A Kerryman called Muiris McGillicuddy was trying to coach a gaggle of awkward Cork teenagers in the art of kicking points from distance. A break in training allowed Young his chance, and evincing the certitude of somebody who had won an All-Ireland football medal at centrerfield — for Cork in 1945 — he made his pronouncement.
“A Mhuiris,” he bellowed towards his fellow member of staff at Colaiste an
Spioraid Naoimh. “That’s the way we’ll beat ye in years to come, that’s
exactly how we’ll do it too, by kicking points long. We won’t always be
down, you know.”
And with that he was gone, squelching underfoot, enjoying the quality of his heckle, and so heartened by the prospect of a brighter future for his beloved county that his bald head shook as he went.
Whenever a Munster football final between Cork and Kerry looms into view — and next Sunday’s clash isn’t exactly eagerly awaited in my home county — it’s impossible not to recall the darkest days of my adolescence.
Growing up in Cork in the 1970s and early 1980s, the annual defeat by Kerry was so much part of summer’s ritual that it became difficult for my generation not to invest our oppressors with near-mythical powers. Before adulthood bestowed the gift of perspective and allowed us to acknowledge the sheer greatness of Mick O’Dwyer’s team, we could not comprehend why they were so superior.
In the absence of logic, our imaginations were vulnerable to provocation. One year, news broke that Eoin Liston might not be coming home from America for the championship, and our hearts leapt with joy at the thought of Kerry without their giant full-forward.
Glee soon turned to gloom as it emerged that Liston would be back after all, and in the meantime, he was keeping fit by training in the Catskill Mountains. For children weaned on the television program Grizzly Adams, this was all we needed to hear.
Suddenly, we conjured up images of The Bomber trundling up and down the mountain-side, frost clinging to his beard, stopping now and again to wrestle fearsome black bears. Not only was he coming back, worse, he was going to come back bigger, better, stronger.
Of course, Liston mightn’t have been doing a lot of working-out over there in the States but that didn’t quite fit with my imaginings of our county neighbors as a different, more dedicated race.
My father once gifted me Mick O’Connell’s autobiography, “A Kerry Footballer,” and for an impressionable young boy, there was no way back. Again and again, I used to turn to his account of leaving the Sam Maguire behind him in Croke Park after captaining his county to the 1959 All-Ireland.
I’d never even seen proper footage of O’Connell play but I read the lines “…what was on my mind was the problem of securing my punt above high water mark when I reached the island (Valentia) that night,” and I thought all Kerry footballers must be such zealots.
Perhaps the worst of it was we had no memory of things ever being different. We listened to stories of the 1973 Cork team and wondered if we would ever know such a powerful bunch of men.
Our elders wrapped endless anecdotes about Declan Barron’s fielding and Jimmy Barry Murphy’s crewcut around themselves like comfort blankets as their children sought consolation elsewhere.
When Pat Spillane reached the world final of television’s ‘Superstars,’ wearing a pair of vaguely obscene shorts that revealed the whitest legs in international sport, we laughed for days at the spectacle. In the absence of any chance of actually beating Kerry, we had to find little triumphs where we could.
A character by the name of Sweeney wrote a Cork Evening Echo column with just that purpose, leavening our depression with his wit. On Saturday evenings in the summer, we found solace in his relentless lampooning of the Kerry manager’s annual post-Munster final comments about Cork always giving his side their most difficult game in the championship.
One article culminated in O’Dwyer, unable to finish his speech due to the onset of maniacal laughter, being carried away, howling, by men in white coats. No journalist ever captured the angst of his audience better than Sweeney.
And then it happened. We actually beat them, and at 12 years old, I discovered the meaning of the word irony. As Tadhg Murphy plundered a last-minute goal and his place in folklore in 1983, I was sitting at home, not even five miles away from Pairc Ui Chaoimh, listening to the radio.
On the morning of the match, the inclement weather and the prospect of one more loss was enough to persuade my father that it wasn’t worth the bother. Having missed out on witnessing history, I made do with the highlights on The Sunday Game that night, but watching in the certain knowledge that Cork would fashion a victory right at the death was itself the sweetest thing.
Even when the yoke had later been properly lifted by Billy Morgan’s great team of the late eighties, there was still no escaping the shadow they cast across our young lives.
At University College Cork one afternoon in the early 1990s, I came across Pa