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50 years on and still central to Cork club hurling - 'There's a brilliant attitude among these fellas'

Dr. Paddy Crowley played for UCC in the 1970 Cork final, managed them in the ’99 final and is involved again in today’s semi-final.

Páirc Uí Chaoimh hosts today's games.
Páirc Uí Chaoimh hosts today's games.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

DR PADDY CROWLEY presents a snapshot from a different hurling era.

Half a century ago he was in his final year in UCC. The end of his medicine studies was drawing near and the close of sporting exams as well.

Attempts in 1966 and 1969 to secure a coveted Cork senior hurling medal had been thwarted at the final hurdle, the disappointment of the latter loss deepened by his status as captain.

The breakthrough arrived in 1970, they held off the Mid-Cork divisional team Muskerry. Ray Cummins was in the early stages of what would transpire to be a glittering career, this was a shining example of a game where he served notice of his talents.

He posted 2-3 on the board and if it was a team effort that fashioned the two-point success, the individual star was undisputed.

Do not overlook the second half brilliance of Seamus Looney, the masterly Paddy Crowley or the spirit and craft of Tomas Ryan. They were all central figures in the drama, all shared the glory, but Cummins stole the limelight,” was the Cork Examiner verdict that November.

RayCummins Source: Cork Examiner - Irish Newspaper Archives

The twist lay in the system that paved the way for Cummins to line out in UCC’s black and red rather than the green and gold of his native Blackrock.

“There was a college rule at the time which meant that if you were in UCC as a rugby player, you played with UCC and not Cork Con,” says Crowley.

“If you were a hurler, you played with UCC or a footballer. That had to be relaxed then shortly after. That left a bad taste too, it was a rule imposed on players. I suppose that meant we weren’t very popular really. Different times.”

Cummins soon returned to Blackrock, adorning their teams with his attacking brilliance. Crowley moved on from playing as well but his connection to UCC has not wavered. In 1999 he managed a team of students that were dismantled by a powerful Blackrock unit in a Cork senior final.

Now he is club president, still on the sideline as part of the selection group and this afternoon will be in Páirc Uí Chaoimh as a spot is on offer in the decider in Cork after a year of turbulence that has influenced the hurling on the pitch and everything that has unfolded off it. Today’s opponents keep the symmetry going in this particular narrative.

“I suppose I’ve bittersweet memories of getting to county finals, we played the Rockies in ’99 and we got hammered. The same year we had actually beaten a superb Imokilly team in the semi-final with a last minute Joe Deane goal. Now Joe at that time opted to play with UCC.

“We’ve been here before with Blackrock, this is nothing new to us. We know that Blackrock team so well with John Sull, John Cash and Michael O’Halloran, and so many of this have played with us. John Browne, a selector, did as well.”

O’Halloran is part of the current Cork setup, lighting up Blackrock’s quarter-final victory with seven sweetly-struck points from play. His uncle John was a team-mate of Crowley’s back in that success in 1970. Their other colleagues from that time are recalled with clarity, their exploits on and off the pitch reeled off.

“I think we had eight fellas on that team who subsequently won eight All-Ireland senior medals. John Kelly from Tipperary, he won it in ’71, an All-Ireland at full-back. We actually had the Cork full-back Pat McDonnell and we’d to put the Tipp full-back out to the wing. Willie Moore from Limerick played with us but there was no place for him in the back line but he won an All-Ireland in ’73 with Limerick at corner-back. He was corner-forward with us.

“Then we’d Mick Dowling, who has become famous since as the director of all the Covid operation in New York with Governer Cuomo. He’s the biggest employer in New York state. He was a Limerick senior at the time, a fine player.

“Our goalie Jim Cremin from Nemo, he was six foot eight. The likes of Seamus Looney, Mick Crotty from Kilkenny, Jimmy Barrett from Nemo who won an All-Ireland football medal, he was centre field with us. We’d a fella Tom Buckley from the Glen, he’s a doc out in Western Australia now.”

That success is remembered with fondness, the outcome the year before was not as positive.

“We got pasted by the Glen that year (in 1969),” says Crowley.

“There was a desperate gale. It blew straight down the field. We only hung in there for the first half but then they turned on us and beat us really well. We were just not up to them at all.”

He has made his hurling mark in an array of ways. After college Crowley went to Canada as part of his medical training. A head injury suffered in a championship tie in Cork had made him conscious of safety in the sport and in his new North American home he saw how locals had adjusted in that regard with their pastime of choice.

“I was looking at the ice hockey profile of injuries which was very similar to hurling. They introduced mandatory faceguards for minor league in 1975 and it eliminated the loss of vision injuries. I think one year in the state of Ontario at the time, there was something like 18 eyes lost in one season.

“The following year when they brought mandatory use in, there was zero. The injury issue needed to be addressed.”

After moving back to Ireland he juggled his work as a GP with the founding of the Mycro helmet company.

That helped blaze a trail and the years where protective headgear were viewed with suspicion are long gone. It’s now a decade since it became compulsory at all levels of hurling to wear a helmet.

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Crowley grew up in Templemartin in West Cork. He played with the local Newcestown club and later became affiliated with Éire Óg. His younger brother Tim was a commanding centre-forward that won All-Irelands at the highest level with Cork.

And helping to foster UCC hurling has been a lifelong passion.

Their participation in the county championship is a thorny issue, the further they advance each season, the more questions it raises with the pool of players they draw from. The case for defence is presented.

