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Eamonn Fitzgerald: Goodbye to a difficult year

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Killarney Advertiser sports columnist Eamonn Fitzgerald reflects on 2020, a sporting year like no other that produced some fascinating storylines.

 

What’s another year, as we say goodbye to 2020, a year dominated by COVID-19.

It impacted on the health of so many people and sadly, in the case of far too many, death followed. To all those who suffered and were bereaved we extend our sympathies and hope that 2021 will be a better one for you and for your families.

Sport also came a cropper, especially in the early stages, but then it opened up again. I had argued in this column on a number of occasions that most sporting activities should also be closed down, because the health and lives of people were at stake, particularly in crowded situations, involving teams and supporters. I was in favour of individual sport continuing.

I can appreciate the counter-argument that sport was not alone necessary for the physical health of players and supporters, but very much so for mental health. Sporting events were something we look forward to, but the risks were too high.

However, most sports opened up and 2020 provided that release for so many aficionados. It was a different year, with most sports played behind closed doors. Live streaming became the norm and it looks like the new norm will continue for 2021.

SOCCER

COVID-19 wasn’t kind to Stephen Kenny in his opening matches in charge of the Irish team in the Nations League. A famine of goals followed as he set about changing the Irish style of play. Gone was the Charlton mode of putting ‘em under pressure, often hoofing the ball long and direct. Kenny’s style is more attractive, but fans want wins, not moral victories. And, certainly, we need goals. What is overlooked too often is that he does not have the calibre of class players that Big Jack had. He has too few top-class footballers to call on.

On the club scene, COVID-19 didn’t stop Liverpool from being crowned champions, even if their many supporters in Killarney had to wait for quite a while before they could exercise the bragging rights, which they did. They were deserving champions and they still lead the way. Chelsea and Leeds’ fans hopes were high to challenge them, but recent results burst that balloon, even at this early stage. The challenge may well fall to the two Manchester rival clubs and what about Leicester, making an early burst?

On the Irish stage Shamrock Rovers reigned supreme and were worthy champions. I have happy memories of going to Glenmalure Park in Miltown (Dublin) in the seventies when they were unbeatable. They are in that mode again, but their old stomping ground is no more. In 1987 that beautiful pitch was controversially sold to speculative-minded builders, so beautifully captured by Luke Kelly in his song Dublin in the Rare Old Times: “the grey unyielding concrete makes a city of my town”.

Rovers had no home ground for over 20 years until they settled on Tallaght.

SIX–IN-A-ROW

Across the city to the north side and there was no stopping the Dubs as they rewrote the history they made in 2019 by clinching the new norm of six-in a-row.

Great displays by Cavan and Tipperary brought home interprovincial silverware to success-starved fans in those counties. No joy for Kerry, who allowed Cork to boss them in the deluge at Páirc Uí Chaiomh and bending the knee with that late, late goal. What’s the story for 2021? More about that in future editions.

The Kerry hurlers gave great satisfaction to so many supporters, even if they lost the McDonagh Cup final to Antrim, who proved to be their nemesis on four occasions in 2020.

This game was a curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland senior hurling final which was won convincingly in great fashion by Limerick. My abiding hurling memories of 2020 were those amazing sideline cuts by the imperious Joe Canning. Four out of four from varying distances, left and right. What a skill, what a man raising four white flags. At local level, it was encouraging to see Dr Crokes win the Kerry IHC title versus Tralee Parnells. They are looking good for the future.

Speaking of the future and of optimism: fair dues to the Kerry U17 footballers. They beat Cork in a thriller in Tralee and made sure of the Munster title with victory over Clare. They played a brand of football that gladdened the hearts of Kerry supporters, who were still hurting after the seniors' defeat. They played a good mix of old-style direct football and controlled close passing until the colleague arrived on the shoulder. They drove forward and delivered the ball in quickly to the scoring zone, where garsúns like Cian McMahon came of age, notching match-winning scores.

They were due to meet Roscommon in the All-Ireland semi-final in two weeks’ time, but I don’t expect that game to go ahead.

The U20s were badly hit for their All-Ireland semi-final v Galway, losing three players to the virus just before the match. Galway went on to beat Dublin in the final. John Sugrue had a good stint as manager but he stepped down, after facing that long return journey from Portlaoise a few times every week.

