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'I'll tell you straight out, only for the Harty Cup, God knows what would have happened with my career after that'

25 years on, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín reflects on a Dr Harty Cup victory in the last all-Cork final meeting.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was part of the North Mon side that won the Dr Harty Cup in 1994.
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was part of the North Mon side that won the Dr Harty Cup in 1994.
Image: INPHO

Updated Feb 14th 2019, 9:45 PM

25 YEARS ON and the statistic catches Seán Óg Ó hAilpín off guard.

He can appreciate the significance of Saturday afternoon in Páirc Uí Rinn, an all-Cork affair between Christian Brothers College and Midleton CBS in the battle for supremacy on the premier stage of Munster school hurling.

But it had just not registered with Ó hAilpín that there had been no meeting in a Dr Harty Cup final between two Cork sides in the quarter of a century since he was part of the North Mon Class of ’94 that took down Midleton CBS.

“I really wasn’t aware of that. After with schools like Colman’s and Midleton being strong, I would have thought that they would have met each other in a final but obviously not.

“That would be hard for me to understand having gone to the Mon in the late 80s, early 90s. There was a wall in the Mon where you saw Harty Cup and Dean Ryan Cup winning photographs. We were used to Cork schools winning.

“So the fact that you’re saying it’s 25 years since two teams have contested and then the last time 13 years since a Cork school (Midleton CBS) won it, that’s bonkers for a fella that lived in an era when Cork schools dominated.”

The Colman's team celebrate St Colman's players celebrating their 2001 All-Ireland final victory. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

He has an honour-laden career behind him, his hurling CV studded with feats like a trio of All-Ireland senior medals, a number matched by his All-Star collection and the status of captain in 2005 when Cork collected the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

But Ó hAilpín traces it all back to his second-level days, unequivocal in the importance he places in that formative hurling arena.

“I’ll tell you straight out, only for the Harty Cup, God knows what would have happened with my career after that. I wouldn’t have made the Cork minors. I’d just put that out there plain and simple and I wouldn’t be the only fella that would be grateful.

“We went on to win the Dr Croke Cup (the All-Ireland), so shortly after that I remember going to Ballyphehane for a Cork minor trial. Not alone myself but nearly half the team. So without that exposure or being in the shop window, God knows what would have happened.”

Ó hAilpín recalls that campaign with remarkable clarity and vivid detail considering the multitude of games he subsequently played. He name-checks those he crossed paths with back then and who would later crop up on bigger stages in his career.

“We beat Scarriff in the first round which was a humdinger. It was the first time I came across David Forde from Clare from Ogonnelloe. I marked him later on at senior level.

“Probably our toughest match of the campaign was Charleville in a quarter-final. That went down to the wire. They had Dominic Foley who went playing with Wolves shortly after that. What a superb player. He was wing-back.

Dominic Foley Irish soccer international Dominic Foley. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I marked Darren Ronan, Pat Mulcahy was playing that day. They’d won the B championship the year before and had gone up senior. That was the toughest game in Fermoy and we beat them.

“Then in the semi-final we played Thurles CBS who were loaded with Tipperary underage stars like John Enright, Ger Flanagan, Philly O’Dwyer, they’d all played Tipp minor the year before. We beat them in Mitchelstown, in boxing terms we just made it a slugfest, we just brought it down.”

That 1994 final pitted the North Mon against familiar foes, a showdown between a northside city team and an outfit from the east of the county.

The passing of time revealed the level of talent that was on display in that match. Seán Óg was detailed to pick up a young forward called Mickey O’Connell. Joe Deane was floating around elsewhere in attack. A Cloyne teenager Donal Óg Cusack was in goal for Midleton CBS. Pat Ryan of Sarsfields was operating in the North Mon forward line.

MidletonCBSTweet

MidletonNorthMon Source: Twitter - @Cbshurling

“Around then the Mon and Midleton seemed to have a very bitter rivalry,” says Ó hAilpín.

“Going into that final, we were raging underdogs. When you look at that Midleton CBS team and the players that came out of it and went on to play with Cork, you know they were legends like. They justified that as a lot of them were underage the following year and they won the Harty Cup.

“Ogie (Donal Óg Cusack) still mentions it to this day that if he was to turn back the clock, if there was a game he’d like to revisit, it would be that game in Fermoy. I always bring it up jokingly to him!

“If you look at their team and our team, there was no comparison in talent. Where we come from, we don’t have a lot of money but not all the money in the world can buy heart. That was the team motto in our squad.”

In his autobiography ‘Come What May’, Cusack sketched out the preparation put in for his Harty Cup education at home.

“Before I would leave for Harty Cup matches in secondary school I would have a steak for my breakfast. A big steak! I’d be in school digesting a fine slab of meat while everyone else was half filled with their cornflakes or Coco Pops.”

After that 1994 disappointment, efforts were redoubled the following year. Cusack was one of 11 Midleton CBS players who repeated the Leaving Cert.

