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The magical night Bantry pulled out all the stops for Cork's All-Ireland winning football heroes

April 26th, 2020 7:41 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

The O'Learys from Whiddy Island welcomed the Cork All-Ireland winning football team to Bantry in 2010 for a special homecoming.

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On Tuesday night, September 21st, 2010, Bantry pulled out all the stops to welcome home local hero and Cork captain Graham Canty and his county team-mates after the Rebels won the All-Ireland senior football final. KIERAN McCARTHY takes a closer look at a magical night

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AS soon as the first flare shot high into the dusk sky hanging over Bantry Bay, Graham Canty knew who it was.

The Whiddy Island gang were going all out. That was the O’Learys. They’d sat patiently on Danny’s boat for the bones of an hour, opposite the Abbey cemetery, waiting for the Cork football team bus to appear and waiting to see their hometown hero, Canty.

‘All-Irelands don’t fall off trees but even better, Graham was the captain – and people around Bantry love the Cantys,’ Tim O’Leary says.

He’s an islander who runs the ferry from Whiddy to the mainland, he runs a pub and restaurant on the island too, and there’s a hostel there waiting to be opened now, and he’s also a GAA fanatic like everyone else in and around Bantry.

Tim was on his brother Danny’s boat that night along with his nephew Seanie, and Danny’s kids, Connie, Jimmy and Mairead, were there too.

When the Cork team bus snaked down the hill outside the Westlodge Hotel, that was the signal for the flares to be fired. It was an impressive sight. Flare after flare lit up the sky over Bantry, and the boat, decked out in Cork flags, rolled up the Bay, alongside the bus, all the way into the centre of town.

Inside the bus, most has piled over to the left-hand side to catch a glimpse of the display. Heads were stuck up against the windows watching flare after flare shoot out of this small boat and explode into colour.

‘It was unique,’ Canty recalls.

‘I’d say some of the fellas on our team hadn’t seen anything like that before. It set the scene.’

Welcome to Bantry, boys. You’re well west of the Viaduct here. Welcome to the real football country.

 

***

Pat Joe Connolly was chairman of Bantry GAA Club in 2010 – and that was the year when the the town’s local hero, Graham Canty, captained the Cork footballers to the All-Ireland senior football title.

It was historic. Canty was the first Bantry Blues man to captain Cork to the Sam Maguire. Local Blues legends, Donal Hunt and Declan Barron were already assured of their place in football folklore, but now they had to make way for Canty.

He wasn’t the only link to the town, however. Midfield powerhouse Alan O’Connor was a St Colum’s clubman, just out the Glengarriff road; born in Dublin, he’s Cork and Colum’s to the bone. Cork selector, the late Terry O’Neill, originally from Castletownbere, spent most of his life in Bantry and was heavily involved with Bantry Blues GAA Club. Peadar Healy, another selector, still lives in Glengarriff where he’s a Garda, as was the case too in 2010, and he has always been a familiar sight in Bantry.

Pat Joe was in Croke Park that Sunday (September 19th), as was most of Bantry. They were all there to support Cork, Graham. Alan, Terry and Peadar. Cork had been knocking at the door for several years, had lost the 2007 and ’09 finals to Kerry, but there was a sense that 2010 was their big chance.

Canty didn’t start the final against Down. He’d gone off with a hamstring injury in the quarter-final against Roscommon, struggled for 35 minutes in the semi-final against Dublin and wasn’t fit enough to play 70 minutes in the final. He came on early in the second half and was a calming influence, as Cork won 0-16 to 0-15.

Cork celebrated. Bantry erupted. The party began. Canty was the toast of the town.

Tim O’Leary didn’t miss many Cork games and he was sat in the Hogan Stand on this magical day. His standout memory isn’t what you’d expect it to be.

‘Myself and my sister were sat in the Hogan beside some fella who was on Eastenders and another fella who played the caretaker in Harry Potter, I think they were working on a play in the Gate Theatre, but what I remember most is looking down onto the pitch after the game and seeing Pat Joe kiss and hug everyone from Bantry that he met afterwards. That’s always stuck in my mind. That was a special day. That was a big Bantry day,’ Tim says.

