The first time I met Jimmy Barry-Murphy I was an 11 year old boy and he was presenting Sciath na Scoil medals in the cramped gym of Scoil Mhuire gan Smal in Glasheen. When my turn came, I shuffled up to the table, shook his hand but couldn’t look him in the eye. Too overawed. This was 1982. There was no bigger star in our universe. The second time I met him, I was a 31 year old man and he came over to a table in a restaurant in Cork to say hello to my dining companion, an old friend of his. Again, I shook his hand. Again, I couldn’t make any significant eye contact. Too overawed. Twenty years had gone by but the aura surrounding him remained in place.
For Corkmen of a certain age, anybody over 35 really, next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final with Galway is different from all other hurling matches in recent years. Why? Because this afternoon, Cork are managed by Barry-Murphy and his very presence inspires hope where even last summer there was so very little. Our heads tell us his presence on the sideline can’t count for that much in Croke Park once the ball is thrown in but the problem is, with this man, we are always ruled by his place in our hearts.
We imagine him leading us back to a final (an achievement that in its way might surpass the All-Ireland win of 1999) because, with him, emotion triumphs over logic every time. How could it not? There were better exponents of both codes than him, just none that had his impact on big games, his charisma or his flair for the dramatic. Whether you called him Jimmy, JBM or Jimmy Barry, he seemed to be quintessentially Cork. Incredibly modest off the field and cocky enough on it the way the great ones have to be, he was the embodiment of so many virtues we like to prize as our own.
For our generations, coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, Christy Ring was a black and white story handed down from our fathers and our grandfathers, a reel of sepia footage. Meanwhile, JBM was a living, breathing, technicolour deity who walked among us. The day after watching him perform some wondrous feat like pilfering three goals against Blackrock down the Pairc, you might see him nipping out of Lennox’s chipper on Bandon Road on the way home. He came to our school with the cup. He came there to present medals. He was real, he was genuine, and he was, most importantly of all, ours.
It helped too that he carried himself with uncommon grace. He won All-Ireland medals at minor, Under-21, senior and club level in both codes and amassed seven All-Stars. An incredible haul. Yet, visitors to his home will vouchsafe there is not a single memento from the sporting half of his life hanging from the walls.
“You know what they say about Jimmy’s house,” said one member of the current Cork panel. “You go to sit down and you might find an All-Ireland medal under a pillow on the couch, just lying there.”
If that type of humility endeared him to all, there are more impressive facets to the character too. A couple of years ago, an old classmate was in hospice in Cork coming to the end of a battle with cancer when Barry-Murphy (whom he had never met before) dropped in to pay him a surprise visit. In an impossibly dark time, a conversation with his hero provided a tiny cameo of bright light. And, we know that wasn’t the first time he performed that kind of deed in those kind of circumstances.
It didn’t surprise us then that he turned up in the Vita Cortex factory just before Christmas. As the workers struggled for justice, he came to lend his support. Of course, he was also lending his celebrity and his credibility to their cause, garnering column inches of publicity for the strikers and, in his own inevitably understated way, showing his solidarity.
That kind of stuff and more is why the episode of Laochra Gael which featured Barry-Murphy a few weeks back had all forty and fifty-something Corkonians feeling wistful and romantic about our childhoods. Of course, some were inevitably complaining about the quality of the production because a documentary about our hero would need to be hours long to satisfy our craving for every scrap of footage. Most if it was fine though. They went big on “that” goal against Galway and, perhaps legitimately so. It was special.
“In the following weeks – and years – there was no scarcity of sciolists to maintain that it was all ‘luck’ or ‘chance’,” wrote Kevin Cashman of the goal in The Sunday Tribune. “It is pointless to explain to such people about the patience and practice and concentration and the unique natural gift of co-ordination of limb and eye which went to make that stroke. It is best simply to tell them that the greatest shots of Bobby Charlton and Ollie Campbell and Steve Davis and John Lowe were all luck and chance too.”
The comparisons may have to be explained to our younger readers but you get the meaning. Still, purists (and when it comes to discussing Jimmy Barry, all Cork people are purists) argued that the Laochra Gael people ignored perhaps the truest expression of his genius.
That was the moment in the otherwise long-forgotten 1980 League final replay against Limerick when he went on a solo run, took three opponents with him and then stopped dead and put his hands on his hips. Only at that point did everybody, including his opponents, realise he’d let the ball drop on the blindside so Pat Horgan could pick it up and point it unhindered. A fleeting moment where vision, daring, class and touch were manifest in a sleight of hand nobody else would have even thought of, much less attempted. Classic JBM.
(first published in August, 2012)