Rebel with a cause: Michael Moynihan looks at the life of John Horgan, Cork hurling captain, and Blackrock club legend
The passing of former Cork defender John Horgan recently brought into sharp focus the power of Cork hurling in the 70s.
Horgan came to prominence in senior hurling in the late 60s, an ideal arrival time, and his haul of medals was enviable. All-Ireland titles at minor level (1967), U21 (1970 and 1971) and senior (1970, 1976-8); three All-Stars and Texaco Hurler of the Year (1978).
Plus five county championship-winning teams with Blackrock, captaining them to victory in 1971, 1973, and 1978. In those three seasons they also won the Munster and All-Ireland club titles.
He moved from the Passage club to Blackrock in 1968 but as Tom O’Sullivan from Blackrock says, there were strong family connections to Church Road.
“John’s father was from Ballinlough — near the pitch — and played for Blackrock in the 1947 junior county final, the last time they won it, and in the 1948 senior county final.” O’Sullivan, a lifelong member of the Rockies, can recall the blond youngster arriving in 1968, when he was 18.
“Three years later he was the captain of the club, at a time when the players picked the captain, and he was the captain when Blackrock won the county in 1971, in what was probably the biggest match that Blackrock ever played.”
The context is everything here. The 70s is now seen as a golden decade for Cork hurling, and rightly so, but the dominance of the red jersey was based on a savagely competitive county senior hurling championship, and 1971 set the tone for the decade.
“We hadn’t played against the Barrs in a county final since 1926. In that county final Blackrock had fielded 10 of the Cork All-Ireland-winning team and the Barrs had none, Blackrock were winning well at half-time — but the Barrs beat them that day.
“The tension was huge in that county final in 1971. Over 20,000 people there, everyone was aware of that history, but John kept everybody’s feet on the ground. He was a great captain.
“And the game was dog-rough. Fellas needed to keep their heads, because there were fights all over the field, a couple of players were put off, and there were suspensions given out afterwards for other incidents.
“John was a rock that day. Absolutely fantastic. He really played a captain’s role. That to me was his biggest test, and he really stood up for us.”
That was a breakthrough for Blackrock, a first title for a group of players who would win five counties in the 70s (and contest two more finals). On the three occasions Horgan was captain, the club also collected Munster and All-Ireland titles.
For a quiet man, he was a strong captain, says O’Sullivan.
“If it had to be said, he’d say it. Fellas could be put in their box. One of his teammates said to me the day of his funeral that at half-time in one county final Hoggy laid it on the line for him. ‘I’m after hitting three balls up to you,’ he said, ‘And you’ve put the three of them wide. Don’t do it again.’ But he was also good for youngsters who came onto the team. He’d look after them and made sure they settled in.
“With that blond hair, he couldn’t get away with anything on the field because everyone knew where he was at all times, but he was a very strong man physically, much like his father.
“The Horgans were very strong men always. He was a genuine, genuine gentleman. On the field he’d kill you if he had to, but he was a gentleman.”
Denis Coughlan was stationed on the wing outside Horgan on the Cork team that won three All-Irelands in a row.
“I always felt in our time that there was more play going down the left wing of the defence, maybe because right-handed players in the opposing defence are oriented that way.
“Because of that I thought John was ideally suited to that role, left-corner-back could be very demanding, he was very good to attack the ball.
“He fitted in very well with that Cork team — he was a shy man but got on well with everybody and was held in very high regard, not surprisingly with his record. As a club captain in particular he had a phenomenal record, and when we were going for four in a row in 1979, we were genuinely delighted for him because he was captain, even though it didn’t work out.”
Galway beat Cork in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final. Coughlan’s young son Jonathan had never seen Cork lose a game before that day.
“I have a vivid memory of Jonathan, who was eight, coming into the dressing room afterwards and he came over to me. John Horgan was togging on next to me, and in fairness he caught Jonathan up and put him sitting down between us. They were both crying.”
At club level, Coughlan says there was no point in coming up with a plan to stifle Horgan’s influence in local clashes.
“That Blackrock team had Dermot McCurtain, John, Tom Cashman in the defence alone, remember,” says Coughlan. “Stars everywhere, and you’d always know where John was, obviously, the blond hair.
”Something I always associated with him was the song, ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. That was his party piece, and he sang that beautifully.”
Tom O’Sullivan says Horgan was always a good companion at a game.
“He was great to read how a match was going, he’d say, ‘they could try this, or that, it’s going against them,’ or ‘that fella is making it very hard for himself’.
“He was very good to Blackrock, very loyal. After he packed in playing, he came back one year with the seniors as a trainer. He gave another year to the minors after that as well, and then he packed it up.
“I asked him about that a couple of years ago. Why he didn’t come back and do more coaching with the club.
“‘Tommy,’ he said to me, ‘It wasn’t in me to tell anyone what to do.’”
John Horgan passed away on June 10. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth (Liz) (nee McCarthy) and daughters Gillian (Kumar Das), Laraine, (Norton), Debbie (Whelan) and Ashleigh, sister Hilda and grandchildren Sam, Jaya, Anjali, Libby, Lúc, Becca and Éabha.
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