Before the celebrations swung into full flow in Dublin that night, Pat Joe was on the phone to Bantry: there was a homecoming to organise in the town on the Tuesday night. That was only two days away.

‘When I was walking out of Croke Park, I was on the phone to a few people back home. Time was against us, but everyone put their shoulder to the wheel and came together,’ Pat Joe recalls.

Richard Harrington, known locally as Paco, owns and runs The Quays Bar in the heart of Bantry town. He didn’t travel the 700km round-trip to Dublin for the game. Instead, he was back home, watching the drama unfold.

‘It was mental that day,’ he says, ‘incredible afterwards.’

An hour or so after the game, Pat Joe was on the phone: we need to put on a homecoming on Tuesday night. Pat Joe had the same conversation with many more in the town. There was a lot to do but little time.

Bantry has experience of hosting big events, its annual Bantry Mussel Fair was the talk of West Cork and beyond every year, attracting thousands to the town. The impressive Wolfe Tone Square is right smack, bang in the middle of Bantry, a huge space capable of holding big crowds and it has previous form – in May 1996 the Corrs held a free concert in the Square and the town was packed.

But September 2010 would hit higher notes than Andrea Corr reached.

The organising committee went to work straightaway. Phones were hopping. They needed a stage and touched based with a supplier from Tipperary who’d provided the stage for the mussel festival. Tossie Hayes in Rosscarbery, of Hayes Cabin Services, came on board with portable toilets and safety barriers. The various dignitaries were contacted, told to keep Tuesday night free. The Screaming Celts from Dunmanway were confirmed to play music, local woman Kathy McCarthy was asked to sing a few songs, as was the legendary Irish traditional singer Seán Ó Sé from Ballylickey outside town. There were meetings with the Gardaí, the HSE, and many more; every box that had to be ticked was ticked.

‘The town swung into action, every business did everything they could for Tuesday night, extra bunting was put up where there was room, the surrounding local GAA clubs provided stewards, car parking was put in place, anything that needed to be done was,’ Richard Harrington explains.

The MC for the night was also contacted. They kept it local.

 

***

Gearóid O’Leary still runs a garage in Bantry, out the Glengarriff road. It was founded by his late father in 1956, and its doors are still wide open for business 64 years later. On Gearóid’s office desk rests a photo of the night he interviewed Graham Canty on stage during the homecoming in September 2010.

That photo was given to him as a gift. Two things still stand out: 1) He is pictured wearing glasses in the photo while these days he doesn’t need them anymore. 2) This was, by far, the biggest event that Gearóid ever MCed.

‘I had a little bit of experience of MCing, I’d done a bit around the town for years so when they asked me, I’d no hesitation,’ he says.

Gearóid was the right choice. He’s a part of Bantry. Born and bred in the town. In fact, he has never been outside of Bantry for more than eight days – and that was his honeymoon in Jersey, a compromise when his wife wanted the sun and he wanted a place where they spoke the same language. Gearóid also played football with Bantry Blues up along. He knows the town inside out and how important the club and football is locally. Everyone knows him too. ‘A rock solid Bantry man,’ was how one local described Gearóid. And he was handed a starring role on one of the biggest nights his home town ever saw.

MC Gearoid O’Leary interviews Bantry legend and Cork captain Graham Canty on stage.

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On the Tuesday afternoon of the homecoming, Bantry had pulled together as it moved closer to show time at 7pm.

‘When you consider the scale of the event and the time constraints, everything went very smoothly and there were no glitches,’ Pat Joe Connolly says.

From 4pm on, Bantry started filling up. There were a few sick heads and heavy eyes after a few nights in a row, but everyone was ready to give it one last hurrah and make sure this was the mother and father of homecomings.

All the various arteries of the town were alive with the hum of people gathering, young and old Cork fans turning out to greet their All-Ireland winning heroes, and every street fed into the Square, which was filling up fast.

Just over 30 kilometres away, the Cork team bus had stopped off in Dunmanway, the home of Sam Maguire. This was a symbolic gesture. The town’s folk there turned out in force too. Next stop was meant to be Canty’s home town of Bantry, but the Cork team was running ahead of schedule.

‘We had some time to kill so we stopped in Drimoleague and had a drink there,’ Canty says, and this resonated with him more that anyone else.