Declan O’Sullivan will manage this important group for the next two years, at least. His linkage with the senior management team will be very important as Kerry regroup. As expected, Donie Buckley wasn’t idle too long after parting company with Kerry, the one team he wanted to work with. Banty has taken him on board to boost Monaghan’s hopes of cranking up their dreams.

KERRY LADIES

A special mention to the Kerry ladies football team. They did very well and put up a great show against Cork in Tralee. Cork went on to the All-Ireland final, where they bowed to the other Dub trailblazers.

Mind you, the emerging Dubs have a long ways to go to reach the heights of past Kerry teams which included, among others, the all-round sports star Mary Geaney and Mary Jo Curran. If memory serves me well, Kerry won something like nine All-Irelands in a row, led by Beaufort’s Mary Jo. She won a bagful of All-Ireland medals, 11 in all. What a record and only Henry Shefflin, the great Kilkenny hurler, came near with 10.

At long last progress has been made in some sports where women were treated less equally than men.

Such misogynistic sentiments are coming to their rightful and timely end. In golf at long last, the GUI and the ILGUI have merged amicably into Golf Ireland. I wonder what the story is in Portmarnock and in Royal Dublin? Killarney Golf & Fishing Club has embraced this welcome, pluralistic mindset for quite some time.

The men and women players in the GAA are also well on the way to unity, but the top table of the GAA still lacks the heterogeneity of thought to bring them all under the one umbrella. The treatment of Galway in the staging of the All-Ireland semi-final still rankles, as does the low level of travel expenses paid to the ladies in comparison to the men. Equality beckons. Or does it?

HEART

There was plenty more to gladden the heart in 2020. Katie Taylor is the queen of the ring, the undisputed world champion.

Bookies were closed for the most part, as horse racing went ahead behind closed doors. The harsh lesson from the fall-out in March from Cheltenham was a stark reminder. The main winner in the new set-up was Willie Mullins and it was great to seek the Kerry jockeys doing so well.

The Irish rugby team struggled, but are Munster on the way back up again to their former lofty perch?

In golf, there was no Ryder Cup for team captain Pádraig Harrington. We had winning performances from Dustin Johnson, as well as the arrival on the podium of Bryson DeChambeau, defying best practices by missing most of the fairways and using his extra three stone weight to hit the ball out of the high rough without a bother, giving high handicappers great hopes of making the same winning connection more regularly.

FOCAL SCOIR

Focal scoir and just a few days into 2021, I still feel on balance that a halt should be called to competitions for team sports, where physical contact is a prerequisite. Numero uno is the health of all. Sport for individuals could go ahead, where social distancing is not an issue.

The daily number of cases is close to 5,000. By the time you read this, the daily figure may be up to 7,000. Statistics are reminders of the reality of the fallout from COVID -19. However, these are also human stories of suffering, worry, uncertainty and regrettably, in too many cases, death and mourning for families who are unable to grieve in the healing process of traditional Irish wakes and funerals.

Schools may not re-open on Monday next and Lockdown 3 may well need to continue into March. Team sports should be put on hold until it is deemed safe to open up. After all, basketball has been closed completely in 2020, as it is an indoor sport. For the first time in over 50 years the eagerly awaited Castleisland Christmas basketball blitz, masterminded by the indefatigable Duke, did not go ahead.

Idir an dá linn, Happy New Year and stay safe.

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No reform for football championship as Plan B falls short

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by Adam Moynihan

There will be no radical change for the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 2022 after a motion to restructure the format of the competition failed at GAA Special Congress on Saturday afternoon.

Motion 19 (also referred to as ‘Proposal B’ or ‘Plan B’) proposed that the National League and All-Ireland Championship should become one competition, with the provincial championships being separated from the All-Ireland series for the first time ever.

The motion needed support from 60% of delegates but, contrary to projections, it fell well short of that majority. In the end, after an hour-and-a-quarter of debate, just 50.6% of voters opted for Plan B.

Plan A – four groups of eight “provinces” plus an All-Ireland series – garnered far less support. 90% of those present voted against that particular proposal, which was down as Motion 18 on the agenda.

