Féile special: Piarsaigh's great team of 1977 powered the senior breakthrough

Féile special: Piarsaigh's great team of 1977 powered the senior breakthrough
Na Piarsaigh, Féile champions in 1977.

IN 1972 it was decided to confine the Féile hurling competition to the U14 age group and during the first decade, it was dominated by Cork clubs with the city’s four leading hurling clubs Glen Rovers, Barrs, Blackrock and Na Piarsaigh all engraving their names on the trophy. 

Na Piarsaigh won it four times in that period and rate their 1977 unit as one of the best ever juvenile squads to represent the club.

This Piarsaigh panel assembled in 1975 and were patiently nurtured, coached and trained by stalwarts Tom Nott, Michael Higgins, Liam Moynihan, Dan O’Leary, Denis Cooke and Seán Hanafin. After winning the U12 Championship they continued their winning ways and never tasted defeat during their teen years. 

They qualified for the Cork area final of Féile by defeating Valley Rovers and faced St Finbarr’s, conquerors of holders Glen Rovers, in the decider which was played at their opponents' immaculately prepared grounds in Togher.

It was a classic final and the Echo reporter thundered as much “hurling enthusiasts had plenty to cheer about in Togher on Saturday and marvelled at the skills of the Na Piarsaigh U14s which displayed a power-packed brand of hurling to see off the gallant challenge of St Finbarr’s. Many hours of brilliant hurling were witnessed throughout the competition but Saturday’s classic topped them all and names that went into every notebook were those of Tony O’Sullivan and Jim Murray, two of the most talented hurlers this writer has seen for a long time”.

In recognition of their outstanding displays, the Piarsaigh and Barrs teams were invited to give an exhibition in Carrick on Shannon in conjunction with a mini Féile being staged there.

Piarsaigh prepared well for the Féile finals which were staged in Waterford and, after coasting through the first round against locals Erin’s Own, they had to up their game a little to overcome Mount Sion’s more physical challenge before running out comfortable winners. 

In the semi-final they had too much class for spirited St Vincent’s (Dublin). Piarsaigh’s final opponents were Eire Óg (Ennis) who opened brightly but the superior skill and strength of the Cork champions proved too much for them. Liam Martin was soundness personified in goal, while in front of him captain Michael O’Donoghue, the sheet anchor of defence, was ably supported by Declan McGowan and Paddy Connery.

The half-back line of Kevin Cronin, Pat Hanafin and Michael Higgins with lengthy clearances turned defence into attack in a flash. Industrious Jim Murray and the immaculate Paul O’Connor dominated midfield. The forward line of Donal Olden, Robert Coughlan, Kevin O’Neill, Kieran Spillane and Terry O’Mahony, magnificently led by little general Tony O’Sullivan, were a nightmare for the Clare defence. Jim Hennessy, Paul Whooley, Ger Scanlon, Alan Desmond and Frank Higgins, when called on, did a great job.

This squad went on to give exceptionally long and loyal service to Na Piarsaigh: Paddy Connery, Liam Martin, Michael Higgins, Paul O’Connor, Robert Coughlan and Tony O’Sullivan all eventually served as officers or senior selectors. That sextet, along with Michael O’Donoghue, Kieran Spillane and Jim Murray, all went on to play senior with the club which, for a children’s group, was a tremendous return.

And along the way, six - Murray, Connery, Higgins, O’Donoghue, O’Connor and O’Sullivan - all contributed to North Mon’s All-Ireland and Harty Cup success in 1980.

Fittingly, in 1981 the team that dominated under-age hurling for over a decade graduated in style to minor competitions by defeating Duhallow 3-19 to 2-4 in a one-sided minor county final which was played as a curtain raiser to the fabulous senior decider in which Barrs came of age by defeating great rivals Glen by a goal.

Thirteen members of the ’77 Féile squad climbed the steps at Páirc Uí Chaoimh amidst thunderous applause from knowledgeable Cork hurling supporters who were enthralled by the skills demonstrated by the Farranree youngsters to receive the coveted trophy.

