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LOOKING BACK: When Kilbrittain hurlers finally reached the promised land

October 21st, 2020 10:00 AM

By Denis Hurley

Kilbrittain captain Dan O'Connell and players Denis O'Neill, Denis Healy, Niall Crowley and David O'Sullivan celebrate winning the 1995 Cork IHC title. (Picture courtesy of Helen and Shane Quinlan)

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THE headline in The Southern Star edition for October 14th, 1995 said it all – ‘A superb Kilbrittain show’.

After a decade at intermediate hurling level, which encompassed three final defeats, the club was headed for the senior grade for the first time, having blitzed Ballincollig in the final by 2-17 to 1-5.

There had been heartache in final losses to Youghal (1988 and 1993) and Valley Rovers (1993), but finally, ten years after winning the county junior A title, they had made it. Denis Healy was one of the stalwarts of that Kilbrittain side that went from junior to senior.

‘It was a very young team in ’85, I was nearly young myself at the time!’ he laughs.

‘There were a lot of young fellas, a good group came through together, and that was a huge plus at the time.

‘I wouldn’t say we were expected to challenge straightaway but, when you win the junior, you hope to do well. I remember the night we won the junior, we were below in the village and our trainer Pa Finn said he had no fear of Kilbrittain going intermediate and, in years to come, he could even see Kilbrittain going senior.

‘Not long after that, a fella came up to me on the street and said, “By God, Pa Finn mustn’t know much about hurling if he thinks Kilbrittain would be playing senior!” The same man came back to me when we won it in 1995 and he said, “Jesus, Pa Finn knew what he was talking about”!’

Kilbrittain took time to find their feet at intermediate, struggling to make an impact in 1986 and 1987 as they lost first round ties to Erin’s Own and Ballinhassig, respectively, but 1988 saw them pick up momentum. Coached by the parish priest, Enniskeane native Fr Jack McCarthy, Kilbrittain saw off Mallow, Newtownshandrum and Douglas en route to a final meeting against Youghal.

Unfortunately, the decider didn’t go their way as they lost by 4-6 to 2-11. Healy, who was club chairman at the time, as well as a key member of the team, felt it was one that got away.

‘By 1988, people might have felt that we were out of our depth but we won the first two rounds and we picked up a bit of confidence,’ he says.

‘It’s like anything, winning is a great habit – all of a sudden we were in the semi-final against Douglas, we won that and then we were in the final against Youghal!

‘We were a junior club for 75 or 80 years and then here we were in an intermediate final, it was a huge, huge day for us. The build-up was massive but I don’t think the occasion necessarily got to us.

‘It was great to be there, but I’d always look back at that final. On the day, we were a way better than Youghal, but they got goals at crucial times. We lost by a point, one lousy point, and as a team we gave away two or three silly goals that we wouldn’t normally give away.’

‘Fr McCarthy was crying inside in the dressing-room. He wasn’t crying because we lost, but because we had been better than them and really should have won that match.

‘A few lads, like Jeff O’Connell, Micheál Holland and Fintan Crowley had gone abroad and if we had them, we’d have won.’

However, in the same way that they came back from the 1984 junior final loss to Midleton to go one better in 1985, they made it back to the intermediate decider, beating Mayfield, Newtownshandrum and Mallow after replays and then avenging the 1988 final as Youghal were overcome in the semi-final.

Standing in their way were the 1988 junior champions Valley Rovers, but the effort caught up with Kilbrittain as they lost by 6-12 to 3-5.

‘We had seven championship matches that year,’ Healy says.

‘We got there and were slightly tired, I think we had played four Sundays out of five and every one of them was a big game.

‘Youghal hadn’t gone up senior and we beat them, and beat them well, in the semi-final in 1989. Valley Rovers were just well over us on the day, they hurled like demons and beat us well. They just devoured us.’

After that, they found it difficult to match the highs in the early 1990s, but they reached the semi-finals in 1992, losing to eventual winners in 1992 before reaching another final in 1993, this time under the management of Kieran O’Driscoll.

With Healy as captain, they beat Cloyne, Aghada and Mallow but, in a shiny new Páirc Uí Rinn, it was a similar story to 1988 as Youghal were too strong again, with the final score 2-13 to 3-7

‘There was talk that fellas were getting too long in the tooth and it wasn’t going to happen,’ Healy says, ‘but I always thought that there was a chance.

