Fr O'Neill's and Russell Rovers the embodiment of East Cork dreams

Neighbouring clubs Fr O'Neill's and Russell Rovers arrive to play All-Ireland finals in Croke Park on Saturday at the end of an idyllic period for this East Cork region. There is none of the rancour between these clubs so often associated with proximity. PM O’Sullivan explores why so many houses have been flying two flags.

Fr O'Neill's and Russell Rovers the embodiment of East Cork dreams

Neighbouring clubs Fr O'Neill's and Russell Rovers arrive to play All-Ireland finals in Croke Park on Saturday at the end of an idyllic period for this East Cork region. There is none of the rancour between these clubs so often associated with proximity. PM O’Sullivan explores why so many houses have been flying two flags.

East Cork hurling is on the crest of a wave.

Appropriately enough, given the lie of this land. The two clubs in Croke Park Saturday evening occupy a swathe of pristine coastline from Knockadoon Head to the bottom of Ballycotton Bay. Founded in 1959, Fr O’Neill’s are Cork’s 2019 Premier Intermediate Champions. They represent the parish of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge.

Their territory lies to the north, heading towards Youghal. Ballymacoda is the more coastal hub, with Ladysbridge further inland, adjacent to Midleton. Garryvoe stands as a Checkpoint Charlie for both clubs, bang in the middle of operations.

Founded in 1930, Russell Rovers are Cork’s 2019 Junior A Champions. Their territory lies further south, encompassing Ballycotton, Churchtown South and Shanagarry. Part of Cloyne Parish, the club essentially draws on non urban areas to the east. Traditionally much the smaller outfit, Russell Rovers embraced a new dynamic during this decade via judicious amalgamation with Cloyne at juvenile level.

All the while, divisional identity remains a hook. “We like to think of East Cork, Imokilly, as the home of hurling,” says Séamus Joyce. “One of them, anyhow! We’re delighted to have Fr O’Neill’s in Croke Park in an All-Ireland final, but the whole experience has been accentuated by having Russell Rovers there as well. Two next door neighbours… Has it ever happened before? Will it ever happen again? We’re blessed.”

Joyce is one of those good-humoured pleasant figures who form the bedrock of GAA clubs. At the moment, he acts as Fr O’Neill’s PRO, registrar and kitman. As we speak, he breaks off to answer the door. Robbie Dalton is outside with a number 14 jersey, the one Declan Dalton, his son, wore for a recent press conference. Joyce’s work never finishes. Right now, this responsibility feels all buzz and no drag.

Dick Fitzgerald echoes this pride of place. “The last time the Cork minors won an All-Ireland, back in 2001, there was a strong East Cork presence,” he notes. “Then you had half the team that won senior All-Irelands in 2004 and 2005 from the same background. I honestly believe strong East Cork hurling means strong Cork hurling.

“Imokilly are our current senior champions. There’s a reasonable argument to say they could be there on Sunday, instead of Borris-Ileigh, if divisional sides were allowed into the Munster Championship.”

A Russell Rovers stalwart, Fitzgerald has seen his home club from all angles. Another version of bedrock, he outlines a classic path: “I got involved with the Rovers, on the administrative side, around 1990. That was the juvenile section, and then I moved on in time to the adult section. Then I got involved with Imokilly, which was a great experience. Ended up becoming Vice Chairman and Chairman. It was a great experience, and I was very privileged.”

This chunk of East Cork is a crisscross of origins and allegiances. As Fitzgerald details: “Funny enough, my home house is just over the border into Ladysbridge [and Ballymacoda] Parish. So I am closely connected to Fr O’Neill’s as well. But my family always went to Shanagarry for national school, and hence the long family involvement with Russell Rovers. I wasn’t going to go any other way.”

His club’s rise from the backwaters of Junior B hurling registers as measured astonishment, quiet pride: “There’s no point in saying other than that the 1990s were tough. When you keep getting severe defeats… And at Junior B, into the bargain. It can really wear you down.

