WHILE Sean Kelly’s term as GAA president is best remembered for the seismic decision to allow soccer and rugby to be played in Croke Park, his legacy in ensuring that junior and intermediate clubs around the country have the opportunity to attain success on a national scale cannot be underestimated.
Since the inception of the Munster and All-Ireland Championships at the junior and intermediate levels in the early noughties, many Cork clubs have experienced their finest hours, particularly in hurling.
At provincial level, Cork representatives have dominated the competitions, at both junior and intermediate, while on the national stage, a duopoly has emerged between Cork and Kilkenny.
When Courcey Rovers won their first Junior County title in 2001, they backed it up with provincial success the following spring.
The following season, the prominence of the Munster Junior Championship was amplified as the added incentive of an All-Ireland was introduced.
Ballinhassig ensured that the John Quirke Cup remained in Carrigdhoun before proceeding to claim Munster honours, defeating Ballinahinch of Clare in the final.
The following May, a comprehensive victory over Black and Whites of Kilkenny at Walsh Park in Waterford saw Ballinhassig win the inaugural All-Ireland Junior Hurling Club Championship.
Since then, the junior and intermediate competitions have grown in stature, helped in no small part by the staging of the All-Ireland finals in Croke Park and the re-jigging of the calendar to allow for the games to be played earlier in the year.
Fr O’Neill’s won the first All-Ireland Junior Hurling Final at GAA headquarters in 2006, defeating Erin’s Own of Carlow.
Last year, they almost became the first club in the country to win national hurling titles at both grades (only Ardfert in Kerry have managed it in football), losing narrowly to Kilkenny’s Tullaroan.
In fact, Kilkenny clubs have dominated both grades, winning junior and intermediate national titles on nine and seven occasions respectively, compared to Cork’s record of five and three.
Cork clubs, however, do hold a superior head-to-head record against their Noreside rivals in finals. Dripsey (2009), Meelin (2011), Mayfield (2017) and the aforementioned Ballinhassig have all beaten Kilkenny representatives in junior deciders while at intermediate level, both Ballymartle and Kanturk have bested clubs from the Marble County.
Dripsey’s success in 2008 and 2009 was particularly remarkable, considering it came less than four years after the club was founded, as a breakaway from Inniscarra.
They defeated Donoughmore to win their first mid-Cork championship before beating Diarmuid O’Mathuna’s in the county decider.
Inspired perhaps by the success of Muskerry neighbours Canovee in the football decider the previous year, a six-point victory over Tullogher-Rosbercon in the All-Ireland final saw the trophy returned to Dripsey Cross.
An unofficial Junior B competition, the brainchild of members of Killeady GAA Club in west Limerick, is also run every year since its inception in 2006.
A far cry from the glamour of Croke Park, the competition is nonetheless held in high esteem by all participants.
Four clubs from Cork have competed in the final, with St James’ (2006) and Doneraile (2011) losing out before Shanballymore (2016) and Whitechurch (2017) brought the Killeady Perpetual Cup over the Limerick border.
On the footballing front, Cork clubs have been less successful. Kerry have held a vice-grip on both competitions, claiming 16 provincial titles at junior level and 13 titles at intermediate.
However, this must be prefaced by stating that as there are only eight clubs in Kerry’s senior grade (and 16 at intermediate), the teams at intermediate and junior level are naturally of a higher standard.
By contrast, the team that wins the Junior Football Championship in Cork can be deemed the 48th best team in the county.
Only four Cork clubs have managed to attain national honours. Canovee (2008) and Knocknagree (2018) bookended periods of Kerry dominance while Ilen Rovers (2004) and Carbery Rangers (2005) ensured that the intermediate trophy remained in west Cork for the first two years of its existence.
Cork and Kerry representatives have dominated the competitions since their inauguration, with no other county in Munster managing to break their stranglehold.
On a national scale, only Tyrone have claimed more victories, winning the Intermediate Championship on three occasions.
The beauty of the junior and intermediate club championships is that it ensures that national prestige and the opportunity to play in Croke Park are not the sole preserve of senior heavyweights around the country.
However, owing to the truncation of the club season and the limited time available to county boards around the country, neither the provincial or All-Ireland club championships will take place this year.
While I’m sure that clubs that many clubs with county title aspirations won’t be overly perturbed should their dreams come to fruition, the cancellations are nonetheless disappointing.
When you consider Cork’s storied history outside the county at junior and intermediate over the past two decades, it is a shame that whoever does emerge victorious from the club championships won’t have the chance to emulate the glories of their predecessors.
Munster Junior: Courcey Rovers (’01), Ballinhassig (’02), Ballygarvan (’04), Fr O’Neill’s (’05), Dripsey (’06), Meelin (’10), Charleville (’11), Kildorrery (’12), Dungourney (’15), Mayfield (’16), Cloughduv (’18), Russell Rovers (’19).
All-Ireland: Ballinhassig, Fr O’Neill’s, Dripsey, Meelin, Mayfield.
Munster intermediate: Bride Rovers (‘03), Ballinhassig (’05), Blarney (’08), Ballymartle (’10), Youghal (’13), Kanturk (’17), Charleville (’18), Fr O’Neill’s (’19)
All-Ireland: Blarney, Ballymartle, Kanturk.
Munster Junior: Carbery Rangers (’03), Canovee (’07), Knocknagree (’17).
All-Ireland: Canovee, Knocknagree.
Munster Intermediate: Ilen Rovers (’03), Carbery Rangers (’04 and ’05), Clyda Rovers (’13).
All-Ireland: Ilen Rovers, Carbery Rangers (’05).