My Club: Ger Cunningham - St Finbarr's
My Club: Ger Cunningham - St Finbarr's
By Arthur Sullivan
In this week's My Club feature, we speak to Dublin senior hurling manager and Cork city native Ger Cunningham about his club St Finbarr's.
St Finbarr's, almost universally known as 'The Barrs', are one of the great clubs of Cork city, and historically, are one of the most high achieving clubs in Ireland. Based in the suburb of Togher on the southside of Cork city, the club has been based at Neenan Park since the late 1960s, having originally started in The Lough parish, which neighbours Togher.
St Finbarr's are unique in GAA history in that they are the only club to win both All-Ireland senior football and hurling club titles. The club achieved this during a glorious era from 1975 to 1987, winning All-Ireland senior hurling titles in 1975 and 1978, and senior football titles in 1980, 1981 and 1987.
In hurling, St Finbarr's have won 25 Cork senior titles and four Munster titles in addition to their All-Ireland wins. In football, they have won eight Cork senior titles and four Munster titles, as well as the three All-Ireland titles.
However, the club is going through a lean spell in both codes. It's now 30 years since their last football county title (1985) while their last hurling title came in 1993, when they defeated Carbery in the final with Ger Cunningham in goals, winning the last of his six county medals in that game.
The history of St Finbarr's predates that of the GAA itself, with records of their involvement in matches going back as far as 1876. Their first 'official' Cork senior title win was in 1899 while their first football title was won in 1956. Both codes combined, The Barrs have won 33 Cork senior titles, eight Munster senior titles and five All-Irelands, making them by a distance the greatest dual club in Irish history.
Probably the most famous player in their history is Cork icon Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who won All-Ireland club hurling medals in 1975 and 1978 and football medals in 1980 and 1981. The list of Cork icons associated with the club is long - Denis Burns, Tony Maher, Gerald McCarthy, Donal O'Grady, Dave Barry, John Kerins and Christy Ryan represent just a small selection of some of the famous Cork names who have played for St Finbarr's over the years, in football and hurling.
In more recent times, clubman Ronan Curran won All-Ireland hurling medals with Cork in 2004 and 2005 while Michael Shields won an All-Ireland football medal in 2010.
Ger Cunningham played senior hurling with St Finbarr's from 1979 to 1999 and also played underage football with the club. Now manager of the Dublin senior hurlers, Cunningham still lives close to the club in Cork and his two sons are both underage players with the Barrs, carrying on a long family association.
For more about St Finbarr's, visit their official website
The location of St Finbarr's within Cork city
Q: Would St Finbarr's be regarded as one of the great clubs of Cork city?
A: It probably is really. It's probably known as one of the big three city clubs in Cork, with Blackrock and the Glen. We're on the southside of Cork really, in the Togher area. It started in the Lough parish which is on the southside of the city and the club was in Bandon Road there for years. Then, in 1969 I think it was, we opened a new clubhouse in Togher and we've been there since. That's been our spiritual home. A lot of new estates were built in the 1970s and 1980s there but that's quietened down a lot at the moment so we're kind of relying on past players who are living in different areas coming and bringing their kids to Togher.
Nemo Rangers, one of the great football clubs of Cork, would be very strong in that regard. Nemo would be between Turners's Cross and Douglas and would be surrounded by Douglas on one side but if you're trying to survive at that level, you need your ex players bringing their kids in.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in the Lough, right there in the middle of it. My address was not far from where the clubhouse was and they used to play what they called the Lough Leagues. The Lough is a lake in the middle and there's green areas all around it and that's where the pitch was. The Barrs used to run their street league at that stage at the Lough, so that's where I played all my hurling. Then we moved out to Togher.
Q: St Finbarr's have a remarkable track record. They're the only club in Ireland to have won senior All-Ireland titles in both football and hurling (3 football, 2 hurling). Was the club always a Cork superpower?
A: They've always been traditionally very strong. Just look back on the roll of honour of titles, particularly in senior hurling in Cork, the Barrs have been going right back to even the earliest years of the GAA. So traditionally they have been one of the stronger clubs. Blackrock have won the most (hurling titles), we're second and the Glen are third. So historically we've been there. In bygone times, we were always supplemented by people who came to work in Cork and some players would have joined the club in that regard. But remember, we've haven't won a Cork senior hurling title since 1993. That's a long time.
We've been struggling a bit. Our focus went off the importance of the street leagues and making sure the underage system is right. There's a big effort now to get that right and a lot of people are doing their best to get the foundation right again and to build for the future.
