The St Finbarr’s clubhouse is festooned with framed photos of successful teams, dating all the way back to the first county hurling title in 1899.
While the hairstyles change and the kit-manufacturing technology advances, the pictures tell a story and the blue jersey, with the club name proudly adorning the front, remains a constant. Unfortunately for the Barrs, at senior level that story had been paused in 1993 for nearly three decades and the club failed to emerge from their group in the first two years of the new round-robin format in the championship. Thankfully, 2022 would be the year when the wait ended.
In 2009, the club reached the county SHC semi-finals and Jamie Burns was a teenager in his first year on the panel.
It would take a decade for the Barrs to make it back to the last four and a further three years for them to end a wait for a county final appearance that stretched back to 1993, the last time the club had lifted the Seán Óg Murphy Cup.
“There were three of us – myself, Damien and James Goggin – brought on to the panel at the same time,” he says.
“It felt like we were knocking at the door but we fell away fast enough. There were a good few lads coming towards the end of their time and sometimes the conveyor belt isn’t that solid. We definitely had a few gaps.
“Myself and Damo, all we won was a Lord Mayor’s Cup! That was an U15 competition where all the city teams played each other. It was biggish – the winners got to go into the Lord Mayor’s chambers – but it wasn’t championship, not in my eyes, anyway.” Burns won senior football medals in 2018 and 2021 and there was a sense of a blue wave rising with underage hurling success – Premer 2 U21 and Premier 1 U16 in 2019 and then the Premier 1 minor title in 2020, a first since 1997. Ethan Twomey played key roles at midfield in those U21 and minor victories and he was wing-back on the Cork side that won the 2021 All-Ireland U20 title – one of eight Barrs players across that panel and the All-Ireland minor-winning side.
He was blooded at senior level in the difficult 2020 season for the Barrs. The following year, things were looking up as they began with a win over Charleville and led Erin’s Own by nine points at half-time in their second match only to draw before exiting the competition after a loss to Blackrock.
That was Ronan Curran’s swansong as manager, with Ger Cunningham succeeding him, but there was still a sense of optimism, even with a ‘group of death’ draw that gave them Blackrock, Charleville and Sarsfields.
“I think Ronan left it in a very good place,” Twomey says.
“We were good for a game and a half and, if there had been a bit of luck involved, it could have been a different story.
“Ger just picked it up from there, himself and Adrian [O’Brien, coach], Seán Mac [McCarthy], John Cremin, Billy O’Shea just brought it on another level.
“Ronan had put a lot of faith in the younger lads, it boosted our confidence playing at a higher level.” The Barrs won just three of their nine RedFM Hurling League games – they will be in Division 2 of the revamped competition next year – but there were mitigating factors, not least the fact that so many players were involved with Cork squads. Burns, who missed much of that campaign with injury, feels that it helped to build a squad.
“Lads got a lot of minutes and I think that that’s what the league will be used for going forward,” he says.
“It’s good that anyone who is number 17, 18, 19 knows that they will get a fair crack at it.” Twomey agrees: “Ciarán Doolan was a good example of that this year. He took his opportunity in the league and came on in leaps and bounds.” Even so, the hurling championship was a slow burner for the Barrs. With just time for a challenge match against Bennettsbridge of Kilkenny before a football league semi-final against Cill na Martra and the PSFC opener against Éire Óg, they faced into a meeting with Charleville short on time and drew after leading by four points in the closing stages.
“We were definitely questioning ourselves a bit,” Twomey says, “I was personally, anyway.
“We always knew that we had the resilience to bounce back and the players to do it but there was barely a week until the Blackrock match.
“Charleville, we caught them on the hop last year but they’re not a bad team. They’re up there with anyone and you can’t take any team for granted in the senior hurling championship.” Eight days later and another premature exit was on the cards as they trailed Blackrock by 0-11 to 0-2 after ten minutes, but it proved to be the counterpoint to the Erin’s Own game of the previous year as they roared back to trail by 0-15 to 0-14 at half-time and won by 0-24 to 1-20 – 22 of their points from players 21 or younger, including 0-4 from Twomey and his midfield partner.
In 2015, St Joseph’s NS from the Mardyke beat Carrigtwohill in the H4 section of the Sciath na Scol. Twomey, then in sixth class, scored 2-2 in the 7-5 to 0-6 win, while Ballincollig’s James Dwyer had 1-1. The remainder of their tally, four goals and two points, came from the fourth-class pupil who would go on to be joint-captain with Dwyer when Cork won the 2021 All-Ireland minor title.
