Reviving the GAA tradition in Pres as the rugby stronghold strikes a balance

Reviving the GAA tradition in Pres as the rugby stronghold strikes a balance
Patrick Campbell of PBC breaks away from William Cleary of Borrisokane. Picture: Don Moloney/Press 22

THE corridors of famed Presentation College on the Mardyke are decorated with the school’s successful rugby playing history.

Team photographs of Munster Schools Senior- and Junior Cup-winning teams adorn the walls, both cups having been captured on 29 occasions each.

What’s little known, though, is Pres’s early hurling history, dating back to the 1920s, when they were the dominant school in Cork.

The sport came into focus again last month, when Pres won the Corn Uí Dhonabháin (Munster Colleges U16 ½ C Championship) following a 1-18 to 0-12 win over Borrisokane Community College in the final.

According to the school’s 140-year history, which was also published in November, hurling started in 1918.

The writer, Seán Ó Faolain, who was in his final year, mentions a group of senior students were given permission to a start a team.

The first photographs of successful Pres teams date from 1922, when they won the Dr O’Callaghan Cup (Cork Colleges Senior Hurling Championship), a feat repeated two years later and again from 1925 to ‘28 to complete four-in-a-row.

There are reports of junior success, too, in the Dr Cohalan Cup, completing the double in ‘26, with special mention of the O’Callaghan campaign.

The PBC team with the Dr O’Callaghan and Dr Cohalan Cups in 1926.
The PBC team with the Dr O’Callaghan and Dr Cohalan Cups in 1926.

It recalls the semi-final win over North Monastery by 4-7 to 0-1 and the trouncing of St Finbarr’s, Farranferris, by 9-2 to 2-0 in the decider.

But it’s the 1927 triumph which stands out from all the others. It was a memorable year in hurling and rugby because Pres were champions in both and with the same group of players.

Despite all the success, however, there’s no mention of Pres playing in the Dr Harty Cup in Munster.

Yet, there’s reference to a provincial triumph in ‘28 though the official Roll Of Honour cites no Harty competition that year. A real mystery.

Eventually, success dried up though they continued to play with specific references to games played in 1929, 1932 and ‘37.

GAA was revived via the Lord Mayor’s Cup in both hurling and football, driven, initially, by Damien Philpott, a teacher and former Games Master. He played inter-county football with Cork and won county, Munster and All-Ireland club football medals with St Finbarr’s.

Before that, he along with Ray Kelleher and Caleb Sheehan organised a first-year blitz between 1993-95 with games against CBC at UCC’s Mardyke complex.

The return to Cork and Munster competitions more recently came about in similar circumstances to the advent of hurling back in 1918.

“Three years ago, a group of players came to me,” said Sheehan, a teacher and past Games Master, “and asked about setting up a hurling team. Football was also spoken about.

“We had some prominent players and one student’s father said he’d sponsor a set of jerseys for a team. So we got players together, trained in Bishopstown and initially entered Cork Colleges competitions before participating in Munster.

“We got as far as the Munster C senior football semi-final last season, losing by a point to Ennistymon from Clare.

“That showed we had a talented pool. It went further then because we started to identify players who were playing Premier 1 or 2 with their clubs.

“We estimated we had over 100 between third, fourth, fifth and sixth years playing at the top levels in Cork with all the prominent clubs represented.”

The calibre of player available was reflected in the victory over Borrisokane and it clearly touched a nerve in the world of Twitter, as Sheehan explained.

“The reaction on social media was amazing. We tweeted three times, including the final score and the team photograph, and there must have been 60,000 interactions on the feed. That tells us that people are interested, first of all.

“We are a 700-strong boys school. Of that, 50-60 play senior rugby. Others play soccer, some are involved in rowing and that leaves the rest available to play football and hurling.

“More sports are catered for, too, and we think there’s room for them all. But rugby is our number one and that point was stressed on the day of our win and I’m repeating it again.

“For example, if one of our senior rugby players came to me and said he was interested in hurling, I’d say ‘stick with rugby, unless the coaches didn’t have a problem with it’.

“Thankfully, so far, none of the coaches at the various age-groups have said there’s an issue. It’s understood by the players that rugby comes first and there has been no clash or conflict.

“Going back to the Ennistymon game, we left players back in Cork who probably would have made a difference but were involved in rugby.

“It doesn’t matter what level we’re playing at, we just want to play and we believe we have enough boys to be competitive.

“We’re not going to be down Dr Harty Cup or Corn Uí Mhuirí roads. Our thinking is that it gives lads an opportunity to play for the school. Now that could change in years to come. Who knows?

“Paudie O’Brien, a development officer, has been very helpful to us, offering guidance in terms of team knowledge and the levels we should be playing at,” Sheehan added.

During his time in the number-three role for the Cork hurlers, in the 1970s, Pat McDonnell won five Munsters, two All-Irelands, and a couple of leagues.

What’s not widely known is that the Inniscarra clubman went to PBC and was a distinguished rugby player, helping the school to junior cup titles, in 1965 and 1966.

He is the first notable Pres pupil to go on to wear the famous, red county jersey. McDonnell was followed by the Brownes, Alan, John and Richard, from Blackrock, and there’s a connection to football as well.

Douglas' Eoin Cotter lays off the ball from Bishopstown's Eoin Byrne. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Douglas' Eoin Cotter lays off the ball from Bishopstown's Eoin Byrne. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Cork’s 2010 All-Ireland triumph had two former Pres students, Michael Shields and Eoin Cotter, with Mark Collins providing the link to the current team, while former Cork player, Barry O’Driscoll, was a contemporary.

This year, Pres had players in a variety of Cork under-age teams, like Eoin Nation (Nemo Rangers) and Cian O’Donovan (Glanmire), in minor, and Brian Murphy (Nemo), at U20.

In 2017, Ross Howell (Douglas) played with the Cork minor team that reached the All-Ireland final.

“We’ve a good number who are on representative panels, like Rebel Óg squads, all the way up,” said Sheehan.

“And our knowledge of our player base is only beginning. Our plan is to survey players and see who we have coming through.

“The majority play rugby and GAA, though there must be 50-60 boys from the city whose first sport is GAA on coming to school, before taking up rugby.

“Mick O’Driscoll, for example, didn’t play rugby until he went to Pres and that’s indicative.

“We don’t coach, as such, because they have the skills from their clubs, so we’re really only borrowing them.

“Yet, the facilities are there within the school to take it further, like the weights room and our facilities in Wilton.

“We’d also have support from the parent body, former players who could do some coaching and helping out. The foundations are there.

“For example, John Connaghton is the school accountant and he’s heavily involved in GAA. He’s very organised and very efficient.”

There are others who have helped since the introduction of the Lord Mayor’s Cup, in hurling and football, for traditionally non-GAA playing schools, heightened awareness.

For example, Damien Philpott, Enda O’Regan, and Micheál Jones coached the footballers, completing a five-in-row in 2014. Pres’s victory in the Corn Uí Dhonabháin will add to the appeal.

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