The end result of the two failed motions is that intercounty football will revert to the status quo as it was before the Super 8s were introduced in 2018, with a qualifier or “back door” system in place. A second tier competition known as the Tailteann Cup will also be staged.

ARGUMENTS

Introducing Motion 19 to delegates at Croke Park, former GAA President John Horan described the proposal as a starting point.

“If we feel we need to improve it, that opportunity would be there,” he said. “This proposal will mean more matches for our players and a better playing to training ratio.”

CEO of the Gaelic Players Association Tom Parsons said the ‘league as championship’ model would spark life into Gaelic football, before reading the testimonies of some intercounty players who supported Plan B. Among them was current Kerry captain Paul Murphy, who was quoted as saying: “The time has come to try a new structure for our football championship.”

Parsons added that some players are being “laughed at” while wearing county tracksuits after suffering heavy defeats.

Former GAA President and ex-Kerry GAA Chairman Seán Kelly also spoke out in favour of Proposal B, suggesting that it should be trialled for a period of three years.

“If you stand still, you go backwards,” the Kilcummin native said. “This motion should be trialled for a maximum of three years and then reviewed. To turn our backs on the voice of the players does not make sense to me.”

Michael Duignan from Offaly, Colm Collins from Clare, Seán Carroll from Sligo, Kevin O’Donovan from Cork and Declan Bohan from Leitrim all backed the proposal.

Representatives from Mayo, Donegal, Antrim, Cavan, Derry, Monaghan and Armagh argued against.

Mayo GAA Chairman Liam Moffatt raised concerns about the sixth place team in Division 1 not qualifying for the All-Ireland series while teams from lower divisions would.

Tiernach Mahon of Fermanagh GAA said that “this motion has the potential to destroy the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of Fermanagh people”.

Meanwhile, Kerry GAA chair Tim Murphy called for Motion 19 to be voted on at Congress 2022 instead.

“It’s a really strong motion with really good attributes and something we should really consider. But I would caveat that by saying it would be a travesty today if the motion is put to the floor and defeated. All the work of the committee would go to waste.

“The sense I get from the floor is that everybody is for change and for us to grow and evolve as an Association we have to accept that. I do feel the motion has huge attributes, but maybe we should go around to the provinces and invite in county officers and players to have their view. If we come back in 12 or 13 weeks with the same motion, then no-one can say we haven’t discussed it properly.

“Perhaps bringing this motion to Congress 2022 is the best solution to the situation we find ourselves in.”

Bringing the debate to a close, Horan again urged delegates to back the proposal.

His pleas fell on deaf ears, however – at least for 83 of the 168 people in attendance. 100 ‘yes’ votes were needed for change, but Motion 19 received just 85.

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A lover of music and song: Jimmy O’Brien RIP

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Eamonn Fitzgerald remembers the late Jimmy O’Brien, the eminently popular bar owner, singer and GAA fan who left an indelible mark on the town of Killarney.

Publican Jimmy O’Brien was laid to rest at sunny Aghadoe on Monday last. He wouldn’t want any fuss, but he got his promise from his lifelong friend, Jimmy Doyle. Jimmy was on the button accordion playing ‘Mary from Bonane’, a firm favourite, and even more so in recent weeks when Bonane native Seán O’Shea was kicking points from all angles.

After his love for his family, nothing meant more to Jimmy O’Brien than football, music and song.

Born in the town land of Lyreatough, Kilcummin in 1932, he attended the local Anabla NS and was well inducted in the various stages of getting the turf from sleán to the reek in the haggard. He was of the bog and proud of it. But he knew it was very hard work and headed for town, specifically Culloty’s Garage at Fair Hill (now Killarney Hardware). There he learned his trade as a mechanic. He didn’t boast about it but was very proud of the papers he received to certify him as fully qualified.

Like so many more people of that time, he was taken to America by Patrick Cronin in 1956 and was home for good in 1961. He must have collected a fair fistful of dollars and held on to them because, when Conno Healy’s pub came up for sale in 1959 (across the road from Culloty’s), he bought it. He returned home to open up Jimmy O’Brien’s pub along with his wife, Mary.

