To understand the changing heart of the GAA, it’s worth a trip to the Cork City Junior C Football League final.
Days after rural depopulation was discussed at the launch of the Cork GAA Strategic Plan, two urban clubs, equally struggling for numbers, meet in uncelebrated surrounds. Players comfortably outnumber spectators, even though hosts Rochestown bring only three subs, and Redmonds the one.
Whatever about their rivalry, the clubs have a mutual understanding of their shared plight. After close scares with folding, they rage against the dying of the light — a constant struggle to keep 15 togged out, which neither could manage in hurling. For Redmonds, once All-Ireland champions, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Whereas the Tower Street club’s past glories are recorded online, Rochestown are completely off the grid. Treasurer Nellie Murphy goes home to collect a 10-page folder documenting their highest peak — reaching the City Junior A hurling final in 1974.
“It’s realised that a nursery is vital to the continuation of the club,” reads one line. Four decades later, that underage system still isn’t possible — much like Redmonds.
Despite any perceived catchment areas, their cores aren’t places but groups of families, plus the friends they drag along. They’re squeezed out of the underage space by Douglas and Nemo Rangers, St Finbarr’s and Bishopstown, and Passage too.
“You’re in the middle of bigger clubs and you only get the leftovers,” says Rochestown president Tom Breen, who’s 44 years on the committee.
“We’ve 25 players, counting everyone, and a committee of about 10. (We’re) struggling on.”
Talking to volunteers around the field, a common thread is the high retirement age.
Rochestown chairman Michael Corkery played into his 40s and, like Breen, has been involved with the club for 44 years. His brother Gerard, the secretary, retired aged 43 after winning the C championship in 2006.
Murphy, a club history in human form, was a founding member in 1962. Her husband Seán played his last games of football and hurling aged 62.
On the Redmonds sideline, you ask manager Francis Holland, 61 now, when he retired. “Last week, believe it or not,” he laughs. “I actually started the semi-final — we’d just the bare 15.”
Between roars of “have a go off it!” for close-in frees, Holland reveals he’s been involved since he was an eight-year-old in the street leagues. Three years ago, he was asked to rebuild a football team, which includes his sons Dale and Nathan.
“It’s very hard to get young fellas around the area but we still put 15 out every game. We’ll struggle on and keep it going anyway.”
Opposition manager and RTÉ broadcaster Pat McAuliffe is similarly credited with reviving Rochestown’s fortunes from the brink of collapse. Like Holland, he played three games last year, aged 57, to make up the numbers and keep the show on the road.
Donal Collins remembers those bad times. In his Blackrock days, he won an All-Ireland minor hurling title in 1969. His brother Seán was Cork captain. It’s a much different landscape in Rochestown.
“We nearly folded about seven or eight years ago,” says Collins, in between fulfilling his umpiring duties.
“Pat hadn’t been involved in a long time but he heard that we were on the verge of closing and came on board. He mobilised us, got players in and he’s still with us. He was the motivating force behind us staying together.
“We’re a one-team club now but we’re still there anyway.”
The lack of young talent remains a constant worry.
Before rushing away to umpire at the opposite end, Michael, the older of the Corkery brothers, laughs: “My own young fella played with Passage. I wouldn’t mind people playing underage all the way up but he’s gone away now anyway, so he won’t be playing with them either.”
On the Redmonds’ sideline, Paddy O’Shea is introduced by Holland as the oldest member of the club. He laments the loss of South Parish schools, Sullivan’s Quay and the South Monastery, which deprived them of a feeder system.
“I felt very bad that my own two sons had to play with the Barr’s because Redmonds had no underage structure by the time they were coming along,” he says.
“It was a fright to see your own (with the Barr’s) when I was so dedicated to Redmonds.”
They weren’t half bad, either. Billy led the Barr’s to their last senior hurling title in 1993, while Pádraig, another county champion, was a selector with the blues’ county football finalists.
In another life, they could’ve been Redmonds men.
“I’d be very worried (about the future). It’s hard. A sign of the times,” continues O’Shea.
“The big clubs are getting bigger. The likes of Ballincollig, Sarsfields and Douglas — the population is there and they’re bound to have teams then.”
Fellow volunteer Eamon Fitzgibbon adds: “In the 50s, we had an A, B and C team but we’re lucky to scrape one team now because all around Redmonds area is apartments. Where I’m living, there’s only two of the old neighbours there.”
Inner-city northside clubs Fr O’Callaghan’s, Shandon Rovers and Gurranabraher have folded in recent years. A 2011 Irish Examiner article called Redmonds “Cork’s forgotten club”. An amalgamation with Ballyphehane didn’t last, which also ended any talks of Rochestown joining up with Ballinure.
“One or two clubs may have to amalgamate or restructure. That’s inevitable,” said Cork County Board’s senior administrator Diarmuid O’Donovan last week.
“If you look at our Junior C competition, there were 10 clubs involved. Six of those wouldn’t have much membership outside what’s on the field, and one of them had just one player in his 20s. The rest were older.” He continued: “Those may be the clubs that keep going because they’re really doing it for the love of the parish and of the GAA.”
That love was in evidence on Sunday, as Rochestown finally got one over 14-man Redmonds, 5-7 to 0-9.
Stephen Carroll was the four-goal hero, although McAuliffe took none of the credit for his switch to full-forward: “I had him as a centre-back and in midfield over the years. He kept on to me to give him a forward shirt and he scored 3-5 in the semi-final against Nemo and 4-2 today.”
Carroll joked he just wanted less running. That was done by Waterford United top-goalscorer Mark O’Sullivan, fresh from winning the Airtricity League First Division, alongside Paul Hartnett, from Killavullen, in midfield.
Michael Finn, a 42-year-old recruit from Nemo Rangers, belied his years to make two goalline blocks to help captain and goalie Rob Stuart keep a clean sheet.
The other goalscorer Killian McCarthy is a rare teenager in Rochestown colours. “That keeps us alive,” says McAuliffe. “A lot of people were thinking about where they’d go but this will give everyone a boost because the committee are unbelievable to keep it going.
“We’re always looking for players – give a shout out for that anyway,” adds Michael Corkery.
Every committee member remembers to thank Rochestown College for the use of their pitch and sports hall. Everybody. Always remembering the contribution of others.
The battle for survival will continue. For Redmonds, Jonathan Cramer, an ex-Cobh Ramblers player, played his last game ahead of a transfer to the Barr’s.
An exultant Gerard Corkery surmises: “It’s a constant struggle but it’s great.
“We lost four players at the start of the year but there’s three guys came up and turned out to be great players.
“The thankless jobs are the people going to the meetings. We’re only one team but all the work that’s needed… Nellie had a hip operation and the meeting was held up in her house. It’s an amazing set-up.”
Long may it prosper.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved