It’s been a challenging year for Bertie O’Brien. The health, as he says himself, hasn’t been great. But no more than his decorated playing days with St Finbarr’s, he’s never been one to shy away from a battle.
When we rang him last Monday afternoon for a chat about the club’s latest double attempt, Bertie politely informed us that he was in hospital. We promptly apologised for having bothered him and were about to leave it at that when he announced down the phone that he’d be only too delighted to talk.
If there’s one tonic he finds particularly helpful these days, it is his beloved Barrs and the sight of them marching through the Cork hurling and football championships.
This Sunday’s penultimate round hurling clash against Newtownshandrum represents the first of two county semi-finals the Togher club will contest over the next two weekends. And should they succeed in winning both, a gap of 29-years will have been bridged to the last time the club reached both Cork finals in the one year.
That 1993 season – in which they won the hurling but lost the football – represented the sixth time in a 14-year period that the Barrs contested both finals in the same season. The double was twice achieved, in 1980 and again in 82, with O’Brien featuring in all four finals. He also holds the unique privilege of having captained the hurlers to county glory in 1980 and then repeating the trick with the footballers two years later.
But before we open up memory lane for business, a look first at the 2022 classes and the lift it gives to see a blue wave rising once more.
“It has been a bad year for me healthwise, but as often as I can, I get out to Togher to watch training. It does perk you up meeting the members of the club and of course the players. And it definitely perks you up when you see them winning,” O’Brien begins.
“This club is a great club, even if we were down for a little while. It is just fantastic to think that here we are again, the one club in the county that can come up with the possibility of having two county senior champions.”
Off the back of minor and U21 county wins in recent years, hurling manager Ger Cunningham has injected a large dose of youth into his starting line-up. One-third of the team is 20 or younger. The footballers are easily the more established of the pair, chasing as they are a third county in five years. There’s about a dozen players common to both panels, with five of them – Jamie Burns, Ben O’Connor, Billy Hennessy, Ethan Twomey, and Brian Hayes – starters on both teams.
“We have a good pair of senior teams, well capable of winning the two counties,” O’Brien declares. “Of course, we don’t want to be jumping the gun and must remember the lads are very young on the hurling side. The footballers, if you like, have carried the club over the last couple of years. If the hurling side can match that, it would be something. To do the double would be a great way for the club to bounce back and certainly it would give me a new lease of life anyway.
“The GAA, there is absolutely nothing to compare to it. When the footballers won last year, to have the team parading up Bandon Road behind the band, ah it was just like old times, and I hope we can do that again this year – on the double.”
Talk of the double opens a dam of memories. The best of blue times were the late 70s and early 80s. A once-in-a-lifetime club team. Cork, Munster, and All-Ireland success with big ball and small.
His cup already overflowing, to then have the honour of captaining such ridiculously talented teams, as O’Brien did for the 1980 hurling final win over Glen Rovers and the ’82 football victory over Duhallow, filled him with a pride that he still carries to this day.
“At that time, the annual general meeting picked the captain. You could have 200 people who would vote on it. It is something I will always cherish and be thankful to the club for,” says the football goalkeeper and hurling half-back.
Then as is now, the two codes seamlessly co-existed. The co-operation and mutual respect between the club’s hurling and football committees was every bit as strong as the dressing-room friendships.
“Ah the craic we had, we used to laugh getting ready for championship matches. There was a great camaraderie, that helped an awful lot.
“You had the blend of older fellas, the likes of Tony Maher, Gerald McCarthy, Charlie McCarthy, and a couple of others that were just about going over the hill, but who went on for another year or two, and they lifted us and brought along younger boys like John Cremin, Niall Kennifick, and others.
“Eamon Fitzpatrick would go through a wall for you; the late Christy Ryan was possibly the greatest dual player of all time; Tomas Maher, who came up from Waterford, he was only a slight lad but he would throw his heart and soul into it. These types of people made our team. And I couldn’t leave out Pat Lougheed, one of the best coaches we had.”
There’s many, many more he could mention. New legends he hopes to see enshrined in the coming weeks.
“I was in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the Douglas quarter-final, my son brought me down,” he says. “We went up to the clubhouse afterwards, had a little chat there and went away again. There was a marvellous atmosphere in the place.
“I don’t know if I will be out of here or not by Sunday, but if I am out, I will be at the game. There’s nothing surer.”