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Bottled Up In Cork: A Loss In Hurling Is More Than A Loss

The biggest crowd in Europe on Saturday will not be watching detached professionals kissing the badge of their latest football team, but at the All-Ireland Gaelic football final. Two amateur teams, Dublin and Mayo, will attempt to win the coveted All-Ireland trophy for Gaelic football in a replay following a rare draw two weeks ago.
Karl Burke/AFP via Getty Images|

Croke Park pictured in 2016.

Limerick routed Cork, 3-32 to 1-22, in yesterday’s All-Ireland hurling final. Limerick are now being hailed as the highest-scoring champions in the modern history of the ancient Gaelic game and as a budding dynasty, having won three of the last four national titles. But in the long pregame show broadcast on RTE, the state-run TV network based in Dublin’s coolly named Donnybrook district that produces the hurling broadcasts, commentators focused more on a non-winning streak: Cork’s failure to capture an All-Ireland hurling crown since 2005. 

“There’s a famine in Cork,” Donal Og Cusack, a hurler who played on Cork’s last three title teams, said in a brogue as heavy as his mood throughout the telecast.

Marty Morrissey, another Cork native who is sort of the Al Michaels of Ireland and handled play-by-play duties for the hurling final, took that sliotar and ran with it just before the opening throw-in. “In Cork, they call it a famine,” Morrissey said. 

The Irish, of course, know from famines. One of the “great” ones hit in the late 1840s, when a fungus wiped out the potato crop. The food shortages were eventually blamed for a million deaths and the emigration of another million citizens in 1847 alone. Cork, an epicenter of that famine, lost a quarter of its population to blight or flight. 

Cork would later become known as a hotbed for hurling, the provincial Irish sport that no North American has ever accurately described in print but which has discernible similarities to a pair of our pastimes: lacrosse and kill-the-guy-with-the-ball. Cork teams have won 30 championships in the history of the national tournament, which since its 1887 founding has been played by squads of amateur players who are permitted to represent only their home county. That’s slightly more All-Ireland titles than the New York Yankees have World Series trophies. So it’s understandable why Cork's lack of any recent big wins would leave Rebel supporters peeved. But it’s also true that the Yankees haven’t earned a ring since the ‘00s, and New Yorkers aren’t comparing the Bronx Bombers’ drought to, say, 9/11. So who says it’s OK to invoke a tragedy dubbed such things as “the most profound, and probably the most catastrophic event in modern Irish history” when talking about a game?

Well, who says All-Ireland hurling is just a game? 

Not Cusack. After the famine reference he mulled the cultural and historic significance the pastime held in his country in general and his home county in particular, and, depending on how much a Liam MacCarthy Cup means to you, began waxing either bombastic or poetic.

“Hurling is like music!” Cusack said.  

Cusack and Morrissey aren't the first Corkonians convinced that the All-Ireland championship transcends sport. Some of history's most famous Irishmen also held such a worldview. Michael Collins, the legendary intelligence chief of the Irish Republican Army in the freedom fight against British occupiers, showed up at Croke Park in Dublin for a 1921 playoff between teams from Dublin and Kilkenny. At that very same stadium only a year earlier, British soldiers had opened fire on unarmed fans and players during a Gaelic football game, a slaughter which became known as Bloody Sunday. (COVID concerns caused the shelving of all the major 100th anniversary commemorations of Bloody Sunday scheduled for Croke Park and elsewhere last year.) Though a truce between rebels and occupiers was allegedly in effect in 1921, leaders of the occupying forces had long had a bounty on Collins, dead or alive. But Collins believed that the popularity of hurling among the Irish, being a completely homegrown endeavor that separated them from the British, would help their fight for independence, and wanted to do what he could to grow the game. According to an historical account of his day at Croke Park published by the Irish government, Collins told the hurlers. ​​”You are not only upholding the great game,” Collins said, “but you are also upholding one of the most ancient traditions of Ireland.”

The Free State of Ireland was founded via a treaty with England a year later and included 26 of the country’s 32 counties, a massive step along the way to creating the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state. The nation now known as Northern Ireland was also created via the same treaty out of Ireland’s other six counties, and has remained a part of the United Kingdom to this day. But teams from the counties of Northern Ireland are eligible to compete for All-Ireland hurling and Gaelic football championships, just like they were in 1887. 

The victors from Limerick got the sort of coverage their deeds had earned them once the final whistle blew. Since breaking down Xs and Os would be futile after such domination, the postgame interviews with Limerick players tended to focus on the clout hurling holds in their county. Shannonsiders can get as emo as their counterparts from Cork when trying to sum up the real meaning of hurling. 

“It’s your childhood dream to play in an All-Ireland for your county,” Limerick left wing-back Dan Morrissey told host Marty Morrissey (unrelated) during The Sunday Game, a weekly RTE show heavy on hurling that’s been airing since the 1970s. “To be able to live that dream for the last three years has just been amazing.”

Cian Lynch, a very popular Limerick midfielder whose flaming red hair and beard seem out of a Van Gogh self-portrait, matched Morrissey’s earnestness while accepting the Man of the Match award. “At the end of the day, life is short, and this is what it’s about,” Lynch told the crowd of 40,000. “Keep enjoying the hurling!” (Under half of Croke Park’s normal All-Ireland allotment of 82,000 tickets were distributed for this year’s final because of the pandemic.)

“Dreams” by the Cranberries played over the public address system after Lynch’s bliss, and the supporters in the stands sang along; RTI cameras found some openly weeping. The band’s singer, Dolores O’Riordan, was a County Limerick native and beloved supporter of its hurling squad up until her 2018 alcohol-related death. Later that year, the whole Limerick squad made a pilgrimage to her childhood home in the town of Ballybricken mere days after winning their first All-Ireland in 45 years, and brought along the 2018 Liam MacCarthy Cup. Cranberries songs and the tears they inspire have become as much a part of Limerick hurling as winning.

Irish sportswriters, who are still able to write with the linguistic abandon American newspapermen did a century ago, let the bombast flow while imparting news of Limerick’s romp. Lynch, for example, was called some variation of “the Messi of hurling” by about every sports news outlet. And here’s a representatively flowery lede in the game story from columnist Roy Curtis of the Irish Independent

A TEAM knocking at the door of eternity, one glazed by glistening, breathtaking, terrifying peak-of-their-power sheen, carried the ancient game to another universe of wonder. 

Immune to gravity, soaring weightlessly to unreached dimensions, Limerick hurtled through the ozone.Long before half-time, this jaw-dropping exhibition of power, touch, rhythm, efficiency, ferocity, selflessness, craft and carnivorous hunger had brought Cork – forlorn and broken – to the edge of ruin.

John Kiely’s mighty and untouchable side were as pitiless as death unsheathing the grim reaper’s scythe.

At least one more comparison between Cork’s all-Ireland losses and 19th century and older Irish holocausts made its way into print, too. In the Irish Examiner, the headline of the gamer informed readers that “Cork’s Famine Continues.” The newspaper has a national audience, but, get this, is based in Cork.

I did not, however, find any attempt by an RTI commentator or Irish newspaperperson to present Cork’s massacre as a Bloody Sunday analogue. Too soon? Or maybe they’re saving those for next month’s Gaelic football championship?

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