To paraphrase Lenin, there are decades when nothing happens in the GAA, and there are weeks when a club championship comprising a group-stage format can be played out in empty stadiums and beamed live into living-rooms around the country. Even without the intrusion of a global pandemic, the club game in Cork breached new frontiers this summer, with the implications of the current crisis merely augmented the novelty of it all. Thankfully, the dichotomy of a traditional Glen-Rockies final managed to assuage that longing for sameness intrinsic to many stalwarts of the association.
You see, change has always been a hard sell within the GAA, so much so that it took the organisation over 100 years to come to the conclusion that teams training for six months in the depths of winter and early spring might deserve more than one bite of the cherry come summer. Over the past twenty years however, the installation of back-doors into the architecture of club championships became normalised and after years of structural alterations, the idea of adding ‘round-robin’ extensions was no longer deemed too garish. To be fair, we were at it long before it became mainstream. Back in ’78, the Nemo footballers became the first team in Cork to win a championship despite losing a game, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of many (although isn’t that always the case with Nemo?). Thankfully, Blackrock prevailed with an unblemished copybook (on the field at least) this time around, which should keep proponents of the old order at bay for another year.
The new-fangled senior hurling championship opened with the meeting of the Glen and the ‘Barrs, the pageantry of which was decorated by the national coverage and our innate yearning to showcase to the rest of country one of the most storied rivalries in the annals of our local game. With the eyes of a nation fixed firmly on Leeside, both sides triumphed in encapsulating the contrasting strands of 21st century Cork hurling – one battling in vain against the weight of its own history, the other carried on the tidal wave of Hoggy’s unparalleled brilliance. At the very least, the game afforded even the flimsiest of Cork hurling supporters to solemnly pronounce that “Cork hurling needs a strong ‘Barrs”, a nondescript cliché which nonetheless leaves the other party in no doubt that this fella knows his stuff. Like all such hackneyed proclamations you see, it contains a semblance of truth. Cork hurling really could do with a strong ‘Barrs.
But a strong Glen and a strong Rockies at any given time isn’t a bad days work either. Which is why last weekend’s pairing provoked such excitement, with hurling’s traditional heartlands finally wresting power back from the upstarts out East. The first all-city final since 1990, the first meeting between two of the ‘Big Three’ since ’88 and the first between the two most decorated club sides since ’78. Sure, the ‘little All-Ireland’ moniker was laced with pretentiousness back in the day but that was no bad thing either. A bit of bombast never went astray where Cork hurling is concerned. It’s in our nature. We’ll bemoan the loss of the provincial club championships while we’re at it. Kiladangan, Ballygunner and the likes are off the hook for now while that age-old question of who would come out on top between Ballyhale and the Rockies will unfortunately remain unanswered for another year at least.
Further down the food chain and away from the bright lights of Pairc Úi Chaoimh, the local GAA scene only helped to copper fasten the newfound freakishness of everyday life, with even the most undistinguished of encounters becoming all-ticketed affairs. “I’m in a draw up the club anyway so fingers crossed. Look, I’ll keep my ear to the ground and sure hopefully something might crop up over the next few days”. Back in January, that was the sort of discourse that we’d hoped to be engaging in come August and September. Texts to club chairmen and secretaries, favours asked and promises made in the frantic efforts of procurement. “I was onto yer man earlier and he says he might have something for me. Sure, he owes me from the last time!”. For years, the scavenge for tickets has been a traditional facet of the GAA’s Autumn. For those lucky enough to still be involved, it was a ritual which only added to the sense of occasion surrounding the biggest day in Ireland’s sporting calendar. Transposed onto the first round of the Junior A hurling championship however and the whole rigmarole wasn’t long in losing its appeal. All sold out, with tickets invariably referred to as ‘gold dust’. Just to see Dillons take on Blackrock’s third team. A dystopian world indeed.
What we didn’t know then of course was that those were the good old days, before the powers that be were forced to close the gates to the public completely. It used to be that ‘behind closed doors’ games became the furtive setting for all sorts of hearsay and unsubstantiated barstool discussion that could be embellished without refutation. Many a club player has been known to “cause wreck” when tasked with proving his worth away from the prying eyes of the public. Many counties have been known to go to war with each other in empty stadia, safe in the knowledge that their timber-shattering misdemeanours were beyond reproach. So and so would have been reffing and he’d have “swallowed the whistle and let them at it for the hour”. Apparently. Those were the days, when fact and fiction could seamlessly coalesce, and we could pick and choose whatever we wished to believe, adding a few arms and legs along the way.
The rapid emergence of live streaming has put paid to that. While loyal patrons have been domiciled at home (or ‘dry’ pubs providing a big screen and extensive culinary options), amateur clubmen have been called upon to offer the play-by-play, most of whom struggle to maintain a façade of partiality while fighting the insatiable and wholly natural urge to castigate their fellow clubmen. For some however, the uneasiness of watching a club match from the discomfort of their own homes has proved too much to bear. The past few months have seen photos circulating online of men and women utilising the buckets of diggers as makeshift vantage points, adding an extra layer of farce to the whole situation. Closer to home however, and with Massey Fergusons in short supply out in Ballintemple, the humble ladder has proven to be a loyal companion for those wishing to circumvent the city division’s ticketing protocol. Borrowing from a well-worn idiom referencing the inaccessibility of a certain military site in Kentucky, “it’s like trying to get into Ballinlough”.
Ever since Marty Morrissey’s uttered that immortal line in the wake of the 1992 Munster Football Final, his words have been played upon and regurgitated ad nauseum on social media and elsewhere in the aftermath of any significant GAA victory. We all know the one. “There won’t be a [insert appropriate cultural reference pertaining to the club/county in question] for a week”. Well, fair play to the Rockies lads, they’ve outdone them all. After they emerged triumphant from Sunday’s titanic battle and brought the Sean Óg Murphy Cup back to Church Road for the first time in eighteen years, I think it’s fair to say that there won’t be a game played in Ireland for weeks. A fitting conclusion to the strangest of summers. But still, we’d probably have taken it back in May.