Before one long-ago Munster hurling final, Cork’s trainer Jim ‘Tough’ Barry was going through his final instructions in the dressing-room as the players readied themselves for Tipperary. After Barry spoke his piece, Christy Ring took the floor and delivered a rabble-rousing oration that had his team-mates fired up and desperate for battle. A priest lurking in a corner of the room wasn’t too pleased with Ring’s ardent tone or his choice of colourful vocabulary, and he ventured to complain.
“My dear Christy,” he said, “I’m sure you never read that language in the New Testament.” “The men who wrote the New Testament,” replied Ring, “never had to play Tipperary.”
That, right there, is what separates a Cork and Tipperary match from encounters featuring all other hurling counties. A devoutly religious man, a daily communicant who later donated a selection of his medals so they could be melted down into a chalice for St Augustine’s Church, Ring knew that Cork and Tipp was somewhere beyond the biblical. After all, Archbishop Thomas Morris of Cashel and Emly, an otherwise devout man of the cloth, once described Ring as “the devil himself.” What else could Morris reasonably say about the man who so tormented his county?
At Croke Park next Sunday, the ancient rivalry renews at a venue where the two sides have never met before. The novelty of that only adding to this All-Ireland semi-final because with apologies to the thirty other counties on the island and to practitioners of the handpassing festival formerly known as Gaelic football, there is nothing quite like Cork and Tipp. It is quite simply a special pairing. How special? Well, where to start?
Many sports devotees used to swear by the spectacle of the Old Firm derby but this is Celtic-Rangers without the sectarianism or drunken bile. Cork people will deride Tipperary fans for their reluctance to spend money on their travels and their historic over-reliance on home-made sandwiches but they will never call them Prods or Taigs. Above in The Pale, plenty used to vouch for the rousing atmosphere afforded by the blood and thunder meetings of Dublin and Meath. This is like the Dublin-Meath of old, without the relentless pulling and dragging and the tolerance of casual on-pitch violence.
This is the New York Yankees- Boston Red Sox without the lop-sided history, the abundant steroids or the grossly-overpaid participants. It is Real Madrid-Barcelona free of the preening, mercenaries who have perfected the art of falling to the turf at the slightest touch. It’s the Lions versus the All-Blacks stripped of the stifling corporate hype and increasingly manufactured media significance that surrounds so much of that code.
Call it provincialism. Nail us for being hurling snobs. But, in sport, the truth is that nothing really compares and the beauty of it all is that both counties care less about the hubris involved in such a claim. Cork and Tipp are already regarded by their compatriots all over the island as impossibly arrogant. Guilty as charged too. In typical style, both fans would dismiss such criticism as a misreading of their innate confidence.
Kilkenny may have rewritten the history books and seriously outstripped the other two members of hurling’s traditional big three over the past decade, but only Tipp would have the nerve to erect an enormous sign on the road into their county ludicrously claiming to be “the home of hurling”. An empty boast (says the Corkman) yet this is the place of whom Ring said: “You can say what you like but the only team you can hurl all out against are Tipperary.” From somebody who never went less than all out against them, that is praise indeed.
That Tipp gave Ring nothing for nothing is summed up in a yarn about one of their own legends. Decades after a stint in blue and gold where he distinguished himself as a corner-back and won four All-Ireland medals, Mickey “The Rattler” Byrne was lying in a Dublin hospital having a hip replaced. The intervening years hadn’t been kind to the body but had thieved nothing from his mind. As the nurse went to fling the old hip out the window to the local dogs that passed for a waste disposal unit, Byrne awoke from his slumber and beseeched her to stop.
“Don’t throw that one out,” begged Byrne, “it’s the hip I used to hit Christy Ring with.”
Historians can argue the accuracy of the anecdote and push for a name of the medical institution involved. Our only intention is to offer a flavor of the literary canon that swirls around this fixture and that differentiates it from all others. Times and dates are not important when savouring such exceptional heritage as Babs Keating delivering lines like, “Donkeys don’t win derbies”, the GAA’s equivalent of Alan Hansen’s “You’ll win nothing with kids!”
Of course, our favourite story from the canon may be the following account of another Sunday morning in Thurles sometime in the 1920s recalled by Tim Horgan in his classic book “Cork’s Hurling Story”. The Cork hurlers had travelled up to take on Tipperary and in the team hotel, Father Eddie Fitzgerald presided over a private mass for the players and officials. As was customary at such affairs, the curate rounded off proceedings by good-naturedly requesting that the Man upstairs might look kindly on the hurlers knelt before him and bring joy to them that day.
At a subsequent breakfast, Fr. Fitzgerald repeated that blessing while saying Grace and it was about midway through the repast, some of those gathered noticed that renowned goal poacher Michael “Gah” Aherne was being especially quiet. After a couple of attempts failed to bring him into the conversation, one of his colleagues pulled him up.
“What’s wrong with you this morning?”
Aherne lifted his head, turned his gaze upon the priest nearby and then back to his friend, before replying.
“Ah I don’t know about all this. To tell you the truth, I’d rather beat them fair and square.”
Sunday really can’t come soon enough.
(first published in The Irish Echo, August 13th)