I turned 40 in April of this year. A year that will be remembered fondly by few, for obvious reasons. There was no occasion, no party, no fifteen minutes of being celebrated by friends and family. Instead, I tied my uncut hair back and smiled for the camera in preparation for a family zoom call. The best I could have hoped for in the circumstances I suppose. It was fine, but I could never have imagined celebrating my fortieth year on the couch looking at a laptop. Although, now that I think about it, I have some experience of uncelebrated milestones. I turned eighteen on 'Good Friday' 1998, living in Ireland at the time meant there was no party then either! Alcohol was strictly forbidden on 'Good Friday' in those days. Life was different then, and its different again now. I must admit, I preferred the old different. As cliched as it sounds, I consider my best days to be the ones I spent as a child growing up in Cork City. Memories of long summer days spent enjoying the city at its most vibrant best will never fade. The Cork 800 celebrations, jubilant receptions, victorious hurling and football teams, music concerts in the Pairc, Jazz on the streets, funfairs at the show grounds, marathons and mini marathons. It's no surprise that the children of Cork City blossomed in the Siamsa, Sport and Spraoi.
At six years old I was sent to 'Deerpark' during the summer months for what we called ‘Summer School’. The name inspired fun and creativity, and was always something to look forward to. As you can imagine, everything was new to the senses. At the time, the building lay recently dormant after a busy school year, but to me this was a purpose built centre for 'Summer School' only. I remember being dropped off in the morning by my Mother in her cream coloured Toyota Starlet. The driver side door was hanging off its hinges, and rust had set in heavily along the door panels, but it remained committed to its job and kept my legs off the road, so I wasn't complaining! Out I got, happily dragged along by my elder sister before being quickly abandoned at the bike shed when the car was out of sight. I stood there in fascination of my new surroundings. Not afraid, but excited. Looking back, it seems strange, but a sense of independence gripped me, even then, at such a young age.
Dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, zip up jacket and carrying a bag with crisps, sweets and sandwiches, I had everything I needed. I sweated away day after day playing every sport one could imagine. Every race was like an Olympic final, the competition on the playing fields was never ending and I loved it. It was at 'Deerpark' I conquered my fear of the gymnasium, a huge hall where voices echoed off the cold brick walls and drowned out the screeching sound of the footfall on the polished floor. My fear came from the time I whacked my knee off the beam, the pain shattered my confidence, but with a little help I'd regain it. Tall boys with long legs and even longer noses jumped around and over me with endless energy. Almost as if I wasn’t there. The pain of the fall brought me to tears, but a kind man with a moustache came to my rescue, and made sure I was okay! His compassion enough to drive me on to try again. The same man spent the winter months hardening the resolve of high school pupils. He was a hard man, but to me he was a kindly saviour! I went again and crossed that beam I'd fallen from. It was then I realised, I too could survive with the big fellas. From there, I headed for the ropes and gym mats. Fun on a level I never thought possible. 'Deerpark' introduced me to those experiences and emotions, and for that I'll always remember those days fondly.
Later that summer my Mother explained to me about the importance of being from Cork, and how special a place it is. That confidence coming largely from our capacity to consistently win All-Ireland titles in hurling and football. The finals of which were always played in Dublin. I was intrigued. What exactly is up in Dublin that merits the attention of a city so far away. After much explaining I concluded that it came down to the significance of the colours. What colour is Cork? Well the jersey is red and has a white crest of arms on it, and that’s all I wanted to know. I didn’t take much convincing, and the 'pride of parish' sentiment didn't have to be explained in depth. I was soon given a hurley and ball by my uncle, and my Mother bought me a replica jersey in a sports shop up in Watercourse Road. I quickly learned how to draw the crest, and sign my own autograph. The rest of my time spent refining my technique in the hope that it would one day take me to Dublin to play in Cork's famous red shirt.
One Sunday morning I was awoken early by my Mother telling me that I had to get dressed and have breakfast. My dad was taking me to Killarney to watch Cork play Kerry in the Munster football final. I remember the car journey, the walk in through the muddy pathway to Fitzgerald Stadium. Firstly shouting for cork in the minor match, and again in the senior match. Unfortunately, we lost that that day, but the experience was gripping and unforgettable. I was some what confused on the journey home. Cork were victorious in the minor game but nobody seemed too happy. Why did they even have to play a second game? My father explained that the senior game was the only one that mattered. He told me not to worry, because even though we lost, there was spirit in the Cork team which signalled that good times were not too far away. He was right! After that day, I was fully committed to the Cork following and all things Cork for that matter.
The All-Ireland hurling final is the 'Holy Grail' in Cork. I remember my parents heading off to Dublin to watch Cork play Galway in the 86 final, while I headed for my Grandmothers. It was no ordinary Sunday. Even at a young age I could feel the sense of expectation all around the city. I watched that final with careless intent. It was all going to plan for Cork until Galway got a penalty. I laughed when they elected the goalkeeper to take it, however, It was not so funny when he ran back to his goal jumping for joy after hitting the net. Despite that setback, Cork endured, overcame the challenge and emerged the victors. When my mum arrived home the next day she told me of the heroics of one Jimmy-Barry Murphy. What a name. I needed to see this great man in person. How big would he be? How fast could he run? Would he even feel it if I kicked him in the shins? He must be stronger than Barry McGuigan or faster than Steve Cram I thought. To everyone in Cork, he was more than mere mortal, so much more.
Later that night the team arrived back from Dublin. My Mum said she would take me into town to see them, the excitement that generated in me was beyond measure. Everywhere was full of people cheering, wearing red and white scarves and waving Cork flags. Some were standing on bins, and some were half way up lampposts, but everyone was singing as one big happy family. My Mother lifted me up on her shoulders, and pointed to a window far above the street which I later knew to be the Imperial Hotel on the South Mall. There I saw the Liam McCarthy Cup for the first time glinting in the street lit air. It was awe inspiring to see the shining four handled trophy held aloft out over the balcony by the great men of ’86. That was it, the highlight of my life, my destiny was thereby determined. I dreamt that night that I would one day play for and captain Cork. That it'd be up there holding the Liam McCarthy cup aloft! Like many 40 year old Cork men living away from home in a life most ordinary, I have yet to let go of this dream!
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