“But we kept going, and we saw it out. The 2000s were better. We were getting to East Cork Junior A Finals, which was a massive improvement. And obviously the last decade has been the best in the club’s history.”

He elaborates: “I think we are a vibrant club now. The juvenile amalgamation with Cloyne is a major success. We launched our lotto recently, and it has been a great take. There are people who will be in Croke Park at the weekend, following us, and a few years ago they mightn’t have known where the field in Shanagarry is.”

A seasoned observer, Fitzgerald appreciates the infusion of energy Russell Rovers received by emerging from Cork: “I think it’s only fair to salute Seán Kelly’s role in all of this, his role in bringing Croke Park to Shanagarry and Ballycotton and Garryvoe and Churchtown [South]. Seán got a fair bit of flak during his time as [GAA] President, on the stuff around opening up Croke Park to rugby and soccer, but no one can say other than that he opened up Croke Park to the Russell Rovers and the Fr O’Neill’s of the hurling world.

“And to Conahy Shamrocks and Tullaroan, of course. I think the club provincial and All-Ireland competitions at Junior and Intermediate are probably the best decision made by the GAA in the 21st century.”

Séamus Joyce counts as another instance of slanted origins. “My homeplace is just over the border into the parish of Midleton and Ballintotas. But we went to national school in Ladysbridge, which funnelled us towards Fr O’Neill’s. You obviously wanted to hurl with the lads you knew from school.

“I actually think, from a Fr O’Neill’s perspective, the whole national school issue is important. The three schools of the time, Ladysbridge, Kilcredan and Ballymacoda, amalgamated into a new school at Kilcredan in 1972. I remember going over there as a ten-year-old in the June, to get used to the place, before we went there for the new school year in September.”

He glosses: “Our parish is a big spread out one. I think having just the one national school is great for cohesion and community. The kids all know each other from the word go. Doesn’t matter where they’re from in the parish. That stuff naturally spins onto the hurling field.”

Bedrock is formed under specific pressures. “I wouldn’t be overdoing my abilities as a hurler,” Joyce laughs. “I played as a young lad, up along, but I finished early enough. Work was a big factor. I was on the road a lot, and time was often scarce. The hurling slipped away a bit.”

As so often, time and experience provided new perspectives in the guise of old attachments: “I got married, to a Dungourney lady, and we were living out of both parishes. And there is that saying about a savage loving his native shore… I won’t say myself and Martina tossed for it! But there was a discussion, and we decided on Ladysbridge. We’ve always been happy with that decision.

“I suppose part of getting involved with the club, and then becoming so immersed in it, is a hint of regret that I didn’t put in more time at hurling as a young man. But you can only do what you can do at a given period. This has been a really great time to be a Fr O’Neill’s person. There is going to be some convoy to Croke Park…”

Thomas Harrington, another Fr O’Neill’s stalwart, hails from the other side of the parish, near Knockadoon Head. His view is bracingly expansive: “I look out the window and my next neighbour is in France!”

The whole school gathered in the hall at Kilcredan National School to support their team. Picture Dan Linehan
The whole school gathered in the hall at Kilcredan National School to support their team. Picture Dan Linehan

A witty thoughtful man, he provides the sort of unforced pride in home ground difficult to resist: “There is a lot more to this part of the world than just the GAA end of things. We have put in cliff walks in recent years, and opened up the place for everyone. We’re not ‘touristy’ as yet, but that might change.

“Knockadoon is an unusual spot. We have military forts that the British built, when they thought Napoleon was going to invade.”

Still, hurling considerations never wane: “I look out at The Boreen, as we call it, and see the houses of another four players who will be in Croke Park on Saturday. When you weigh it up, there has been some amount of good hurlers produced in recent years from Knockadoon to Ballycotton. I hope this weekend will be more proof of that.”

An important player lives in the same house. Saturday evening, Daniel Harrington, youngest of two boys and two girls, will be centre-back and joint captain. His father will be on commentating duties with local radio. Added nerves?

