I have spent many hours in the Neptune Stadium, on North Monastery Road on the northside ofCork City: Days and nights walking its wide floor, at meetings in its rooms and corridors, waiting for announcements that could decide the future of the nation’s government.
It was nothing to do with what is regarded as the stadium’s greatest contribution to Cork and Irish life: Basketball.
In all of those hours, I never wondered about how the stadium got its name, Neptune, the Roman ‘god of the sea’ who could control winds and storms and lived beneath the waves. He could arise from the sea, in a chariot pulled by creatures that resembled horses, to vanquish the enemies of Rome.
I never connected the ‘god of the sea’ with the ‘Gods of the Lee,’ nor asked why the home of the ‘oldest and most successful basketball club in Ireland’ has a strong maritime connection.
The fortunes of the ancient Romans were intimately tied to the seas. Their mythological ‘god of the sea,’ they believed, controlled all waters, from the smallest streams and springs to the Mediterranean Sea, where he lived in a golden palace beneath the waves. Ancient drawings show him carrying a trident, a three-pronged fisherman’s spear. He could arise with fury, controlling winds and storms, to sink the ships of enemies.
My visits to the Neptune Stadium did involve people being ‘vanquished,’ but in political terms. I was there reporting general election counts for radio and television, counts that often went on for days and nights.
Until I met Jim O’Donoghue at the stadium to get a copy of his new book, Gods by the Lee, a history of the club, I never connected it with the maritime.
Jim has spent a lifetime in the Neptune club. The cover of Gods by the Lee is appropriately an image of Neptune, but one which mythology would never have considered: Holding a trident in one hand and a basketball in the other.
Jim’s family come from Barry’s Place on Cathedral Road, not far from the stadium. His late brother, Donal, to whom the book is dedicated, was “chief organiser” of basketball. Jim recalled how when Neptune was founded, in 1947, there were no training facilities and “the first site of a Neptune basket was in the backyard of my home, an area no more than 30ft by 20ft, the basket fixed to the wall over the back door, with two windows in close proximity, where panes of glass had to be regularly replaced”.
The linkage between that and how the US navy and the Slua Muirí, the Irish Naval Reserve, brought a land-based sport through maritime connections from the US to Ireland and into public prominence, to compensate for criticism of Irish neutrality in the Second World War, is a fascinating story. “It all came from what happened after the Second World War,” says Jim. “The American navy and air forces paid courtesy visits to Cork and Dublin. Ireland’s neutrality in that war had been criticised internationally and the government was making attempts to mend relationships. The policy was to accord the visiting Americans every courtesy and basketball was high on the agenda, particularly amongst the naval men whose ships came to Cork. The Irish Defence Forces always had basketball listed as one of their sports, so the then Maritime Inscription at Haulbowline, later the Slua Muirí, was involved when games were arranged with the Americans.
“Ireland was then a country poor and in recession, with an outlook that seemed bleak,” Jim says. “Public interest grew in the sport and Cork being what Cork is, full of determination to do better, there became a desire to compete in the Olympic Games in London in 1948; no shortage of intent there, typical Cork determination. So the Defence Forces in Cork wanted to set up a county board. Two Slua Muirí officers, Tossie Bruton and Humphrey Lynch, were ordered to do so by their commanding officer; given the task of forming a civilian team each.
“Humphrey set up Neptune; Tossie established Weevils. Donal O’Donoghue and Finbarr O’Mahony were Humphrey’s ‘lieutenants’ in the task,” Jim says.
“The name ‘Neptune’, from its maritime and naval associations, was decided on by Humphrey, who recruited other Slua Muirí personnel: Paddy O’Sullivan, Morris O’Donovan, Frank McCoy, Charlie Donnelly and Eddie Corcoran. Civilians were ‘conscripted’: Brothers John and Derry O’Sullivan, Brendan Hogan, Brendan Fagan (Father Aengus), Finbarr O’Mahony, Billy Freeman, John Geaney.”
The rest is the history you’ll have to read in a fascinating book. It’s on sale at Vibes & Scribes, Bandon and Carrigaline Book Stores, Amazon, Play Books, or directly from Jim at email@example.com.