Three members Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray and Paul O’Connor had already won minor medals on the team that dominated the 1978 championship. 

The side that beat Duhallow was as follows: L Martin, C O’Donovan, M O’Donoghue, P Connery, F Higgins, J Murray, M Higgins, P O’Connor, T O’Sullivan (c), R Coughlan, D O’Reilly, K Cronin, K Spillane, D O’Leary, T O’Mahony. 

Subs: M Murphy, D Olden, D Hourigan.

In 1990 Tony O’Sullivan was the holder of three All-Ireland Senior medals and four All-Star awards (another in 1992) but would have traded any one of them for the elusive Cork County Senior hurling championship medal.

After defeating Blackrock in the Cork County semi-final at the Park, Michael Ellard wrote “Na Piarsaigh freewheeled their way closer to the fulfilment of their hearts desire when at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday they rode roughshod over hapless Blackrock in a one-sided and bitterly disappointing semi-final".

In the other semi Barrs were equally impressive when trouncing Carbery and prior to the final showdown Barrs selector Con Roche said, “Like everyone else we wish Piarsaigh the best of luck in their endeavours to win their first county but we do not want to go into the record books with the enviable distinction of being the club they beat to win their first”. 

Yes, Rochie’s Blues were determined not to let that happen and, with a defiant display, contributed to a memorable final leading the Examiner banner headline to proclaim 'Lionhearts' and 'Never say die final' under which Michael Ellard, casting aside his obvious pain at his beloved team conceding a late equaliser, penned a vivid and excellent match report: “Another illustrious chapter encapsulating the emotional extremes of agony and ecstasy was added to the folklore of the Cork County Senior Hurling Championship when Barrs sensationally denied Na Piarsaigh the fulfilment of a life’s dream in a final cloaked in high drama... still Na Piarsaigh held the whip hand with Tony O’Sullivan running himself into the ground. 

"But when they seemed poised to accomplish a historic triumph, St Finbarr’s came to steal victory away from them. Sub Flor O’Brien was brought down and Brian Cunningham stepped forward to blast the free to the net to leave the final score 3-6 to 1-12.”

Paul O'Connor and Christy Donovan, Na Piarsaigh, battle with John Fitzgibbon and Robbie Murphy, Glen Rovers, in 1987.
Paul O'Connor and Christy Donovan, Na Piarsaigh, battle with John Fitzgibbon and Robbie Murphy, Glen Rovers, in 1987.

Ellard then went on to implore his former club to in future break quickly from the starting blocks with a reminder that in Piarsaigh’s two final appearances against Midleton in 1987 and the Barrs (drawn game) they hit the self destruct button and paid dearly for their inability to come to grips with their game early on. The replay was fixed for the following Sunday after which the Cork Examiner scribe contributed to the historic occasion with an emotional report

“It was a long and lonely wait punctuated with sorrow, heartbreak and bitter disappointments but all those sad and painful memories were banished into oblivion when Na Piarsaigh thrillingly overcame the marvellous challenge of St Finbarr’s in the replay to win their first Cork Senior title in one of the great finals of the modern era” wrote Ellard beneath a headline 'Red Hand of courage – Na Piarsaigh capture first title in a thriller'.

“For over three decades of fruitless endeavour, Na Piarsaigh sought the precious title. And as time aged many felt that the north side club, synonymous with all that is good in underage competition, would be destined to play the bridesmaids role again.

In the most dramatic of all senior finals, with the sands of time rapidly running out and St Finbarr’s striving might and main to wipe out a two-point deficit, it seemed for a fleeting, heart-stopping moment that once again it was to be a classic case of ‘so near and yet so far’ as Barrs sub John Meyler gained possession in front of the goal and looked sure to give the Blues their 25th title.”

But it was not to be as, with rival supporters nervously jumping up and down, Meyler’s shot whistled wide. It was all over and the Farranree club looked down in lordly fashion, masters of all they surveyed, after becoming champions midst rapturous scenes of unbridled joy and emotion.