The family came along in due course – Siobhán, Ann and Jim – and the business grew. All went well until September 29, 1994, when his beloved Mary passed away aged 61. Too young to die and it hit him hard. No wonder; wasn’t she his life and soul?

His three children, the bar and his twin loves of football and song kept him going. He had no time for soccer, recounting times he would go up to the Friary, say the rosary, and still no score when he returned.

He was an ardent supporter of the Kerry football teams, but even more passionate about club football. Which was his club?

ROGUES

Set the scene in the Fair Hill bar, with a nice crowd inside. That’s the way he liked it – he got a bit flustered if it became jam-packed. It’s summer time and the O’Donoghue Cup draw has been published.

Johnny Batt (Cronin) was the instigator, and his Spa club mates the Herlihy brothers (Dave and William) stirred it further. Who was Jimmy going to support in the forthcoming matches, in which the rivalry would be intense? Mick Gleeson was as philosophical as ever; he knew better than to try and win this one.

The McCarthy brothers from Gneeveguilla, Thado, Joe and Billy, were in fast to lay claim to the boss of the house. After all, wasn’t he reared in the traditions of Sliabh Luachra and one of its finest sean-nós singers? Rosy was far more definite. Gneeveguilla, of course, I have to say.

Kilcummin’s Dermot Moynihan was in no doubt about how the allegiance would stand. After all, Jimmy was born in the parish, went to school in the parish and the parish rule was, and still is, sacrosanct in Kerry football.

The odds favoured the country clubs and were stacked against the townies. Weeshie Fogarty was a regular and he had lined Jimmy up for Terrace Talk.

His daughter, Ann, married Harry O’Neill (Dr Crokes), Tom Long was his gun club friend traipsing around Cock Hill and not a word out of him, but beside him supping porter and watching the scene develop was Mike Cooper, the man who was born just inside the county bounds and was now living in Killarney. The Crokes are the team, said Mike, his chest swelling with pride. He had just returned from Cahersiveen where Dr Crokes had defied the odds to beat the Maurice Fitzgerald-led South Kerry team in the Kerry County Championship. Five of his sons played the full match to secure victory. But I thought there were only four?

“No, I have five, all good, but the youngest is only a slip of a lad. You’d think you’d blow him over, but the foxy boy will be the best of all of them.” How right he was. The boy became a man and won five All-Irelands with Kerry. Crokes went on to win the 2000 Kerry SFC, managed by Harry O’Neill, Jimmy’s son-in-law.

How was the proprietor going to get out of this one before the gallery of rogues? Sure, he was the greatest rogue of all himself, but we loved him for it.

Everyone looked to Jimmy for an answer, but he turned to another regular, the independent voice of Bracker, from the Rock.

Plenty of grimacing and carry on, but no answer to Johnny Batt’s question. Jimmy O’Brien had the knack of not falling out with anyone and he couldn’t win this one, so he carried confirmation of club allegiance with him to his grave.

I’m pretty sure it is Gneeveguilla, in the heart of Sliabh Luachra, which made Jimmy O’Brien a household name in traditional music, especially with his lifelong ‘brother’ Jimmy Doyle. He embraced the greatness of Julia Clifford, Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary, the Doyle brothers and many more.

SINGING

What’s more, he enhanced that marvellous tradition, not in playing, but in singing. I asked Jimmy Doyle at the graveside about Jimmy on the melodeon. “Oh, he could play… But he was only alright! But for singing he was tops, pure and just outstanding. He could interpret a song so well. You wouldn’t hear a pin drop when he sang unaccompanied.”

Is it any wonder that his pub in Fair Hill was a mecca for traditional singers and musicians? They came to the master’s pub for a session.

Paddy Moloney, chief of The Chieftains, was a regular caller; as were The Dubliners; and the Kelly brothers, Luke of ‘Raglan Road’ and Paddy, who was also a beautiful singer. When Paddy was head of the Trade Unions, they held their conferences in Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel. Business over, they trooped down to O’Brien’s. The pint was much cheaper there and they would have a right session singing, and what are you having yourself, sir?

Dolly McMahon, The Wolfe Tones, and the Begley’s all came to sing and play.

There were so many impromptu sessions and you’d get the discreet phone call that the session had already started. “Come, you’ll enjoy it, but ná h-abair focal to anyone.” What an invitation to listen to musical greats from the list above.