“Having a bit of distraction, something to focus on, is probably no harm,” he begins. “I’ve found in the past that I maybe tended to be a bit hard on Daniel’s play, so as not to have people saying the usual stuff about favouritism. I’d like to think, whatever my faults, people around here would think I call it as I see it, no matter who I’m watching.”

Daniel Harrington is a second cousin of Tomás O’Leary, former rugby star (and former Cork minor hurling prospect). His mother, Nora, is a first cousin of Seánie O’Leary, one of the county’s finest forwards during the 1970s and ’80s. Sarah Harrington, elder sister, captained the Cork camogie team to an Intermediate All Ireland in 2018.

Thomas Harrington turns droll: “You can say he got the hurling from his mother, and the drive and the bullshit from his father! Ah, I wasn’t a good hurler, but I was a determined Junior B corner-forward. There isn’t too much go back in Daniel, in fairness.”

Kieran Ivers, Chairman of Russell Rovers, caught many an eye when he appeared on Prime Timein December 2018. He sat alongside Michael Hegarty, Chairman of Fr O’Neill’s, in McGrath’s Pub in Ballycotton. Both men proved highly articulate when discussing the difficulties facing rural Ireland.

This week, Ivers was no less fluent on various fronts. Composed and perceptive, 37 years old, he pondered the warm relationship between the two clubs. Proximity is far from a guarantee of such warmth. Quite the opposite, in many cases.

“I’d say it is through the marriages, really,” he relates. “What you could call ‘mixed marriages’ around about. You have the Chairman and Secretary of Fr O’Neill’s, Michael [Hegarty] and Liam [Leahy], both married into us. And a lot if it has to do with Garryvoe being that central and convenient meeting point, which made it perfect for the boxing tournament we had between the two clubs in December 2016. That’s why most houses have two flags up at the moment.

“The further you go, it’s less so. If you went into Ballycotton, they wouldn’t have a connection with Fr O’Neill’s at all. So it’s really the village of Shanagarry that would be most connected, connected with the Garryvoe and Ladysbridge side.

“The further you go into Ballymacoda, they would have more alliance with Youghal, in fact. They would go to school in Youghal, whereas the Ladysbridge cohort go to school in Midleton [CBS], as I did, and I know nearly all of them from there.

“It’s cemented through other sports as well. Michael Hegarty would be very involved with greyhounds and coursing, as would one of my own brothers. Michael, in his own right, would be well known. I know Churchtown Coursing Club and Ballymacoda Coursing Club are very closely aligned.”

Any friction, as Ivers recounts with a laugh, is of amusing kind: “You have Thomas O’Brien, the vet in Shanagarry, a lovely man. He gave us a donation for the Cork [Junior A] Final. And he got a phone call from his cousins over in Ballymacoda, and had to give a donation to Fr O’Neill’s as well, because of it!”

Then he moves to Russell Rovers’ somewhat unusual status: “Fr O’Neill’s is a parish in its own right. We could be described as the rural and coastal part of Cloyne Parish. Cloyne, of course, have a very strong identity as a club. They’ve been very successful, relatively, through the years. They’ve come through huge adversity, losing three senior county finals in the Noughties [2004-06].

“They produced Christy Ring. They produced the O’Sullivans. They produced the Cusacks.”

Back in 2011, Ivers became one of the voices urging a departure for both clubs. His quicksilver qualities of summation reappear: “We would have a very good relationship with Cloyne. It would be a different type of relationship than with Fr O’Neill’s. For instance, I couldn’t see us organising a boxing tournament with Cloyne, at that time. It probably would have erupted into something else!”

Humour does not obscure a crucial GAA theme: “Through demographic reasons in both clubs, about eight years ago, an issue was identified: ‘Look, we’re both going to be struggling for numbers.’ I think it’s a common problem in parishes where there is more than one club, especially in the rural area of it.

“So you have to put stuff aside. And a lot of this stuff is hang-ups from 60, 70, 80 years ago. But when you have parents, and when you have people who are graduating from playing into maybe a more administrative role, they see what the future needs to be. They understand what is progressive.

