The Christy O'Connor column: Why beating a Kerry team means more in Duhallow than anywhere else

The Christy O'Connor column: Why beating a Kerry team means more in Duhallow than anywhere else

Knocknagree Captain Matthew Dilworth holding the trophy after his side defeated Dromid Pearses in the Munster final at Mallow. Picture: Dan Linehan

OVER the last number of weeks, bonfires, flags, epic celebrations, and the Cullen Pipe Band have repeatedly turned Knocknagree into something resembling Mardi Gras.

The place has never known anything like it but a young team, with an average age of 22.5, carved their own unique history last weekend by winning a maiden Munster Junior title. 

Defeating a Kerry team – Dromid Pearses – made the win even sweeter for Knocknagree because the village sits hard on the Kerry border.

In the shadow of the Derrynasagart Mountains, the peaks of Caherbarnagh and The Paps are visible in the distance. Named after the Goddess Dana from circa 1500BC, the stone artifact burial mounds at the top of the two identical peaks of The Paps are a reminder of the ancient Celtic world and the deep sense of history embedded in the area.

The Paps separate the Derrynasagart range from MacGillicuddy’s Reeks but they’re also the symbol of where the border splits Cork and Kerry. There are numerous footballing interfaces stretching along the 60-mile border between Kerry and Cork but Knocknagree is right on the frontline.

The small belt between Rathmore, Knocknagree, Gneeveguilla and Ballydesmond is where the Cork-Kerry rivalry is at its fiercest. The footballing divisional strongholds of Duhallow and East Kerry meet and intertwine in this pocket and what each county thinks of the other is always crystallised and magnified.

There has always been an edge to the relationship but it was never scented with sulphur or cordite or laced with the naked hostility that defines other rivalries. 

In Rathmore, they talk of the bonfires lit in Knocknagree in 1982 when Offaly stopped Kerry’s bid for five-in-a-row. 

When Kerry reached the 1997 All-Ireland final after an 11-year hiatus, a few locals in Rathmore painted a car in green and gold and placed it on a ramp in the town. A few nights before the final against Mayo, a clandestine operation from across the border saw the car splashed in red paint to give it the appearance of a Mayo car.

Here, county loyalties are dictated by mere yards. Rathmore and Ballydesmond each encompass parts of Cork and Kerry. 

The river Blackwater dissects both parishes as it flows from north to south. Knocknagree sits between Rathmore and Ballydesmond and inside the Cork border but the south of the parish is cut off from the rest by Rathmore. 

Gneeveguilla lies on the other side of the Blackwater beyond Knocknagree.  Ambrose O’Donovan from Gneeveguilla, who captained Kerry to the Centenary All-Ireland title in 1984, grew up just 100 yards from the Cork border. He went to school in Rathmore and most of his friends were from Cork.

Charlie McCarthy from Gneeveguilla and John Buckley from Knocknagree grew up together as close friends and won All-Ireland Vocational Schools titles together with Rathmore. In the 1996 Munster senior final, they marked each other.

The unparalleled nature of the relationship and rivalry is manifested in its most latent form in Ballydesmond. The town is split in two by the Blackwater but the parish extends into Kerry. The club’s pitch is on the banks of the Blackwater and while they play their club football in Cork, they draw players from the Kerry side of the parish. 

As part of an agreement with the Kerry county board though, Ballydesmond players from Kerry who are good enough to be picked for the county play with Kerry.

The intimacy of that relationship was never as obvious as in the 2006 Munster Junior football final, when two Ballydesmond players played against one another - Niall Flemming for Kerry and Gerry Healy for Cork. 

The week of the final, there were two posters up in the town from the club, wishing both players luck with their respective counties. They ended up marking each other in the second-half of the game. 

Donncha O'Connor taking on Fionn Fitzgerald and Peter Crowley. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Donncha O'Connor taking on Fionn Fitzgerald and Peter Crowley. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Later that summer, Donncha O’Connor became the first player from the club to win a Munster senior medal.

Millstreet had four players on the Cork team which won the 1973 All-Ireland title but O’Connor’s All-Ireland in 2010 gave an identity to that small pocket of Cork football because the area had always been largely ignored in terms of producing players for the county. The main difference now though, is that Kanturk, who are just up the road, are now producing footballers and hurlers for Cork teams.

There is no hurling in Knocknagree though. 

What’s more, as the only club in Cork that’s in the parish of another county, their football culture, and style, is rooted more in Kerry than Cork.

Knocknagree have been inspired by that Kerry footballing tradition because they know and understand it so well. 

Chris Farley, Dromid Pearses, is tackled by Andrew Sheehan, Knocknagree. Picture: Dan Linehan
Chris Farley, Dromid Pearses, is tackled by Andrew Sheehan, Knocknagree. Picture: Dan Linehan

Dromid Pearses may be from the south of the county but Knocknagree’s familiarity with the Kerry culture and mindset was a factor in last weekend’s success.

It was a standout victory for a number of reasons. 

A Cork club had beaten a Kerry team in a Munster Junior final just once – Carbery Rangers defeated Annascaul in 2003. A Cork club has never defeated a Kerry club in a Munster Intermediate final.

Last Sunday’s victory was a further endorsement of Knocknagree’s crusade but this team were on a mission since losing the Duhallow final to Boherbue after a replay. 

With the defeated teams in the Junior Divisional finals allowed back into the county championship for the first time, Knocknagree made a pact in the dressing room after the Boherbue defeat to go all out for the county championship.

Seven successive wins later, against Delanys, Buttevant, Iveleary, Erin's Own, Knockavilla-Donaskeigh Kickhams, Sliabh gCua and Dromid Pearses carried them to a first county title in 26 years, along with a historic first Munster title.

And beating a Kerry club was the sweetest way possible to crown a glorious year for a community and people that knows Kerry football better than anyone else in Cork.

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