IT’S THE BEGINNING of a big week for Donal O’Mahony — the kind of week he dared not dream about when teaching his first class in a school with scant hurling tradition 20 years ago.
As he leads the way through the corridors at Christian Brothers College [CBC], it’s difficult to avoid being distracted by the relics of past sporting successes that adorn the walls. There’s a rich history of achievement in the rows of framed photographs of lads in red, yellow and black, standing proudly behind their silverware.
They cater for a wide variety of extra-curricular activities at Christians, from cricket to chess, soccer to swimming. But the school’s most renowned athletic alumni have mostly originated from the same source.
Of the current Munster Rugby squad, Billy Holland, Duncan Williams, Stephen Archer and John Ryan all received their secondary educations there. Former Irish internationals like Noel Murphy, Donal Lenihan and Donncha O’Callaghan came before them.
The Munster Schools Senior Cup has resided there 29 times. Only Presentation Brothers College, their rivals on the other side of the River Lee, have matched that tally. Make no mistake about it — the fee-paying school of over 900 students at the top of Sidney Hill is most certainly rugby country.
That’s not something Donal O’Mahony has a desire to change. Competing with the best hurling schools in Cork and Munster is already a sizeable enough challenge. Butting heads internally in a battle for sporting supremacy has never been his intention.
A maths teacher by trade, the former Cork hurler made a calculation in 1998 when he arrived at a school where a sliotar hadn’t been pucked in generations. O’Mahony’s initial aim was to make hurling an option for pupils who weren’t keen on the oval ball. So far, the numbers have added up.
“When I came in first it would have been fairly idealistic to be thinking about the Harty Cup,” O’Mahony admits, five days out from CBC’s bid for a place in the final of the premier hurling competition available to secondary schools in Munster.
“As the school got bigger, I was looking at cohorts of fellas coming in from places where hurling was strong — Glounthane, Douglas, Blackrock, Inniscarra, Blarney — and some of them weren’t playing rugby.
“I saw it as a win-win situation. We could play hurling without interfering with rugby. We always worked on the basis that if there was a crossover then they’d go with the rugby. To this day we still work on that basis because rugby is the number one sport here. That’s something I’m absolutely not trying to change.
“Thankfully we’ve now gotten to a stage where they’re both working very successfully together. The relationship that has developed is fantastic. All the rugby fellas are the cheerleaders for the hurling games, and vice versa.”
Owing to its reputation for academic success, Christians always attracted a smattering of handy hurlers. Tomás O’Leary is perhaps the past pupil who most aptly epitomises the sporting dynamic between rugby and the rest at the 130-year-old establishment that overlooks the city centre.
Seventeen years later, he remains the last player to captain Cork to an All-Ireland minor hurling title. But instead of emulating his father, Seanie, by going on to win senior honours with the county, O’Leary’s future was shaped by two Heineken Cups and a Six Nations Grand Slam.
“This is a school with a fantastic tradition of rugby for over 100 years,” O’Mahony says. “I’ve always been cognisant of that. It will always be a rugby school. If you were a rugby person, I could fully understand if you weren’t over the moon about hurling coming into the school. It’s only logical.
“But the majority of people are reasonable. Initial fears that hurling could be damaging to rugby turned out to be the total opposite. We’ve never been so successful in rugby, winning the Junior Cup last year, the Senior Cup the year before and another Junior Cup the year before that. It’s stronger than it’s ever been.
“There’s just a good environment of sporting excellence in the school at the moment, which transfers between both of them. Rather than being afraid of hurling, people have embraced it. I understand people’s fears. But as hurling grew over the past seven or eight years and they saw that it’s not having a negative impact on rugby, those fears faded out.”
A significant role in the development of hurling at Christians has been played by the principal, Dr Larry Jordan, whose son Joe represented the Cork hurlers at senior level.
“I would say the single most important facet in the success behind Christians hurling was Dr Jordan’s decision to go with it from the start. It was a big risk and he showed the backbone to go with it,” explains O’Mahony, who worked at the now-defunct St Finbarr’s College, Farranferris — seven-time Harty Cup winners — before taking up his current role.
“Dr Jordan was looking at it from an intake point of view. He felt that kids would come to the school for hurling, and as principal it’s his job to make sure there are first-years coming through the door. He said there was a massive cohort out there who were looking to go to a GAA school, because North Mon was gone and Farranferris was gone.
“Kids are now putting Christians down as their first-choice school because they want to play in the Harty Cup and things like that. For kids who want to play GAA, we’re on the radar now. That wasn’t the case a few years ago. As people know, it’s very hard to get into Christians and a lot of it is because so many GAA people are now picking Christians as the school they want to go to.”