“And you need to put all the older stuff aside and pool resources. So Cloyne and Russell Rovers did it [at juvenile] under the St Colman’s banner. St Colman would be the patron saint of the parish.”

As that Prime Time made clear, Ivers is a refreshingly unbound thinker: “Broadly speaking, if you want to find the success of that [amalgamation], there is a minor county title. But I do look on success very differently. I do look at it as more than medals on a table.

“There is a steady flow of 17- and 18-year-olds now coming into both adult clubs. Without the amalgamation, they would have no juvenile team to play with. There would be no hurling for them. We might have had to send them into Fr O’Neill’s. It’s easy to go under the one banner when you’re both in the same situation.”

He discerns, looking beyond Saturday's clash with Conahy Shamrocks, a carrying wind: “St Colman’s has proved really fruitful, and we have developed a really good working relationship with Cloyne. The by product has been that players are actually now playing at a higher grade from U12 onwards. We’re not just producing a steady flow of players. We’re actually producing players who are coming from playing at that higher level.

“The fruit of that is really showing in Russell Rovers. It’s one of the main reasons we’re heading to Croke Park.”

Teresa Moynihan, mother of captain Daniel and Kevin, with Ollie Roche, Jack Kennefick, Conor Gleeson, Dhane and Abby Murtagh, and Eve Gleeson. Picture: Dan Linehan
Teresa Moynihan, mother of captain Daniel and Kevin, with Ollie Roche, Jack Kennefick, Conor Gleeson, Dhane and Abby Murtagh, and Eve Gleeson. Picture: Dan Linehan

Ivers highlights basics: “The first tenet of the GAA is to provide games for all. And our amalgamation upholds that principle. It provides games for everybody, no matter what. It’s all about inclusiveness.

“If anything, it’s really strengthened relationships overall, outside of hurling as well. It has created a really good sense of parish community and collectivity. And the vast majority, on both sides, are 100% behind the initiative. We have benefited hugely. Would Dónal Óg Cusack have been training our lads without amalgamation? Probably not. You’re getting the best of both worlds, really, from both clubs.”

The work is never finished, with an end point neither desirable nor possible: “I suppose the big worry was: how do you transition off that, off an amalgamation at juvenile, back into an adult club? Particularly with kids now who will start with St Colman’s and finish with St Colman’s, and then go into an adult club that may seem alien to them.

“I suppose this is a responsibility for our club, that this transition is made as easy as possible, providing top level facilities, providing top level coaching. We need to meet expectations in those regards. That’ll be an ongoing challenge for us, of course.”

There is always a broader context than a match result. Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers arrive on Saturday in Croke Park not just as representatives of East Cork but also as the embodiment of GAA dreams. Headline names, such as Ballyhale Shamrocks and Borris-Ileigh, can seem a realm apart. Those places provided men to captain Kilkenny and Tipperary to senior All-Ireland glory, provided a winning captain on 13 separate occasions. A mere two parishes, amazingly enough, account for nearly ten per cent of those All-Ireland captaincies.

The rest of hurling’s realms is different. Associating people’s temperament with their surroundings might be a complicated topic. Yet it is Thomas Harrington, the man with a view, who offers most compelling summary. Folk who live beside the sea know the deceptive nature of appearances. Anything can come over the horizon, for good or ill.

Harrington welcomes this tension. “Whatever happens at the weekend, I’ll be peaceful,” he insists. “Whatever the result, I’ll consider the last few months nearly the best of my life, outside of family things. I like the pressure Fr O’Neill’s and the players have been under. It’s bringing out the best in them. The same for Russell Rovers, with their last minute free to bring the [All Ireland] semi-final to extra time.”

He continues: “We could go on about the bad luck of losing two starting players to suspension. We haven’t done that, and we won’t do that. I’ve said all along we have an excellent panel, excellent subs. We have excellent management. Saturday evening is the time to prove that, against the fine team that is Tullaroan.”

Then wise words from a man who knows horizons: “Because if you don’t try your absolute flat out best, you will never know what you actually are.”

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