Henry Deane passed away earlier that year, in April 2010, and while he had lived in Bantry and been involved with the Blues, he was originally from Drimoleague and lined out for Clann na nGael. Canty thought of Henry during the short stop-off before the convoy left The Drimoleague Inn and continued on its way to Bantry.

By now, Gearóid O’Leary was on the stage set up at the bottom of the Square, almost on the waterfront, and he could look up towards Marino Street and New Street. There wasn’t a gap in the crowd. Thousands filled the Square.

‘I don’t remember a gathering as big as that in Bantry in my lifetime, it’s bigger than anything I had ever seen,’ says Gearóid, who had received word that the team was en route but he knew he’d some time to fill.

He asked the crowd for any questions they’d like him to put to the returning Cork heroes. One young lady up the front wanted to know what aftershave pin-up forward Daniel Goulding wore.

Then, the flares were spotted high over Bantry Bay. They’re coming, they’re almost here and the noise levels rose. The wait was over.

Thousands of supporters packed the Square in Bantry to welcome home their All-Ireland winning Cork football heroes in September 2010.
(Courtesy of Irish Examiner Archive)

 

***

The O’Learys from Whiddy Island set off flare after flare into the dusk sky, with the fading light making this an even more impressive sight. They’d hand-held flares too.

‘The young lads were stone mad about Graham, he was their hero,’ Danny O’Leary says, and Connie, Jimmy and Seanie would go on to play alongside Canty with Bantry – but on this night they were fans like everyone else. They docked the boat as quick as they could and disappeared into the crowd, the kids pushing up as close to the stage as they could.

When the bus pulled up, manager Conor Counihan insisted that the two Bantry men, Canty and selector Terry O’Neill, were first off holding Sam Maguire. The Square erupted. One by one, Gearóid O’Leary introduced the players on stage, with a huge roar reserved for Canty, not feeling the cold in his blue polo shirt.

It’s then, with a sea of Cork fans, family, friends, clubmates, in front of him did the enormity of this All-Ireland win hit Canty.

‘When we won that Sunday, it was great, mighty, job done, but for me, you’d be afraid to accept or acknowledge what we achieved as a group in case any little of the edge would be lost in the group,’ he explains.

‘When the final whistle went, a large portion of me was looking forward to 2011 and thinking what will we do next season to stay ahead because we couldn’t do the same thing and expect the same results.

‘It was when I got up on the stage in Bantry that I realised, “Jesus, look at what we achieved as a group”. It was mighty.

‘It was great, too, to bring all the Cork lads down to our town, and the cup as well.’

Canty didn’t have the Sam Maguire when he came down off the stage to meet the fans after the official section of the homecoming had finished. Bantry club man Martin Murray helped Canty negotiate his way around a lap of the Square as he tried to meet as many as he could.

‘I don’t know where the cup was. I didn’t have it. Purposely, probably,’ he laughs.

The Sam Maguire would have been a magnet. He was safer without it. Canty made his way into The Quays then. It was heaving.

‘That was probably the busiest night we ever had,’ Richard Harrington recalls.

‘The Saturday night of the Mussel Festival in 2004 was exceptionally busy too, that was our first year open, and it’s the only night that would run 2010 close.’

‘The spirit and the buzz in Bantry that night was incredible. The players were fantastic too, they were so approachable and they went around to as many local pubs as they could.’

Canty stayed in The Quays for a while, then slipped out the back door and made his way to The Boston Bar where his father was. A great night with great memories.

‘You have to remember too that the country was going through some tough times in 2010, so to forget about those problems for a few hours and think about something uplifting meant a lot to people. For a few hours, it took peoples’ minds off what was going on,’ Canty adds.

Pat Joe Connolly will never forget it either.

‘That night was such a proud moment for me as a chairman, in my home town and my home club. The co-operation from everyone was special. We might never again see a night like that in Bantry,’ he says.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime night for Bantry. There’ll never be another night like it. Canty was the first Bantry man to captain Cork to the Sam Maguire. That’s magic right there. Even better, Canty’s a local legend. And the town pulled out all the stops to ensure that Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 will rank up there as one of the greatest nights in the town’s history.

 

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