Q: Are you still actively involved in the club, despite your management of Dublin?
A: Yeah, I've been involved this year because I've two boys, Sam and Ben, who are playing U12 and U14 with the club. I'm still living close enough to the area and so I was involved with the U14 team this year and for the first time in 30 years we won the Féile na nGael in Cork, at the top level. We also won the U14 county as well for the first time in 30 years so it's been great. That has brought me right back into the club.
Q: Have you been involved much since the end of your playing days?
A: At different times. When the lads first starting playing, myself and my wife Deirdre brought them down there. I've been involved but also not involved, if you know what I mean. I've kind of tried to stay in the background a bit from the point of view of letting them develop themselves. I've been involved with Sam's team since U10 or U11 so that's been three or four years. We were struggling for a bit of manpower there.
I was also involved with the senior team as well for a few years. I managed the senior team about eight or nine years ago so I have been involved.
Cunningham was involved with the club's U14s this year, who won Féile and the county title (courtesy, St Finbarr's)
Q: Back when you were underage playing street leagues hurling, what was the set-up like at the club?
A: I played football and hurling, both! Looking back on it, we had a bit of success. There was a lot of underage success and the structure was very good. The foundation was good, which then resulted in the success we had at senior level in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We played in six county finals in a row in that period of time. Things were good for a long time but then after that, for whatever reason, we seemed to struggle.
Q: Were you always a goalkeeper?
A: No, I actually played out the field until I was 16. I played midfield and wing forward all the way up at underage and it was the school in Sullivan's Quay, an ex Cork full-back Pat McDonnell and Andy Cray from Blackrock, they were in charge of the hurling team in the school and for some unknown reason they put me in goals. So I went back to goal and the guy who was in goal with the Barrs at the time was on the school team as well, so we just swapped positions, a fella called Tony Mullins.
So Tony had been the goalkeeper and I was out the field, but the club swapped us first and then the club followed on. That was at U16 level and it stayed that way ever since.
Q: How much football did you play?
A: I played all the way up underage, from street leagues up until minor. I wasn't the best footballer, catch it and pass it, that's all I was good for! I played in goal for a bit and then John Kerins, Lord rest him, was a year behind me (John Kerins was a long-serving Cork and St Finbarr's goalkeeper who sadly passed away from cancer in 2001, aged just 39).
So when we came out of minor, the club had to make a choice. John was a better football goalkeeper so we kind of made a pact. John said he'd sub to me on the hurling and I'd sub to him on the football. So that's how we did it. We trained together, in both. I did play a bit of senior football, not so much. I won a Kelleher Shield medal, it was kind of like a league medal.
But I played minor football for Cork and I actually have an All-Ireland U21 football medal. But still, hurling was my number one and Kerinsie's number one was football so the fact that we were able to combine the two was good. I knew my football career was going to be short, with Kerinsie coming up behind me.
Q: From 1975 to 1987, St Finbarr's won two All-Ireland senior hurling titles and three All-Ireland senior football titles. That must have been an absolutely amazing time to have been involved with the club...
A: It was. It's actually quite difficult to do it now, with the way the game has gone from a training point of view. We were lucky with the fact that an awful lot of the fellas who played hurling played football as well. There was training all year around but there was some exceptionally talented people at the club then, some remarkable dual players that played both to the very top level.
Cunningham with Jimmy Barry-Murphy, a fellow St Finbarr's and Cork legend
Q: Who are some of your most well-known contemporaries from your time at St Finbarr's?
A: The most well known is of course Jimmy Barry (Jimmy Barry-Murphy). There's him, John Cremin, Donal O'Grady, Niall Kennefick, Christy Ryan - they were phenomenal men who played football and hurling. It's a really hard thing to do. Nowadays fellas just have push their focus to one, but those guys played to a serious standard. I think Christy Ryan has won 11 county medals and has lost 12. Between the two codes, he has played in well over 20 county finals. It's phenomenal.
Q: Given what the club achieved, it must hurt for club men that it has been so long since the club won either a Cork senior football (1985) or hurling title (1993)?
A: It does hurt and people get frustrated when you have had a lot of success. But it is perhaps a trend with the city clubs. Blackrock and the Glen are experiencing similar things. The Glen haven't won a county hurling title since 1989, so city hurling has definitely struggled. It's difficult to say why. In the past, all the big clubs were definitely supported by big schools in football and hurling.
You had Chríost Rí, North Mon, Farranferris, Sullivan's Quay, all very strong schools. A lot of those schools aren't even playing in the Harty Cup nowadays. There's no doubt about it, the teachers and Christian Brothers of that era did a huge amount for hurling in the city and gave their time. Maybe that's not the case anymore. Schools hurling was very strong at that time and there's no doubt, they provided a lot of players.
