It remains one of Cork’s most romantic titles, won without expectation and savoured all the more as a result.
In 1966, the Leesiders had been 12 years without an All-Ireland title, and despite a crop of promising youngsters it didn’t look like their famine would end anytime soon. The county’s best chance of success looked to be their U21 side, which featured Gerald, Charlie and Justin McCarthy, as well as an eye-catching forward from Bride Rovers.
Sean Barry first came to prominence as a dazzling colleges player with St Finbarr’s Farranferris, helping them to the Harty and All-Ireland titles in 1963. His displays were still the stuff of legend a generation later in the school.
“I thought that that was the end of my hurling, winning with Farranferris,” he recalls now. “I joined the Kiltegan Fathers and basically focused on my studies. But I kept hurling, and in 1964 I went to study at UCC, so I was hurling in Cork with them. In ‘66 I was called onto the Cork panel.”
It was an interesting experience: many of the players were strangers to Barry. He had come across the men in the dressing-room as opponents on the field of play without ever holding a conversation with any of them. He got to know his new teammates quickly.
“We had a young team, there wasn’t huge pressure there,” he says. “Maybe some of them felt it, but I didn’t. Cork hadn’t won an All- Ireland since 1954, but it wasn’t something on my mind, certainly.”
What loomed larger was a Tipperary side who ruled that era in hurling with an iron grip and looked odds-on for another All-Ireland title in 1966. Legend has it the Cork players were having a cup of tea after a summer training session when their trainer Jim ‘Tough’ Barry burst into the room with incredible news: Limerick had beaten Tipperary in the championship.
“Maybe they took Limerick for granted, I don’t now. But it was a huge development, that they were gone out of the running. Because they were so good, every county would have felt they had a chance then. No back door, so Tipp were gone.
“Kilkenny had been contesting All-Irelands, so had Wexford. They would have been confident. But without Tipp involved, we were all confident.”
It wasn’t a smooth run for Cork. They needed a late, late Justin McCarthy goal from a long-range free to force a draw with Clare in the Munster championship, but they eventually forced their way to the All-Ireland final.
“We stayed out in Lucan the night before the game, which mightn’t sound significant, but it was a long spin in from there to Croke Park on the Sunday. We sang the whole way on the bus. That took a lot of the tension out of it: we were relaxed in each other’s company.”
The pomp and circumstance in Jones’s Road ratcheted the pressure back up, however. Barry can recall that as the 50th anniversary of 1916, there was a good deal of ceremony before the game began: veterans of the Rising were presented to the crowd, then the Artane Boys Band played a lengthy version of Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile. The clock ticked on and on, but eventually the ball was thrown in.
The man from east Cork took in his surroundings: “The first thing I’d heard that morning was the weather forecast: a bad day, rain expected. That time you wanted it dry, and a light ball. I was the free-taker, and the conditions could have a big influence on your performance, particularly with the balls we had to play with then.
“There were showers early that day and the conditions were slippery enough. And in the first-half, I mishit a free.”
Barry didn’t connect properly and the ball flew in low: Ollie Walsh batted it back out of the Kilkenny goal but Colm Sheehan of Cork came storming in and buried the rebound. Contrary to what Colm says, that wasn’t planned,” laughs Barry.
“But it was a boost to us. We weren’t an experienced team, and Kilkenny were the favourites, so it helped us to settle.”
The goal kept Cork in touch at half-time, 0-7 to 1-2, and they were better after the break, running out winners 3-9 to 1-10.
Barry pays a glowing tribute to the Cork defence — “The fact they held the Kilkenny forwards, that made a world of difference” — and says the closing minutes were enjoyable.
“Ah, it was great. You knew you wouldn’t be caught, that the game was ours. The All-Ireland was won.”
He would go on to make his career as a missionary in Africa but never forgot the game. The All-Ireland was a bonus, as he says. “It was great, because as far as I was concerned, my career was over once I’d left Farranferris. Over the years I fell back in with the club, Bride Rovers, when I’d come back, and I got another All-Ireland medal as a sub in 1970.
“I stayed in touch. There was a TV channel in South Africa that was very good on sports, and the odd time they’d have the All-Ireland hurling final on, which was great, though it doesn’t run any more. Obviously, you can follow the games now online, which is great compared to years ago, when you’d get a newspaper a few weeks after the games had been played. Then it was very hard to follow.”
The 1966 team recently had a reunion in Cork. Because of where they led half a century ago, they’ve always been easy to follow.
Don’t miss the Irish Examiner GAA Podcast. Daithi Regan, Tadhg O’Connor, Eddie Keher, Eamonn Murphy and PM O’Sullivan join Peter McNamara to discuss the Kilkenny v Tipperary All-Ireland hurling final.
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