This story originally appeared in our 16-page county final preview in this week's Southern Star sports section which is available in shops across West Cork now or online via our digital edition ➡ http://bit.ly/2Z9T9Z1
BY GER McCARTHY
DISCLAIMER: I am a Clonakilty man and am obviously biased ahead of Sunday’s county football final. This is my hometown team and like all Clon fans, it’s been a journey of ups and downs over the years. You learn to enjoy the ups and winter out the downs. Sunday – county final day – is an up. It’s there to be enjoyed.
I stood in the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh stands and looked around as Clonakilty supporters, young and old, cried, laughed, punched the air, hugged strangers and celebrated the most unexpected of county final victories back in 1996.
In the same stadium, I watched as Castlehaven proved too strong for Clonakilty in the 2003 final. Six years later, I, along with all the other Clonakilty supporters held our breath as Dave O’Regan nailed the match-winning placed ball to defeat the Barr’s in the 2009 senior decider.
Ask any West Cork or Beara division or club what winning a county final means to the local community. Ask Carbery Rangers what it felt like in Páirc Uí Rinn in 2016. Ask Castlehaven what it was like in 1989, 1994, 2003, 2012 and 2013. Ask the Carbery division and all the clubs that followed them to glory in 2004. Ask Bantry Blues what 1995 and 1998 was like. Same question to Beara after they annexed the 1997 senior championship. Ask O’Donovan Rossa what 1992 did for Skibbereen.
A common thread in answers to those questions rarely centres around the actual finals themselves or even the matches that led to those successes. Instead, answers from supporters, managers, selectors and players revolve around the unbridled joy and happiness before, during and after the county finals. The sight of flags and bunting adorning households throughout the parish. Usually at least one old car being completely repainted in the club or division’s colours and making the local newspaper. The obligatory county final song. Schools in the parish dressing up in the club’s colours.
I vaguely recall Terry Dillon’s goal in Clonakilty’s 1996 county senior final win over UCC. Some of the points that day from Kennth Meade, Pat Griffin and Eoin O’Mahony are in the back of my mind too. Somewhere.
Yet, to this day, the recollections that have stayed razor sharp include the guttural roar at the final whistle and how it seemed to shake the old stadium to its very core. I remember celebrating with my friends. The entire population of Clonakilty pouring on to the Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch and hugging anyone with red and green colours on. The long spin home to Clon and all the bonfires – so many bonfires – along the way.
The celebrations in the town that night, and in the days and weeks that followed. My God, the celebrations. The streets of Clonakilty thronged for two or three nights after the club won the 1996 county. Most people out and about weren’t even drinking but just wanted to be part of the celebrations. They just wanted a little taste of the happiness the GAA club had brought to a town, like all West Cork towns, that had been on its knees, financially, throughout the tough 1980s.
It was okay to smile again. It was okay to be happy and feel good about where you came from because, guess what, our club was the best in the county. Most of all, I remember the smiles on Clonakilty people’s faces. Long before social media, I remember the excitement of any news of Clonakilty players' celebrations and movements from pub to pub spreading like wildfire in the weeks that followed. Rock stars in red and green jerseys.
Walking over town and hearing people who never went to a Clonakilty GAA match in their lives discussing how well ‘Doc’ Cahill coped with Mark O’Sullivan or the way Willie and Pat Griffin, Tom Mannix and Casey O’Donovan played out of their skins. You couldn’t make it up.
The only other time I can equate anything close to that level of sporting happiness was Italia 90 when everyone in Ireland suddenly became a soccer expert.
1996 was different though because this was our parish. Our heroes were not on a television set over in Italy. They were people we knew, men who worked in the area, each of them, one of our own. You could walk up to them and thank them, tell them what it meant to you. Tell them how proud you were of all the sacrifices they had made and how it gave you such a warm feeling of pure happiness. Maybe shed a tear or two as well.
Everyone has been experiencing tough times over the past 18 months and there may be more tough times to come.
Win, lose or draw, Clonakilty GAA Club has already succeeded in putting a smile on their supporters faces and given them a team to be proud of. There are no trophies handed out for that but in these troubled times, it’s a victory.