The big interview: Tracey Kennedy on the challenges facing the Cork County Board and GAA community on Leeside

The big interview: Tracey Kennedy on the challenges facing the Cork County Board and GAA community on Leeside
Riverstown players with the cup after a Sciath na Scol victory in the Páirc in 2014. When will kids get to play again? Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“I START off every year with the belief Cork can win the double and that Killeagh can win the county.”

Tracey Kennedy is an optimist by nature. It’s been 10 years since the Rebels lifted a senior All-Ireland and 19 since Killeagh captured the old intermediate trophy to progress to senior.

That doesn’t deter the Cork County Board chairperson from holding out hope each spring that the year will end with silverware.

Spring has given way to summer and, for now, there are no championships up for grabs. Whether the GAA will clear the path for a return as the Covid-19 pandemic abates remains to be seen.

“All hope isn’t lost yet. You have to remain hopeful and certainly, the situation has vastly improved but at the same time we’re only just going through the first phase of restrictions being eased. The country is slowly opening back up. The GAA will allow us return when it’s safe to do so and that cuts across my role in education because if we’re training and playing matches then the schools will be returning.”

Cork County Board chairperson Tracey Kennedy with Kevin Fahive, Ronan McCarthy and Tom Clancy, at the launch of the jersey to commemorate MacCurtain and McSwiney, which they wore in the league game against Down. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Cork County Board chairperson Tracey Kennedy with Kevin Fahive, Ronan McCarthy and Tom Clancy, at the launch of the jersey to commemorate MacCurtain and McSwiney, which they wore in the league game against Down. Picture: Jim Coughlan

In the grander scheme of things, the sporting shutdown is just a “blip, a setback”.

Yet Kennedy understands the frustration of club members who were looking out their windows as April was uncharacteristically sun-kissed but unable to use GAA pitches. Across the last week Pat Spillane and TJ Reid, among other high-profile Gaels, have been clamouring for access to facilities before the current July 20 target.

“The most contact I’ve had from GAA club members over the past two months has been on the issue of the pitches being closed and, more specifically, the walkways around them. You can understand why because for many older people, especially when the 2km limit was in place, it was a safe place to exercise.

“The problem is that it places too much responsibility on volunteers to be policing the situation. It’s the same with going down the club for a puck. You want to do that with your two lads but so do dozens of other families.

“What happens if there is a case? I think the majority of club officers are glad not to be put in that position.”

There are broader financial concerns for Cork GAA in the short term. The overhaul of Páirc Uí Chaoimh left a massive debt to be paid off.

Picture: Larry Cummins
Picture: Larry Cummins

“I have confidence in the GAA because it is a resilient organisation. We will get back, even if it’s not this year, then next year. There is an impact on every business and the GAA is that as well as a cornerstone of the community, but it’s too early to predict as there are so many scenarios.”

“When you don’t have a game, you don’t have a cash flow. We’re not sitting back on hands saying ‘let whatever happens, happen’. We’re taking guidance from Croke Park and we’ve cut back on discretionary expenditure and we’ve been able to use the Covid-19 payment scheme for staff.”

The Cork County Board doesn’t have an answer for club players and management teams wondering what format the local championships will take. A round-robin system and additional tiers in hurling and football were being introduced this summer, which was a source of pride for the Cork chair in the last of her three years in the role.

“This was the start of championship reform but if it’s not up and running this year then it will be next year. I’ve no doubt it will benefit club players and improve the standard by having teams in appropriate competitions.

“It’s like the scenario with the Cork footballers, who had done everything right to get promoted from Division 3 and put themselves in a strong position approaching the championship. Of course it’s frustrating but you have to be confident the benefits will still be felt even if it’s in 2021.”

Talking to Ronan McCarthy after a football league game.
Talking to Ronan McCarthy after a football league game.

Leeside hurling legend Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was on The Sunday Game last weekend reflecting on his career, including the three bitter strikes that divided the county. The aftershocks are only now subsiding but on a more positive note, he expressed his belief everyone is now pulling in one direction.

Alongside manager Donal Óg Cusack and selectors Tom Kenny and Kieran ‘Fraggie’ Murphy, Seán Óg is involved in a minor set-up that was given a one-year term. U16 boss Noel Furlong and his selectors are earmarked to take over. 

Seán Óg is action at U21 level for Cork. He's now back as an underage selector. Picture: Des Barry
Seán Óg is action at U21 level for Cork. He's now back as an underage selector. Picture: Des Barry

“With management teams, and it’s not just in the case of minor hurling, we have to consider all that, depending on whether there are competitions or not. If this year’s U17s don’t get a chance to represent Cork in 2020 then we might have a specific competition or tournament for them next year. We just don’t know because the GAA is still in firefighting mode.”

Kennedy does share Ó hAilpín’s faith in the future of Cork GAA.

“We’ve been building underage for some time now, in terms of Rebel Óg structures, development squads, the cohesive approach to management teams going forward. I won’t see it, as my term will be over but it was always about proper planning. The bedrock is there now and in the last few years we’ve seen Cork hurling teams reaching All-Ireland finals again and then the footballers winning at U20 and minor.”

Mark Cronin hits the net in the thrilling Cork U20 win over Dublin.
Mark Cronin hits the net in the thrilling Cork U20 win over Dublin.

While GAA activities have been curtailed, as a principal of Carrignafoy Community College in Cobh, there’s been no let-up in her primary role. Helping the staff and pupils through the trip into the unknown that is remote learning.

With 330 pupils, they take a holistic approach and recently completed a successful remote fundraiser for Pieta House on the weekend their annual Darkness Into Light event was postponed.

“We raised over €3,600 and it was fantastic for the staff and pupils. We would be very aware of the importance of Pieta House’s service in Cobh.”

Having undergone surgery five years ago for cancer, which was caught early through screening, Kennedy is now “more accepting” of the challenges life throws up.

“I was very fortunate as my immune system wasn’t compromised after my treatment, though some people around me were worried.

“It’s the little freedoms we all miss, aside from the obvious bigger events obviously. There’s a great adaptability out there though. Yoga and fitness classes online, Zoom meetings, we keep going.

“I love reading, fresh air and I’ve close family and friends nearby. I’m lucky. We just all have to remember ‘This will pass’.”

Tracey Kennedy after presenting the Barrs U21 hurlers with the cup last season. Picture: David Keane.
Tracey Kennedy after presenting the Barrs U21 hurlers with the cup last season. Picture: David Keane.

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