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When Prince reigned at the Park and the Rebels planned an ambush

The Leesiders were waiting in the long grass for archrivals Tipp in the summer of 1990.

“I THINK AT the training in 1990,” says one of the star’s of Cork’s season in 1990, Mark Foley, “one particular couple of weeks, it was a dry summer, very good weatherwise, and there was a couple of nights down the Park where the Canon [Fr Michael O"Brien] put out 40 or 50 sliotars and he’d have them positioned around the field and his objective was that no sliotar should be standing still.

father-michael-obrien-1990 Source: © INPHO

“It was just a simple drill. You ran to the ball, you met it as it came to you. He had me out in the middle of the field and there was a langer-load of running to be done and at one stage I was so engrossed I ran in and knocked him. Arse over kilter. I literally didn’t see him. But I hit him a belt like. And he had an artificial hip at the time and, I swear to Christ, I thought I was after doing some serious damage,” says the six-foot-odd Timoleague man.

The hurling equivalent of kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse drew the drill to a halt, but typically enough, the priest dragged himself up and dusted himself, his pride and his blue Gola bag down. “He often referred back to it: ‘Jaysus, remember the time you knocked me and I thought I was dead!’” says Foley.

“So yeah, ran into him. Fucking bowled him. Arse up in the air.”

Tomás Mulcahy also remembers that drill, and the intensity involved. “It was a level of fitness too, because you’re running and chasing. And we’d possibly end up then with a game of backs and forwards. And the backs and forwards was just ferocious because you’re playing against guys that want to be on top of their games, don’t want forwards scoring; [Ger] Cunningham was in goal and hated being beaten in a practice match, in a game. He just hated it.

“And the sheer intensity of that actually made us a championship team because you came off the field, Jesus, exhausted, knowing you put in an unreal effort, and when it came closer to championship time you were doing exactly the same, you knew that you were ready.”

In the build-up to the Munster final with Tipperary, Cork”s hurling royalty were forced out of their Páirc Uí Chaoimh training base by Prince. The self-styled King of Funk was due to play a controversial gig at the GAA ground six days before the showdown with the Premier County. Banteer-born promoter Oliver Barry had brought Michael Jackson to the Park in 1988.

Indeed, he’d helped the county board finance the stadium redevelopment post-1976 with subsequent events like Spraoi Cois Laoi, which featured acts such as Kris Kristofferson and John Denver in the early 1980s. Prince was no John Denver, though.

In the build-up to the gig, radio airwaves and newspaper columns, filled with talk of the singer’s debauched shows and provocative lyrics, whipped up controversy. Ireland’s music-lovers were warned that the ‘Nude’ tour’s staging was built around an oversized bed, big enough for 10 people. Newspapers hinted that a simulated sex show would make up part of the production and a backing band composed of lesbians would check into Jury’s Hotel on the Western Road before taking to the stage.

Sixty thousand tickets were sold.

The Lord Mayor of Cork refused to go out to the airport on the morning of Saturday 7 July to welcome the visitor. “I leave it to the people of Cork to do what they want to do, but I think I have more respect for my children and the children of Cork,” Chrissie Aherne said. “I’ve listened to his music, deliberately, and I wouldn’t go for that kind of thing at all. I”m not stopping the people of Cork from going … it’s up to them. But I don’t want it for my children, or anything like it. I think it’s destructive.

“I’ve got to safeguard the people of Cork and I will do it with every breath I have.”
Joe Duffy set up a soapbox on Prince’s Street in the city centre the day before the gig and jokingly argued on his RTÉ Radio One programme, Duffy at Large, about the visit of the Minneapolis funkster.

“Look at the skies, the dark clouds have already descended on Cork,” warned Duffy, knowingly, “the Purple Rain is falling … this evil man they call Prince is coming. Don’t just lock up your sons and daughters, but lock up your pets as well!”

Prince was put up in the Jackson Suite in Jury’s – the base for the Cork footballers on match days – where he practised keep-fit routines and was protected by a handful of heavies. All his bodyguards knew kung fu, the Cork public were warned.

If Prince picked up a complimentary copy of The Cork Examiner and brought it back to his room in the hours before his show, he would have read the paper’s pearl-clutching editorial, which puzzled at the presence of the five-foot-two rock star on hallowed ground.

Source: Cor Lauwerijssen/YouTube

“The GAA has refused its grounds to other sports organisations and yet it is prepared to allow the park to be used by a pornographic performer,” it read. “Croke must certainly be turning in his grave, while some of the most senior and respected GAA statesmen in Cork apparently turn a blind eye in a most suspect fund-raising exercise.”

Denis Conroy, the dyed-in-the-wool association stalwart, newly elected as county board chairman, was button-holed about Prince”s imminent appearance down by the Marina. “We”re going to have to sit down with Prince and discuss this,” he told The Evening Echo.

While the city’s ruling class raged against the musician”s arrival and the rest of the county made plans for a good night out, the hurlers trained in Ballinlough. The tighter dimensions of the southside venue produced a powder keg within which they prepared for the Munster final showdown.

***

“You talk about Brian Cody playing these training games in Nowlan Park,” says Sean O”Gorman of the febrile atmosphere at training on those long, summer evenings. “Jesus, I remember that time … what he used do that time is play backs and forwards. It was really intense backs and forwards, jeez there was ball after ball coming up. But you could sense, a fortnight before the Munster final against Tipp – Tipp were being blown up everywhere,” he says of the hype around the Premier county, “you could sense fellas were coming together.”

Ger Cunningham was able to launch the ball from one end of the pitch to the other in the claustrophobic, fenced-in venue. “The Canon had a huge amount of matches,” he says. “It went away from the old way; there was matches nearly every night. It”s a very tight pitch, very narrow. Looking back it brought us together a little bit, you know.”

The resolve and resources of the group were tested, however, by an injury crisis. Teddy McCarthy rolled his ankle while playing for the footballers against Mayo in a challenge game. John Fitzgibbon fell ill, and then the team”s skipper found himself sitting in A&E on a Thursday night in his gear.

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“We played the Cork U–21s in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Tomás Mul got a bad bang and broke a bone in his hand. He was gone,” says O”Gorman.

denis-walsh-and-nicky-english Denis Walsh of Cork and Nicky English of Tipperary during the Munster Hurling final of 1990. Source: James Meehan/INPHO

The Thursday night before the Tipperary game, when the hurlers emerged from the dressing rooms, Fr O”Brien had “a load of new sliotars like golf balls around the field in a load of different angles,” according to Kevin Hennessy. “What are you doing?” he asked the priest, his regular verbal sparring partner. “Free-taking, Kevin,” barked O”Brien in his staccato delivery, as he threw out more balls.

“I said, ‘I”ll put them over myself,’” claims Hennessy. “And he said, ‘Erra go on so, go out and do it there.’”

An audience gathered throughout the ground as the older guard in Kevin Hennessy, who was heading for thirty at that stage, was challenged by the next generation in Mark Foley, with free-taking duties in the Munster final the prize. “I said, ‘Okay, Kevin, if you think you”re so good,’” recalls Foley, “’let”s go out here, we”ll take five from the right, five from the middle and five from the left and we”ll cumulatively figure out who’s the best free taker.’

“And I beat him,” adds Foley.

“I won it,” Hennessy contradicts.

The Cork panel were driving each other on and they were ready to take on the All-Ireland champions.

This is an extract from The Double: How Cork Made GAA History by The42.ie editor Adrian Russell. 

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