Q: Does St Finbarr's place a lot of value on its rich history?
A: They do, there's a lot of value and pride associated with the past. Sometimes your past and tradition can bring you down, but hopefully it can inspire people to try and be as successful as we were some years ago. Once we use the tradition and the name of The Barrs and to use the jersey in a positive way, hopefully it can bring things back up again.
Q: Back in the days when St Finbarr's were producing champion teams in both football and hurling, was there any kind of rivalry between them?
A: Like anything, there was always tensions in relation to stuff. Some people might be regarded as having only one sleeve on their jersey, it's either football or hurling. But I think we were lucky enough. There was, and there had to be, a lot of good communication at the time to make it work. At different times, there were tensions in that the footballers wanted their time and the hurlers wanted theirs. But we've been able to manage it very well and a testament to that is the fact that we are still a senior dual club.
Q: Do you still get a chance to attend St Finbarr's games at senior level and how are things going at the moment?
A: We were beaten by Midleton by two points in Round 4 of the Cork Senior Hurling Championship recently. I think we've turned a bit of a corner. The average age of the senior team at the moment is only 22 or 23, so I think the future is bright. We have a good crop of guys coming through and we're competitive at U14, U16 and minor so it's about trying to bring those guys past all the temptations they have at that age and to try and get them past minor and up to senior level. If we can add those lads to the lads we have at the moment, I think we'll be ok.
Cunningham (back row, second left) during his playing days with St Finbarr's
Q: Did you ever win an All-Ireland club medal with St Finbarr's?
A: No, we lost the All-Ireland senior club final to Ballyhale in 1981. For the two All-Ireland hurling titles that St Finbarr's won (1975 and 1978) I was too young, I was still underage. They won the football All-Ireland titles later, but I was committed to the hurling by then. At the time, there was no major focus put on the All-Ireland club championship, nothing like how it is today. It was just another competition really. The focus for us was always to retain a county title, and to retain a county title after winning an All-Ireland was particularly special. Very few clubs from Cork or anywhere have done that. We were strong at the time in both football and hurling and every year, the focus was on trying to win the county championship in both codes. Everything else was a bonus after that.
Q: Having never actually managed to get your hands on an All-Ireland club medal, is it a regret, given the esteem the competition is held in now?
A: It would have been lovely to win one. But we only played in one final when I was on the team and we lost to Ballyhale. We kind of focused on winning the county championship and I was lucky enough to win six of those.
Q: Do you have memories of St Finbarr's winning those All-Ireland hurling finals in the 1970s?
A: I was definitely at them, but I won't say I can remember them too clearly. I can't remember last week never mind 40 years ago!
Q: What are your happiest memories when you think back over your time with St Finbarr's?
A: I was more or less born into the Barrs. My mother's name was Mary Finn and her brothers Mossy, Pa and Mick all played with the Barrs. My mum's father played with the Barrs well and I see photographs of them all, going back a long way. My father Jim was involved as well. He was more on the administration side than playing. So I was effectively born into it and getting involved was the obvious path. I played with the club all the way through from street leagues up until I finished up so there are a lot of happy memories.
Q: When was your last game for St Finbarr's?
A: My last game as a player was in 1999, we lost a Cork senior semi-final replay to Blackrock. It was hard to walk away from it but I was heading for nearly 40 years of age at the time and I knew at some stage it was coming to an end. The whole logistics of playing at that age with a young family growing and all that.
Also, you have to move on and make room for other players coming through and there were two very good goalkeepers there after me, Fergal O'Mahony and Brian Hurley. You can't be stopping their development by staying too long. These lads were coming on and I had my time.
Q: Given your long family history with the club, going back practically all the way, it must be nice to be bringing your two sons to play with St Finbarr's in 2015?
A: It's great. My brother's son is there as well, my sister's son is there. All our family are still involved. A huge amount of work has been put in at underage level and the lads love going down there. They love the game, they love playing it. It's a great focal point for the community and a great way for them to meet people as well. Hopefully we will turn the corner soon and rise again.
Bord Gáis Energy sports ambassador Ger Cunningham was in Cashel this week to mark this weekend's Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U-21 All-Ireland Championship Final. This is the final time the Cross of Cashel trophy will be awarded to the winning team, meaning Wexford or Limerick will be the last side to have the honour of lifting the iconic trophy. All the action from this game will be live on TG4 at 7pm on Saturday, September 12