What they do have is their name, their colours, their jersey — make no mistake about it, Robert Emmett’s are a legitimate, full-fledged GAA club, as worthy of their place in Croke Park this Sunday as any team in Ireland. And there’s the rub; Robert Emmett’s, even though they are very much an Irish club, are not a club based in Ireland.
Tomorrow, as they face Galway and Connacht champions Killimordaly in the intermediate club hurling final, the London champions will attempt to become the first British-based club to win an All-Ireland title. It’s a most worthy ambition.
Like any exile club, Robert Emmett’s is a mixture of all sorts, with all four provinces represented on the playing panel. Originally with a strong Antrim connection, a connection that remains to this day in the persons of Seán Quinn, Kevin McMullen, Seán Kelly and Mark Traynor, they are now backboned by Corkmen, and north Corkmen in particular.
Goalkeeper Colm Buckley (Banteer), Luke Mannix (Fermoy), Tadhg O’Callaghan, Brian Foley and John Quinlan (all Charleville), along with Jim Ryan (Fr. O’Neills) and John Dillon (Effin), whose father hurled with Ballyhea. Most experienced of them all, however, is the man who prowls the line, manager Mick O’Dea.
“I left Liscarroll in 1984, when I was 18,” he explains; “Joined the Robert Emmett’s, played with them ‘til 2000, when I took over as manager from Rogie Maher, who went home to Doon. There was a strong north Cork connection with them even then, the Hanley brothers and Philly and Davy Ryan from Ballyhea, Tony Fehin from Churchtown, Larry Dowling, that’s how I fell in with them, and that’s how it happens here.”
That’s how it happens in London, that’s how it happens in New York, in Boston, in Chicago, in all the foreign fields where clubs like Robert Emmett’s gave exiled Irishmen an outlet, an occasion to meet, to continue their love affair with hurling and gaelic football. That they existed at all is tribute to those who, out of nothing, formed these clubs; that they survive is tribute to those like O’Dea, who continue contributing even after their own playing days are over.
This isn’t the Liscarroll-man’s first trip to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. Two years ago, with several of the current Robert Emmett’s side on board, he led London to a surprise win over Louth in the Nicky Rackard Cup final. What odds a repeat? Poor, say the bookies; good, says Mick.
“We’ve beaten the Leinster champions, the Munster champions, and I’m sure they underestimated us as well. But if you take time to look into the backgrounds of the boys, you’ll see why we’re in this final. There’s quality all the way through the team.”
When Clooney-Quin overcame highly-rated Bishopstown of Cork in the Munster final they were hotly tipped to go all the way. Robert Emmett’s were waiting for them, however, and denied them with a late, late Tadhg O’Callaghan goal, just as they denied Leinster champions Ardclough of Kildare in injury-time en route to this date.
As Mick points out, these lads have pedigree, and they have character. They are London senior county champions, campaigning now at intermediate level nationally, though they are not unique in that respect.
“A lot of weaker counties field their senior champions in the intermediate All-Ireland championship – the Kildare team we beat were senior champions, Westmeath do it. There wouldn’t be any point in us meeting the likes Ballyhale Shamrocks, they’d beat the life out of us.”
“For a London team just to get to Croke Park was fantastic, but to win then – ah sure now, it was unreal.
“Those lads would have all started in Ireland, played hurling all their lives, dreamed about going to Croke Park, but probably thought it would never happen. We’re so lucky, but you know, there’s about nine of that London team that won the Nicky Rackard on the Emmett’s team, so those fellas are going back to play a second All-Ireland final in Croke Park. Those lads are very privileged, but our club has worked hard. We train four times a week (Wormwood Scrubs Prison — don’t ask), we beat the Leinster champions, the Munster champions – by God if ever a team earned their way, we have.
“We’re up against it again now, Killimordaly, but my argument – for what it’s worth – is how much better can they be than Clooney-Quin, and we beat them? They win the Galway championship, and there’s really no-one then in Connacht to challenge them, then they beat the boys from Belfast, Gortnamona. How much better than us can they be?”
Sunday afternoon, we’ll know; in the meantime, the Robert Emmett’s fairytale continues.