Later that evening bonfires blazed and bagpipes thundered as hundreds of supporters lined the streets to welcome home the champions. Jubilant captain Christy Coughlan proudly held the Seán Óg Murphy Cup aloft while ‘Man of the Match’ Richie McDonnell had a tear in the eye.

Len Forde who had to cancel his honeymoon because of the replay was in ‘seventh heaven’ and the amazing Tony Sull was at ease at last, happy with the thought of adding a precious Cork medal to his glittering collection.

Tony O'Sullivan holding the cup with Jim Hanifin on the right.
Tony O'Sullivan holding the cup with Jim Hanifin on the right.

For Sully it had been an amazing year; he won his third All-Ireland medal with Cork, was named ‘Texaco Hurler of the Year’, received his fourth All-Star statuette and was honoured as Jury’s Supreme Sports Star but the one he craved most was that precious County Championship title which allowed his beloved Piarsaigh take its rightful place in the roll of honour alongside Glen, Barrs, Rockies, Redmond’s, Midleton, UCC, Sars and other glorious teams.

Piarsaigh defied the champions of Limerick, Dublin, Tipperary and Wexford on the road to their maiden Féile triumph in Limerick in 1973. They were knocked out by the eventual winners the previous year and from that disappointing day, their far-seeing committee promised that ‘73 would be their year.

The foundation stone for that eventual success was nurtured when their U13’s Farranree and Farranferris won their respective Cork under-age competitions.

Not satisfied with domestic victories, numerous inter county challenges were arranged and they travelled to Kilkenny to compete in and win the James Stephen’s Blitz. The fruits of the vigorous preparations helped to create history.

Suffice to say the boys did what was required of them. A wonderful spirit and comradeship existed amongst the panel. However, spirit alone does not win trophies; their strong forceful, skilful and combined play was a joy to watch and won the acclaim of friend and foe alike. They were a credit to their club, parents and hosts Adare who were lavish in their praise. 

Panel: Hillary Ellard, Pat Barry, Hughie Cooney, Finbarr Murphy, Denis Murphy, Gerard White, Finbarr O’Leary, William O’Connell, John Whooley, Bill Kelleher, Tom Coakley, Jim Kent, Danny Healy, Kevin Murphy, Robert Murphy, Gerard O’Connor, Ger O’Leary, Sean Hanafin, Martin O’Sullivan, Ferghal McKee, Dermot Lynch, Thomas Duggan, Brendan Kenneally, Kieran Kenneally, Michael O’Driscoll, John Dunlea, Liam Murray.

Na Piarsaigh returned to Limerick again in 1974 in a bid to retain their All-Ireland crown. They defeated Youghal and Aghabullogue to qualify for a crack at Blackrock in the county decider.

The Na Piarsaigh team which defeated Blackrock in 1974.
The Na Piarsaigh team which defeated Blackrock in 1974.

Rockies, who looked jaded after their hard-fought victory over the Barrs in the semi-final, were no match for the rampant holders. Fielding 10 of the previous year’s champion team, meticulously prepared by stalwarts Billy Clifford, Liam Connery, Mick Kent and Kieran Houlihan, they were hot favourites to bring the title back to Farranree again. 

They started the ball rolling by hammering Monaleen 6-4 to 1-3 and followed that with easy victories over Old Christians (4-7 to no score) and Kilkenny (5-5 to 1-0.) They had their toughest challenge in the final in which they were made work hard for their crown by a brave Cappaquin side who succumbed 3-2 to 1-1.

Panel: Brendan Kenneally, Liam O’Callaghan, Kevin Murphy, Gerard Whoolley, Pat Murphy, Jimmy Jones, Liam Murray, Jimmy O’Driscoll, Sean O’Halloran, Vincent Barrett, Paddy Barry, Robert Murphy, Denis Murphy, Danny Healy, Martin O’Sullivan, Sean Hanafin, John Cooke, Kieran Kenneally, Con Twomey, Finbarr Redmond, Christy Coughlan, Joe Healy, Paul O’Brien.

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