“Johnny O’Leary and the Doyles will be here around 10. We have Seán Ó Sé (Poc ar Buile), Johnny Lehane and Diarmaidín Ó Súillabháin will be here from Cúl Aodh. He’ll have the recorder for Radio na Gaeltachta.”

Regular visitors were Mick O’Connell, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Donncha Ó Dulaing and Cíarán Mac Mathúna. Thankfully, Ciarán recorded so many of Jimmy’s songs, preserving this priceless legacy for the Irish oral tradition.

And then there were the American tourists drawn to a real Irish pub. They wanted ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Galway Bay’. They also wanted to know what music college from which the vintner graduated. The prime boys from UCC provided him with the answer for the Yanks question. The University of Sliabh Luachra, with its constituent college in Lyreatough. “Wow, fancy that. Must Google that when we get back to the States.”

FRIENDSHIP

My friendship with Jimmy O’Brien goes back a long ways, but specifically to November 1969, when East Kerry won the second of their Kerry SFC titles and the Bishop Moynihan Cup had pride of place.

He introduced me to so many people, including Con Houlihan, sitting in the high seat inside the door, hair well down his back, no pigtail and his hand cupped to his nose. This genius of a wordsmith was a shy man that I met many times later in Dublin.

Just like Paddy Moloney, Jimmy shared his talents with so many young up and coming singers who went on to great things in life. I recall one such case. A very young nervous girl was preparing for her first time on stage, a recitation in Scór. Would he help her out?

Would he what? Bring her along. To this day the now adult woman recalls sitting up on that seat inside the door and this gentle, loving man encouraging her with great tips.

That seat is long gone, but not the bar stand. He splashed out on a magnificent mahogany piece, surplus to the requirements of the Great Southern. “That’s not like you,” says Johnny Batt. “What’ll you use it for?”

“It’ll be a fine bar counter,” Jimmy replied. “And what’s more, when its job is done, won’t it make a fine coffin?”

He was a great Friary man and the highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the singing of the Ár nAthair. Father and daughter, Jimmy and Siobhán, the All-Ireland champion singer unaccompanied in touching harmony. Flawless. Enchanting.

His relationship with his son Jim was more like that of brothers, looking after each other. They got great joy out of travelling to matches in the ageless red Mercedes, certainly the only one in Killarney, if not in Europe. He never got a parking ticket and definitely was never caught for speeding. I’m convinced that the former mechanic set cruise control at 40km and away she went with co-pilot Jim Bob. No need for GPS, Jim Bob in control. God help the poor motorist trying to pass out on the rural roads.

July was his favourite month to live his passions. The Munster final in Killarney on the first Sunday of July was the occasion to meet so many of his friends from afar. It was also the first day of the Willie Clancy festival at Miltown–Malbay and that ran for a week. He never missed it, linking up with Galway hurlers Joe McDonagh and the Connolly brothers and especially their aunts and uncles, the Jimmy O’Brien cultivators of traditional singing and music in Connemara. It was his spiritual retreat. Sustenance for another year.

His nephew, Fr Liam O’Brien, celebrated the touching funeral mass, enhanced by the singing of Maura Reen.

I had the good fortune to spend an hour with Jimmy less than a fortnight before he died. He wanted to know the inside story on Jack O’Connor’s return and then sang ‘The Boys of Bárr na Sráide’ and Garry McMahon’s ‘Kerry’s Green and Gold’.

Pitch perfect. Word perfect. Never a faltering note.

“Not bad for an ould fella,” were his parting words. He knew he could still do it and I was so happy to video live the Master of Songs, treasured recordings for the memory bank.

I wonder if St Peter will listen in on the hop balls between new neighbours, Johnny Batt and Jimmy O’Brien?

To Siobhán, Ann, Jim and extended families, as well as friends from far and near, comhbhrón ó chroí.

Traditional cultural Ireland has lost some great people in recent weeks: Tony Loughnane, Paddy Moloney, Máire Mac an tSaoí, Brendan Kennelly and Jimmy O’Brien. Class acts.

And Jimmy, go gcloisfidh tú na h-aingil ag déanamh ceoil leat ar Neamh.

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