As part of his preparation for religious life, Fr Pat Barry had to serve as a deacon in a parish: six months’ worth of pastoral experience ahead of his ordination, back in 1976. He was assigned to a parish on Canvey Island in Essex.
Barry already had a National Hurling League medal in his back pocket, won in the red and white of Cork, but for all intents and purposes inter-county hurling was in his past.
“I wasn’t even training with the Cork panel at that stage,” he recalls now. “Gone.” The parish priest he worked with in Essex was from Offaly and wanted to go back to Ireland on his holidays that July. Barry agreed to cover him - it was a one-man parish - so after he was ordained in June the Corkman returned to Essex to let the Offalyman home. Then the phone rang.
“It was Frank Murphy, asking if I’d come back to play for Cork in the Munster final. Pat McDonnell was injured so they needed a full-back - though I didn’t play full-back for the Glen - and Frank asked if I could come back for that weekend.” Barry couldn’t comply. To a modern eye the notion of parachuting a player into the cauldron of a Munster final might be outlandish, but Barry was in a different bind: he was the only priest in the parish, after all. Murphy saw his point and said goodbye.
“Then he rang back. If he could get a priest out to Essex for the weekend would I come back for the match?” St Colman’s College Fermoy supplied a priest for the weekend and Barry came back. That September he had an All-Ireland medal after Cork beat Wexford in a shoot-out. My life was focused on being ordained, and I’d been appointed to Nigeria. It was a hectic enough summer, but great. And great to captain the Glen to the county then as well.”
He started off playing underage with Ballyphehane, but his father was from Blackpool and his uncles played with the Glen - Paddy ‘Chancer’ Barry among them. Family tradition directed him back across the river, where he starred for Glen Rovers and St Nick’s.
After the leaving cert he went to Maynooth. By the time he got there it was opening up: lay students were attending the college, and they entered a team in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
“We had a very good team. Iggy Clarke, Sean Silke, Sean Stack, Andy Fenton, Paudie and Willie Fitzmaurice, they were all inter-county hurlers, so it was good preparation for club and county games.”
Maynooth won two Fitzgibbon Cups - in 1973 and 1974, when Barry was captain. At that stage he had his first county medal, when Glen Rovers beat Youghal, and he’d also had a taste of senior intercounty action. Not in hurling, though.
“I played against Waterford in the 1972 Munster senior football championship but I was a sub when Kerry won the Munster final that year. I packed it in then, apart from playing for St Nick’s.”
Though he had three months’ holidays every summer, being based in Maynooth didn’t help him nail down a spot on the Cork senior hurling team. Still, he was a key player on the Glen’s side, particularly the championship-winning team in 1976.
Shades of this year and last? Blackrock had a star-studded team at the time and beat the Glen comprehensively in the 1975 decider in the Mardyke, but the ‘76 decider was fixed for the new stadium, Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
The Blackpool men were still underdogs but the group was strong, driven to make up for ‘75: they moved training out of Spring Lane and up to the ‘Dyke to avail of a wider arena. In the final Blackrock impressed early on but the Glen came with a late burst. Barry was the first captain to walk up the steps and lift the Sean Óg Murphy Cup in the new stadium.
“It was fantastic - the place was brand new, and we thought it was cutting edge, space age stuff.
“Still, I felt the county final would be my last game. That that was it, and that was the plan. Maybe ten days after the county final I left for Nigeria. Was I emotional? Yes, but the way I looked at it, this was a whole other life, it was what I wanted to do. There were no second thoughts.”
His teammates knew he was going, and they marked his departure. Cork had a Wembley tournament game and Ray Cummins was captain, but he made Barry lead them out.
“It was a nice touch from Ray,” he says. “I ended my career with Cork lifting a cup in Wembley.”
Nigeria would be a culture shock now, but 40 years ago it was like another world.
Communication with Ireland was difficult. Colleagues who lost parents mightn’t get the news for weeks after the event; the phone service rarely functioned and letters, the main link to home, took weeks to arrive.
Barry stayed in touch with home via the back pages. His mother posted Monday’s Examiner out to him every week: “It took a couple of weeks to get out to me but that didn’t matter. The news was still fresh.
“Life was different in every way. Even the climate . . . very humid, very hot. Getting to know the people, though, they were very welcoming and open. They treated you as one of their own.”
He didn’t go cold turkey with the hurling: he packed hurleys and a ball in his luggage and found another Corkman in Africa who could puck around with him, Fr Martin O’Farrell from Fair Hill.
The locals saw the pale foreigners and shook their heads, but the practice came in handy when Barry returned home. Every two years he came back to Cork on holiday, and in 1978 and 1980 he ended up playing in two more county finals with the Glen.
“You’d have a few butterflies alright. It took a big effort to get match fit, and there was no allowances made for your collar. Unfortunately we lost the two county finals.”
He spent twenty years in Nigeria, returned to Cork for six years, and he’s worked in Zambia since 2003.
“They’re very different countries. There are 170 million people in Nigeria, a lot of tribal difficulties, religious issues, though where I worked the population was 65% Muslim and we had no problems.
“People wouldn’t understand the scale of things in Africa - I’d be going back out and someone would say, ‘oh you’re going back to Africa, would you post a letter when you get back’. The letter might be for Kenya, the other side of the continent.”
There were rewards, though. Building a parish was something to look back on.
“When I went to Zambia we started a new parish, and that’s built up now. It’s not a matter of structures, it’s a community, and a spirit among people, trying to get them to work together. You’re not trying to impose things on them - a priest has to work with people rather than to impose his thinking on them.”
The memories of his playing days are populated by immortals. Pressed for quality he points to the full-forward line he saw upfield when playing for Cork.
“Seanie O’Leary, Ray Cummins, Charlie McCarthy . . . they were all players who could get a goal if you needed it. Exceptional. But winning the three in a row showed the strength of Cork that time.
“The game’s evolved. It’s different now. That time there was more ground hurling, more overhead pulling, but it’s evolved now into a possession game, a running game. What I don’t like is everyone trying to pick the ball now, the rucks that develop around the ball aren’t attractive to me; I’d like to see more ground hurling. We were committed, and dedicated to training, but nowadays there’s much more. We didn’t go to the gym. It’s a different game, but I certainly wouldn’t condemn it.”
Other things have changed, too. Improved. The Internet has meant logging on to C103 for radio commentary from county championship games, or GAAGO for live coverage of the intercounty scene.
“I’m on the digital Examiner now as well, that helps too. I come back every year for six weeks and I’d try to time that for around the All-Ireland weekend.
“If that doesn’t work out we’d usually have a few people together to watch the game, it’s a social occasion.
“There’s not that many Irish people in Lusaka, though the population is three million. Zambia is poor - there might only be electricity for ten hours of the day sometimes - but politically it’s very stable.”
As we say goodbye, there’s a glint of the competitor who rescued his county in a Munster final all those years ago.
“The city needs a senior title, the city clubs are putting in a huge effort at underage level. Obviously, it’d be a great boost to the Glen. A performance would be great, but a win would be better.”
Former Cork hurler Fr Pat Barry won’t be in Páirc Uí Rinn to watch his beloved Glen Rovers in tomorrow’s Cork SHC final. But he’s become well accustomed to missing such great occasions
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