won the replay easily in Killarney. The joy of it! And of course that was the start of the best-ever period for Cork football: they won seven of the next nine Munster championships, and successive All-Irelands.

Q: Have you ever met or spoken with any of your Munster football heroes, Cork or Kerry?

A: "In 1959, I was travelling back by boat from Valentia with my father (who drove around Kerry, selling insurance: he was very fond of Kerry people outside of football) and Mick O'Connell was sitting quietly in the prow, going across for training.

"But for me this is a Millstreet question: the great hero of my youth, and one of the nicest people I have ever known, was 'Toots' Kelleher. At the end of that famous 1956 match, the Cork players went back to the dressing room through our enclosure. I shook such hands: Toots, Niall Fitz, and Denis Bernard the best centre-back I have ever seen. I can still feel the softness of his hand as I shook it, and the softness of his voice when he said 'Thanks' to my 'Congratulations'. I was ten years old.

"I have met many of the local players in north Cork: there were four Millstreet players in the Cork team that won the All-Ireland in 1973 (possibly the best-ever Cork football team): Humphrey Kelleher, John Coleman, Connie Hartnett and Dinny Long. I met them more than once. And I spent an hour with Danny Culloty in Scully's pub in Newmarket after Cork won the 1989 All-Ireland. Bliss!

"What all the people I have named have in common is that they were wonderful people as was delightful and generous Jackie Lyne, whose daughter Nuala in Bandon is a friend of mine. She flies a defiant green-and-gold in front of a very Cork household in Mishells."

Q: What do your Oxford colleagues make of your Gaelic football obsession?

A: "The English are as obsessed with sport as we are or nearly. So they understand. As it happens, I am the senior member of the Oxford University Gaelic Football Club, which has had a good run recently. And a hurling club is just starting up there. I nearly started one in 1967 but lost my nerve. I've always regretted it but I didn't play hurling. Oxford had an excellent town hurling club at the time, Éire Óg.

"My son Tom teaches English at a secondary school in Oxford, and he has got them playing Gaelic football there English and Irish and Pakastani and Bangladeshi. They love it. And they all support Cork, following Tom's 'People's Republic of Cork' t-shirt.

Q: 'Munster Final' (see panel) is a personal favourite: tell me a little about how you came to write it.

A: Before the great Morgan era 1987-1995, there was a nine-year period up to 1983 (Tadhg Óg Murphy: need I say more?) when Kerry were magnificent (the four-in-a-row team that should have been five), but of course there were some great Cork players in that period.

"The best of them all was Tom Creedon of Macroom who ran Denis Bernard close as the best Cork centre-back. And as everyone knows, he died slowly and tragically after an accident, in 1983, having played throughout the unrewarded years. He never won a Munster championship. And the very day Dublin beat Cork in a replay of the All-Ireland semi-final in Cork (another heartbreak), Tom Creedon finally died.

"I thought that day 28 August, 1983 somehow encapsulated the best things about the GAA: the whole-hearted generosity with which a young man like Tom Creedon played football, as well as developing his career as an engineer. We were told the Dubs fans were hooligans who would wreck the town. But there we were, all mixed together, shouting friendly abuse at each other.

I thought of it again when mingling with Meath fans in the late 80s, watching the All Irelands on the big screen in the Marble Arch Odeon cinema. We cared to the point of insanity; but there was no violence or hatred.

"The Tom Creedon poem is meant to bring all that together somehow: the passion and the heartbreak and the essentially positive nature of the enterprise. I think sport really matters, because it provides an affiliation that you can commit yourself to totally without claiming anything for yourself. It is generosity and self-sacrifice on the part of the players, and it provides a forum in which you can declare passionately without threatening anyone else's choices. It is a safety-valve both for politics and for personal competition.

"If you are proud of being Kerry, you are not boasting about yourself.

Q: Poetry and sport doesn't seem an immediate or obvious fit; or is it? Is there something of the "showing forth" in a really top-class football game? Or is it just Cork/Kerry?

A: "Poetry and sport have always gone together, since the Greeks and Romans. It is the same admiration for formal grace, as in music too. The extra dimension in sport is community activity, I suppose.

"But there are moments in sport which have that formal grace: watching Federer turn his wrist through a shot. I suppose the bit I like best in 'Munster Final' is 'His back arching casually to field and clear': not just Tom Creedon but the way the great fielders Declan Barron, Teddy McCarthy could somehow catch the ball as it dropped behind them. Or O'Connell allowing the ball to bounce and then dropping down himself to meet it as it rose up. It sounds absurd but I have seen few actions of such grace.

"Ironically enough, my favourite picture in our house in Oxford is a black-and-white photograph by

McMonagles of Killarney, of O'Connell and Maurice Fitzgerald, in dark trousers and Sunday shirts, kicking a ball around with the hills and sea of South Kerry behind them. O'Connell looks intense but Fitzgerald he looks about 17 I'd say is grinning, like James Masters as a minor.

Q: It must be relatively easy to follow the GAA now with the internet, etc; did you ever have trouble/adventures trying to stay abreast of the sport in the past?

A: "It used to be a nightmare keeping in touch, going up into the roof of the house with a transistor at 3.30 on Sunday, trying to get a signal. Bryan MacMahon talks about strolling along beaches in Spain, trying to overhear an Irish radio. I heard (barely) Tompkins's 55-yard equalising point against Galway in 1987 in the roof of a house in Normandy. My friend Mick Henry, a Mayo musician and contractor, tells stories of lorryloads of Irish workers driving out from London into the countryside and sending one member up a telegraph pole with a radio, to try to get a signal."

Q: Do you read much sportswriting? If so, what? And why? Are there other poets/novelists/dramatists whose writing on sport you


A: "I read sportswriting to keep in touch really. There have been great GAA writers: John D Hickey of the Independent, Paddy Downey of the Irish Times, Mick Dunne, of course, John Joe Brosnan of the Kerryman and the Examiner's Jim O'Sullivan, who is a model of fair-mindedness. I suppose the great sportswriter's novel is 'Underworld' [Don De Lillo] about baseball, which is the sport that has been written about best. There have been great British writers on rugby and soccer: Hugh McIlvanney and Clem Thomas. In 1967, Paddy Downey described Mick Burke's midfield heroics by saying 'you could see the tar-barrels blazing in Ballyphehane'.

"And, of course, great things have been said about Ring. I once sat in the same kitchen as him for 20 minutes. I didn't know what to say. What could you say? It's like meeting Shakespeare."

Q: Does Cork-Kerry mean more to people on the county borders?

A: "Certainly Cork-Kerry means most at the borders. I remember when I was very young hearing a man from Caherbarnagh saying he played Junior football in a Cork-Kerry Munster Final. I didn't want to ask a crude question, so I stole out to look at a map to see which side of the border he came from. In fact the mountain straddles the border, but it's mostly Cork, and it was Cork he played for. Which means he probably lost. In fact, I think he did.

In 2002, great offence was given in my village Cullen when a triumphant Kerry car (it was that rare event a surprise Kerry victory over Cork) drove through the village blowing its horn. The number was noted."

Q: When you hear "Cork-Kerry" what's the most immediate image/phrase/incident that leaps to mind?

A: "Nothing else quite makes my heart beat like the phrase Cork-Kerry. The very fact that the odds are slightly against Cork makes the pulse speed up. I see the colours: the green grass and the red and the green and the gold. And the magic moment when the seniors come out on the pitch, kicking the ball twice as far as the smaller and slower minors that preceded them.

"There is nothing in the world of comparable glamour."

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