“The thing is we have a kind of altruistic approach to hurling and had for generations. I don’t care where you come from, the bottom line is we’re into hurling and that’s our game. We’re the oldest club playing senior championship in Cork, over 100 years. We haven’t won a county for 50 years, where is the problem? We bring a higher level of hurling to an awful lot of players in Cork, which we do. I think we have contributed.

seamus-harnedy-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Seamus Harnedy pictured after a win for UCC in 2013 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“What all these players have learned from playing with the quality that comes from Fitzgibbon training and opposition is immeasurable. Seamus Harnedy is the classic example of that, didn’t play underage for Cork. Eddie Enright didn’t get on the Freshers team, went on to win All-Irelands and All-Stars. Frank Lohan the very same. There’s loads of examples of people who come like that. You go back to your club and you’re a much better player.

“It’s fantastic to see the interest. You take Dessie (Dylan Desmond) our captain now, he’s hugely popular and he did a lot of work in UCC with junior teams. He’s been great for the club, we don’t have that many people but the best thing of all is there’s a brilliant attitude among these fellas.”

He is enthusiastic about the potential of their current bunch and cites the strong Cork backbone to the side as a boost to the game in the county. Years of involvement have broadened his sporting mind and brought him into contact with a variety of communities around the country.

In 2019 when UCC won the Fitzgibbon Cup they took the decision to head to a unfashionable hurling area in recognition of a specific contribution.

“Shane Conway, he’s a dream to watch with those wrists, he is a Tom Cashman type player. His free-taking is superb, his striking, his ability to score on the run, he’s got great balance and movement. He’s very elusive. It would take a hurler to mark him, he drifts around.

“We went to Lixnaw to celebrate for him and his family, his father is Johnny is big into the hurling club there. They love their hurling, we went to honour that. We all went down. He’s not the only Kerry man we’ve had, we had a fella John O’Grady from Ballyduff who was a superb hurler and footballer, and subsequently played with Blackrock as well. Shane Brick from Kilmoyley would be well known also.”

shane-conway-with-stephen-morris-and-ger-murphy Shane Conway in action for Kerry in a league game in 2019 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Other hurling figures have passed through their base in the Mardyke from aristocratic quarters of the game. When Brian Cody’s side were conquering all before them, the UCC alumni included Michael Rice, John Tennyson and Cha Fitzpatrick.

One other made a striking impression.

“I used to say to hurling fellas in Cork that time back in the early 2000s, ‘Lads we’re playing a league match down the Dyke on Wednesday, just come and watch this player.’

“It was Tommy Walsh. One of his first days playing with us, that time as a Fresher you could play, we played WIT down in Waterford. Who was corner-forward but Setanta Ó hAilpín? Tommy was a wispy fella but could he hurl. He was able to dominate a guy who was six foot six, he was was absolutely gifted with his hands.

“It’s all about timing and he had it. Tommy Walsh was just unreal. Hugely popular. He’s a pantomime too, brilliant company. We used to always say if you got some of the Kilkenny guys, the Tullaroan lads and the Thomastown lads, you could not understand a word they were saying in their own language, they’re a howl. Great people.”

diarmuid-osullivan-with-tommy-walsh Tommy Walsh (right) in action against Diarmuid O'Sullivan in the 2005 Cork senior semi-final. Source: INPHO

The players push on but the relationships endure and there are always newcomers to get to work with. Paddy and his wife Geraldine frequently over the years bring UCC hurlers out to their house in Farran for dinner. He’s been invited to plenty weddings of former players, helps how he can when they’re looking to get employment.

“They’d ring you for chats about different things. When you’re involved in UCC for so long, you get to know so many people.

“They come back to coach teams then, John Grainger has a great rapport with people like that. You take the UCC Freshers over the last ten years we’ve had Ger Cunningham, my brother Tim, Seán Óg, Tom Kenny at various stages. Eddie Enright has come back. Of course the late Paul O’Connor gave so much for us of his time.

“I love to see the players evolve. I so enjoy hurling as a sport number one but to see a young player get better from the age of 18 arriving in, I think that is the most satisfying thing about it. The students today are the same as they were 40, 50 years ago. They’re so astute and as sharp as ever. Good players now are so dedicated. There’s no minding them, they just mind themselves.”

When matches took place again from the middle of July, the rhythms of the sporting summer shifting back into place, Crowley had a keen appreciation of witnessing the action once more.

He does not need to be reminded of the topic that has dominated the world in 2020. After his Covid-19 diagnosis in March and recovery, he penned a letter designed to inform and educate.

The lessons spoken about then are something he wants to reinforce now as uncertainty continues with a spike in case numbers.

“I think that this illness is not a trivial illness. It has to be treated with respect. If that means we don’t have restaurants and bars open, so be it. If that means that we can’t have people at matches, that is the right thing to do. You cannot be too careful in your approach to this. Again it doesn’t matter what else we do, unless we wear masks, unless we wash our hands, unless we do social distancing, it’s not going to go away.”

So he’s grateful for this weekend’s hurling experiences then, part of a widespread family involvement across the Cork hurling scene. His son John helps out as a medic with UCC and Éire Óg, brother Tim is a selector for Newcestown’s Senior A hurling semi-final tomorrow.

Paddy will be on the sideline with UCC, a victory away from a county final spot, 50 years on from soaking up the acclaim of victory.

And a lifetime observing has not shifted the esteem he holds one Blackrock player in.

ray-cummins-1982 Cork hurling great Ray Cummins Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He was certainly the best hurling forward I ever saw. That would have taken every one of them into account from Nicky English to Seanie Leary or Jimmy Barry, I think Ray Cummins was peerless.

“I saw him in a county final with Blackrock sometime in the late 70s. There was no ball coming into him, Blackrock looked like they were going out of the game and he was inside in full-forward. He came out himself to the half-forward line, collected three balls and stuck them left and right over the bar to change the game. Then he went back into full-forward again. He was that good, his vision was just incredible.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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