“In our world, where hurling was religion and everything else was distraction, the fact that we were making an all-out charge on the Harty Cup, Munster’s famous schools’ hurling championship, was far more important than the requirements of the education system or the whims of future employers,” wrote Cusack.

They got the prize they sought. Those games were a springboard for players to accelerate through the ranks. By September 1999, Ó hAilpín was at the summit of hurling in Croke Park with O’Connell, Deane, Cusack and Ryan.

Joe Deane celebrates 12/9/1999 Joe Deane celebrates Cork's 1999 All-Ireland final victory. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

“It’s mad in one way to think that but looking back it’s probably not surprising with the talent that was there. There is the correlation.

“Fellas cut their teeth at schools level in the Harty Cup which is elite. They can go on and then perform and excel at inter-county level. It’s the same values that are needed. Like last year the Limerick team that won the All-Ireland would have been from the Ardscoil Rís production line, most of them.

“I know when people talk about the state of hurling and Gaelic Games in Cork, it’s a no-brainer really, the area that needs to be attacked and improved is at schools level.”

Kevin Downes, Mike Casey, William O'Donoghue, Shane Dowling, David Dempsey and Peter Casey all from Na Piarsaigh GAA celebrate Some of the former Ardscoil Rís students that were part of the Limerick 2018 success. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He lists off the benefits accrued from his hurling experience at school.

“That was probably my first experience of having a cohort of followers go and follow your games. Playing Harty Cup with the school had a status. You were regarded amongst the other pupils.

“I’m sure fellas would have got on the wrong side of teachers but they would have got away with it because they were Harty Cup players. Hurling was probably the flagship sport in the school, basketball would have been very strong as well around that time and cross-country running. Playing hurling with the Mon gave you stripes.

“For me what hurling with the Mon did is it broke down barriers. I think that’s the beauty of playing hurling in school and not playing with all your club-mates. Na Piarsaigh and Glen Rovers would have had a rivalry that’s bordering on hatred but I always felt whenever I wore a Mon jersey and the going got tough, the first fella in for the battle would be a Glen Rovers fella. That was very unique.”

The sense of tradition never deserted him and the gratitude for the coaching he received was never forgotten.

“The Mon’s history was a bit that against the odds they would win Harty Cups. The school had built a reputation and prided itself. You’d the tradition of Jack Lynch behind you and Tony O’Sullivan, Tomás Mulcahy, just Cork greats.

Tomas Mulcahy 2/9/1990 Cork's 1990 All-Ireland hurling winning captain Tomas Mulcahy. Source: James Meehan/INPHO

“I was very fortunate to have great coaches like Donal O’Grady, Nicky Barry, Gerry Kelly, God rest his soul. Lunch time it was just up the Mon field training for the hour, back in. You’d be training in the evening then, you’d go home, have dinner, do your homework and then to bed when you’re bate. That was three, four times a week.

“People would be saying 20, 30 years ago that’s old fashioned stuff and that the game has moved on. I’m telling you now a lot of things have changed with the game but the core skills, they don’t change.

“That’s what was drilled into me, how to hook properly, ground flick, blocking, catching and to do it consistently and doing it under extreme pressure in clutch moments. That’s what schools hurling did for me.”

The landscape has shifted now. That 1-9 to 0-4 success in 1994 was the last title that the North Mon won. To envisage that a rugby powerhouse from Sidney Hill in Cork city would be vying for honours would have seemed unfathomable back then.

“If you’d to tell me back in 1994 that Christians would compete in a Harty Cup final, I’d have laughed at you. That is a remarkable story in itself. They’ve been competing the last number of years and their rise has been gradual. We see the work that Donal O’Mahony and Tony Wall have done there.”

Donal O'Mahony Cork hurling selector and CBC coach Donal O'Mahony. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

His playing days having concluded, Ó hAilpín remains at the coalface of the sport. He takes the UCC Freshers team with Tom Kenny, passing on their knowledge. It is a role that gives him a keen insight into Saturday’s protagonists and will compel him to join the crowds that will head to Páirc Uí Rinn for the 2pm throw-in.

It’s a game that will mark the end of a specific barren spell for Cork at that level and he hopes it can spark future prospects.

“Myself and Tom, we’re familiar with the work they’ve put in. With UCC we play before Christmas challenge games against teams that are competing in the Harty so Midleton would be one and Christians would be another.

“Midleton have always had the tradition of competing and winning in the Harty Cup but Christians are the rags to riches story really. Whether they win it or not, that in itself is the story with them getting to the final. Those lads should take a bow. They’re probably the pioneers of the start of hurling history in their school.

“When I was a first or second year pupil, Barry Egan, Christian Walsh, Arthur McCarthy, Mark O’Sullivan, they were the Harty Cup players for the Mon. So when the teams take the field on Saturday, you’ll have a pupil looking at them and saying I want to be part of that.

“You’re building a tradition and a legacy. There’s a lot of things that I can look back at in my playing career and be proud of but playing with the Mon and winning the Harty Cup would be up there amongst the highs.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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