The 2022 season was Ben O’Connor’s first playing at adult level with the Barrs and the understanding that he and Twomey had at midfield bore the hallmarks of those primary school links.
“We’d have a good bond, to be fair,” he says, “we’re good buddies as well.
“We haven’t played together all the way up but we won the minor county together. He’s a savage player, strong as an ox and he has the hurling to go with it.”
The win meant that the final match against Sars would effectively be knockout. Twomey’s early goal was followed by strikes from Jack Cahalane and Brian Hayes as they led by 3-5 to 0-11 at half-time before going on to triumph by 4-19 to 0-19, Eoghan Finn raising another green flag.
“I don’t think we went in at half-time hopping,” Burns says, “we were probably a bit disappointed with ourselves – whereas against Blackrock we were excited at half-time, we felt we were back in the game.”
That clean sheet was followed by shutouts in the quarter-final win over Douglas and the semi-final against Newtownshandrum, but Burns is keen that the backs don’t get all of the praise.
“We were definitely working on our defensive structure,” he says, “but the forwards worked extremely hard.
“They were getting in loads of tackles and turnovers and that made our job way easier. The forwards deserve a lot of credit there – they got plenty of scores but they did the defensive side of it as well.”
Twomey: “Anything that was coming down was being hit under savage pressure and then it was coming into the likes of himself [Burns], Cian Walsh, Eoin Keane, they were just mopping it up.”
Burns adds, “Shane Hurley made some fantastic saves, too. He was a huge presence in the goal.” A first hurling final in the living memory of most of the squad beckoned, with Blackrock the opposition. Beyond a training session in Clonakilty for a change of scenery, there wasn’t much out of the ordinary – the club were also in the football final against Nemo Rangers but the ‘double’ chat had been dealt with early on by management.
As individuals, most of the players had been involved in big games, either with the footballers or with Cork, so that was less of an issue, too.
“I probably would have had more nerves in the other games leading up to it,” Twomey says, “because there’s pressure on to get to a final.
“For the final, I was just excited, really – you know you won’t get those opportunities too often and you want to take them.
“I think we were just really looking forward to it. You had people talking about the 29-year gap but sure we weren’t even alive for that – well I wasn’t, you [Burns] might have been!” Unfortunately for those hoping for a classic, October 16 was a dog of a day weather-wise – both Burns and Twomey are in agreement that it was the toughest conditions they had played in.
“There were small things like having spare gear to change into at half-time,” Burns says.
“As long as the pitch holds up, you’re not too worried – as a back, you might have a second or third chance as fellas aren’t going to dive in or take too many risks.
“Up until around the 45th minute, the pitch was brilliant but then the water just had nowhere to go.
“It was probably ideal conditions in which to defend a lead. You could sit in a little bit – in hurling, sometimes a team will pick off four or five points in a few minutes but I don’t think it was a day for that.” Having fallen behind to an early goal by Mark O’Keeffe, the Barrs led by 0-9 to 1-5 at half-time. After withstanding an onslaught from the Rockies on the resumption, goals from Brian Hayes and Conor Cahalane put them in a strong position.
Twomey, the incessant ball of activity in the middle, provided the final pass for 1-4, though it’s not something he had tallied in his own head.
“I’m just trying to find the man in the best position with the ball, really,” he says.
“It’s a team game, it’s not about yourself scoring, it’s about getting over the line in the end.
“Ben Cunningham was the one getting the scores on the day – he was magnificent, to be fair to him, and he was very good against Ballyea the last day, too.
“The plan is to get the ball to the shooter, really!” At the back, Burns – so often tasked with shadowing a key attacker – limited Alan Connolly to a point from play.
“You focus on your own game,” he says, “but that is my own game, to a degree and I don’t mind that.
“The mission is to go out and keep the ball away from him and out of his hand.” As referee Simon Stokes blew his whistle, Twomey was trying to deal with cramp but the pain soon passed.
“It was unbelievable, really,” he says, “one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
“Seeing everyone come on to the pitch, seeing your friends and then celebrating with the team-mates. It was just brilliant – I’d love to do it all over again.
“In the moment, I didn’t even realise how good Billy’s [Billy Hennessy, captain] speech was, it was only when I watched it back. I don’t know how he strung it all together, to be honest.” The night back at the club was one to be savoured. For Burns, 11 years on, it was nice to be there when the Barrs made it back to the top in Cork hurling.
“Winning the hurling was a massive relief,” he says.
“I don’t think I’d ever have been truly happy looking back on my career if I didn’t get a hurling one.”