As CBC’s hurling project gradually gathered momentum, O’Mahony witnessed progress in the Lord Mayor’s Cup — a Cork tournament aimed at ‘non-traditional’ GAA schools — as well as in ‘B’ competitions at provincial level. But an important breakthrough came in 2015. Defeating hurling heavyweights like St Colman’s and Midleton CBS along the way, CBC won the Cork Colleges U14A title — their first top-level triumph at any age grade.
There was another milestone to come in the following term. For 2015/16, the decision was taken to test the U18½ team against the best in Munster in the Dr Harty Cup. With hurling having virtually disappeared from CBC’s radar in the meantime, their victory over CBS High School Clonmel was their first in the competition in 97 years.
O’Mahony: “From the very start of this project we were concentrating on the process rather than the outcome. We were just trying to get better all the time as we went through the stages of the process in the different competitions. We had done really, really well, so it eventually got to the point where we felt we had to make the jump to see if we could compete at the top level.
“Competing is the word to use as well, and we wanted to be able to do that on a consistent basis. We went in more in hope than expectation. We didn’t know what was ahead of us. Thankfully we’ve shown that we can do that over the last couple of years against the traditional schools. The Harty quarter-final this year is probably a good example.”
Christians reached the last eight of the competition in each of the previous two seasons, before coming up short on both occasions against St Colman’s. However, it was a case of third time lucky when they faced the Fermoy school in another quarter-final a fortnight ago.
The team that secured a four-point victory for CBC featured several players who starred for Cork in 2017. Robert Downey of Glen Rovers, who hit four points against Colman’s, started at full-forward in September’s All-Ireland minor hurling final. Blarney midfielder Declan Hanlon came off the bench in that thrilling two-point defeat to Galway.
Hanlon had also been involved at Croke Park four weeks earlier when the Rebels overcame Dublin to win the inaugural All-Ireland U17 title. He was joined on that panel by CBC colleagues Kevin Finn, Tommy O’Connell and Shane Barrett.
“It’s great now that you can go down to Cork minor training and Cork U21 training and you see CBC jerseys out on the pitch,” says O’Mahony. “That’s something that would never have happened before.”
Christians will hope to have their inter-county players firing on all cylinders for Saturday’s Harty Cup semi-final against Ardscoil Rís in Mallow [1.30pm]. In the semi-final line-up, Donal O’Mahony’s team are the odd men out as the only school not to have won the competition before.
Their Limerick opponents have been victorious in four Harty finals since 2010. On the other side of the draw, Our Lady’s Templemore — the defending champions — take on Midleton CBS. The 2006 winners, Midleton are still the last Cork school to have gone all the way.
“If we sat down and obsessed over who Ardscoil Rís have and all the Harty Cups that they’ve won in recent times, there’d be no point in playing,” says O’Mahony. “We’re not looking at that. We’re looking at ourselves only. We’re prepared and we feel we’ve left no stone unturned. We believe we’re in a good position to be competitive. We’ll see where that takes us.”
Saturday will be a busy one for O’Mahony. Having worked with previous Cork senior manager Kieran Kingston as goalkeeping coach, he’s now a selector under his successor, John Meyler. O’Mahony will hope to have a Harty Cup final to look forward to by the time he arrives at Páirc Uí Chaoimh for Cork’s Allianz League opener against Kilkenny that evening.
His schedule can be hectic, yet he wouldn’t have it any other way. The Bishopstown clubman is involved with all five hurling teams at Christians, where the input of Tony Wall, a former Cork senior hurling championship winner with Glen Rovers, has been invaluable.
“I’m lucky that I have a very understanding wife,” O’Mahony laughs. “She’s extremely supportive. We also have a very understanding management here in the school. My priority is my job and that has to be done during the day. But the evenings can be hectic, especially at the moment. Saturday will be a busy day. But I really enjoy it all.”
He adds: “We’ve had massive help from a lot of people along the way with hurling in CBC. The biggest driving force outside of myself has been Tony Wall. He’s been a massive influence on hurling in the school. After I became deputy [principal], he took over as head of hurling and he’s been really excellent.”
At Christian Brothers College, they’re used to big sporting occasions at this time of year and Ardscoil Rís are a familiar foe. Just last Wednesday, CBC came out on top when the two schools met on the rugby pitch in the opening round of the Munster Schools Senior Cup. This weekend, Christians will aim for a double.
The odds on a Cork school having to wait at least 12 years for another Harty Cup triumph would have been long when Midleton CBS were victorious in 2006. Even less likely was the prospect of Christian Brothers College being in a position to end that drought.
CBC aren’t over the line yet, but they’re deep inside the 22.