‘We loved the hurling. When we won a game, we enjoyed it and when we lost, we drowned our sorrows. There was a real togetherness.

‘In 1993, there was seven of us on the Carbery panel. Kilbrittain lost the intermediate final and then Carbery lost the senior final after a replay – we were all a bit down but, again, you dust yourself off and get going again.’

And of course, if Kilbrittain had won the intermediate in 1993, then it’s likely that Carbery wouldn’t have won the senior in 1994, with Healy a panellist. Buoyed by that, Kilbrittain – now under the guidance of former player Humphrey Cronin – overcame Mallow, St Finbarr’s, Delanys and Newcestown to make it to yet another final.

That 0-9 to 0-7 win over Newcestown in Bandon was the epitome of the adage that local derbies are for winning, but Healy was forced to watch helplessly, having been injured in the quarter-final win over Delanys. His cause looked lost, but a miraculous recovery was in the offing.

‘I tore the muscle clean off the bone,’ he says.

‘I had to have an operation up in Cork and I asked the surgeon if he stitched it back on and he said, “No, you can’t do that.”

‘I said that I had a hurling match coming up in a few weeks and he said, “You won’t be hurling at all, boy, until next year.”

‘Not long after the Newcestown game, I bumped into Liam O’Reilly in Bandon. I was talking about the groin and he asked, kind of flippantly, “Do you want to play in the county final?”

‘I said, “I do of course!” and he said, “If you stick with me, I’ll do the very best I can for you.”

‘I think we had three or four weeks. I thought Liam was off his game but I was willing to try it. I went through a lot of pain and anguish – Liam O’Reilly doesn’t spare you! – but I got to tog out and come on in the final.’

That day in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was when it all came together. While Ger Glavin’s early goal put Ballincollig in front, Dan O’Connell replied in kind for Kilbrittain and a 1-7 to 1-2 half-time lead flattered the mid-Cork side.

Thankfully, there was no wavering from Kilbrittain in the second half, with a second goal coming from O’Connell while young corner-forward Cormac O’Donoghue, who was to tragically die just over a year later, contributed six points with Niall Crowley getting three.

By the end, 15 points separated the teams and Healy, who came on as a sub and scored two points, enjoyed being able to bask in the win. ‘It was a huge performance,’ he says.

‘It was one of those days when everything went right. We played against Ballincollig like Valley Rovers did against us in 1989, every fella was on form.

‘The last quarter of an hour was something to behold. We had waited a long time and we had worked long and hard for it.

‘People were delighted for us. We had a huge following, for some reason a lot of neutrals just took to us. There was a man from Bandon who used to go walking on Harbour View beach and he’d pass up by my place.

‘He’d always want to know when we were playing again – “That’ll be in the diary, I can’t miss those Kilbrittain matches, I really enjoy watching ye play”.’

Kilbrittain spent four years at senior level, coming within an ace of a semi-final appearance in 1996, but for a late Imokilly equaliser before defeat in a replay. In all, it was a hell of a journey and Healy is satisfied to reflect on the fact that it had a happy ending.

‘We played fierce well at senior,’ he says.

‘We mightn’t have been the best hurling team, but we won a good few league games and we were never embarrassed the first few years up there.

‘I still hear it that it’s a pity we didn’t win it sooner, but the main thing is that we won it. We had ten great years intermediate and we enjoyed every bit of it.

‘We had a bit of heartbreak and a few losses, but we got there.’

***

1995 Cork County Intermediate Hurling final

 Kilbrittain 2-17, Ballincollig 1-5

Kilbrittain: Ollie Harrington; Jeremy McSweeney, Finbarr Sheehy, Aidan O’Connell; Micheál Holland (RIP), Brendan Aherne, Edward Sheehy; Denis O’Neill, Jeff O’Connell; Tom Brennan (0-1), Dan O’Connell (captain, 2-2) Tim McCarthy (0-1); Cormac O’Donoghue (RIP, 0-6), Niall Crowley (0-3), Paul Harrington (0-2). Subs: Denis Healy (0-2) for McCarthy, Vincent O’Brien for O’Neill, David O’Sullivan for O’Connell.

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