WHEN the Cork faithful wax lyrical about northside hurlers it’s their combination of skill and hardness that inspires: the velvet glove and the steel fist.
In the modern era, the Na Piarsaigh crew with Cork have certainly married those two traits.
Tony O’Sullivan was an electric half-forward in the 1980s and early ‘90s, whose style yielded five All-Stars and the Hurler of the Year award and who could mix it when required. His lineage can be traced onwards through Ben O’Connor and now Conor Lehane.
Wing-backs Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and John Gardiner were immovable pillars of a great Cork team but their neat distribution was often under-rated. Setanta and Aisake Ó hAilpín offered goals, glamour and glory in their all-too brief stints in Rebel red.
Now Chris Joyce is hurling up a storm. There are shades of Seán Óg and Gardiner in his current incarnation. He’s built like a tank but measuring his deliveries when bursting up the flank.
Joyce is in the form of his life but he has three rivals for the accolade of the most acclaimed hurler in the club at the moment. Daire Connery, Evan Sheehan and Craig Hanafin lit up Páirc Uí Rinn and Semple Stadium for Cork at various stages of the county’s first minor championship success since 2008.
Connery was majestic in midfield in all four of their games, Sheehan stitched a goal with a last-gasp free to draw with Tipp, Hanifin struck 1-4 in the replay against the Premier, and then Sheehan was MVP after his two goals in the Munster final.
For good measure Connery was on song with the Cork U17s as well, collecting a second provincial medal in one season, when Na Piarsaigh’s Luke Donovan was in goal.
Those who follow the local scene weren’t surprised to see them backbone the Cork team as Na Piarsaigh were outstanding in winning last year’s Premier 1 minor crown. Up in the club this trio were flagged up as rising stars from a young age.
Roy O’Meara recalls Evan Sheehan “cutting sidelines over the bar from the halfway line on the juvenile pitch when he was 11 or 12.”
“Evan always loved taking fellas on,” said O’Meara, who is currently involved with the club’s minor B side. “He’d always go at the backs, he’d straighten up take a belt if he had to and he’d goals on his mind.”
Current minor manager Gearóid Daly reckons Connery “always had a bag of sliotars with him. He was always practising his frees. You see him now putting frees over from inside his own half in Thurles, but he’d a fierce strike of the ball from when he was a young fella. Hours and years of practise.”
Craig Hanafin was also a very fine hurler as a youngster, before taking off in his mid-teens. He evolved from a midfielder, partnering Sheehan at U14 level, to a puck-out option and playmaker on the wing.
“He’s 6’ 3” but he’s starting to fill out as well,” explained Seán Óg hAilpín, who is currently coaching the Na Piarsaigh seniors. “Lanky fellas need that because I remember Setanta at 15 and he couldn’t move at all, he hadn’t got comfortable with his size.
“Craig stood out because he used to be spraying balls from midfield and his passing is still a big part of his game. He’s John Gardiner’s first cousin and I remember Gah going to all of his games, he was a mentor I suppose. He’s been well tutored and knowing the family he won’t get too big for his boots.
“Jim Hanafin was full-back on the 1990 Na Piarsaigh team that won a county, so there’s plenty of pedigree there like.”
In the eyes of another Na Piarsaigh and Cork legend, Tony O’Sullivan, “these lads all stood out when they were young. They’re decent fellas off the field too, just like Joycie. They carry themselves the right way and they give 100% for Na Piarsaigh and for Cork.”
The Connery name is especially storied on the northside.
“Liam senior was a founder member in 1943. He was a butcher and his son Liam still runs the family business. Liam and Christy, Daire’s father, were there for the 1990 county win.
“I’ve a special grá for the Connerys, because Liam bought me my first All-Ireland hurleys when I was 16,” revealed O’Sullivan. “Before we played the minor in 1979 against Kilkenny.”
“I played with Christy when I started out,” recalled Seán Óg. “Daire was like an extension to him. He was always holding a hurley when he was two or three years of age.
“He used to drive the caretaker up in Na Piarsaigh bonkers as he got older, because he’d be closing up at 11pm and Daire would still be there, taking frees and sidelines.”
His father was a teak-tough corner-back, a Cork minor in 1985, U21 captain in ’88 and on the 1990 panel when Galway were defeated in Croker.
“Daire was destined to go one way,” agreed Seán Óg who coached that group at U15 and U16. “He’s a product of his environment. If you want to play ball, he’ll play ball, if you want to go belting, that’s grand too.
“Christy was a corner-back, but he’d silken skills like. Pound for pound he was up with Tony Sull as the best stickmen I played with in Na Piarsaigh.”
As Roy O’Meara puts it: “Daire is a natural. He oozes class but he’s no one’s fool. Christy was very stylish but a corner-back, Daire is the same that way. He can mix it.”
Evan Sheehan’s father Noel has been involved with underage teams for some time, including the Connery crop alongside Kevin Butterworth among others, while his older brother Eoin is a key member of the Na Piarsaigh senior set-up.
“Evan was the same as Daire,” said Seán Óg, “he might as well have pitched a tent in the club. He was always working away and he’d his dad and his brother with that hurling passion as well. He won the Féile Skills and that meant everyone was keeping an extra eye on him.
“Decent forwards are rare. You can’t manufacture an innate forward.
"He’s the killer instinct. Any half chance and he’ll go for it. I played back all my life but I’ll admit forwards win games.”
Now the Na Piarsaigh crew head to Croke Park, where the minors will open for the seniors this Sunday in an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. The minors are favourites to make it September for the first time since 2007, but whatever happens Tony O’Sullivan believes the club and Cork hurling has got a kick from the summer so far.
“Everything helps and there’s a buzz across the board at the moment,” said O’Sullivan. “Whether you’re playing or a supporter or on a committee what matters the most is on the field. We’ve done a lot of fundraising lately. Our new hurling wall is a great achievement and we’re grateful to the Tomar Family Trust and others for the support they’re given us.”
That’s another trademark of the hurlers in the shadow of the Shandon Bells. They’re always there for each other.
Expect more of the same this Sunday.