Cities of no angels with laws unto themselves

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Just like Dublin and Cork, Keith Barr and Dinny Allen played by their own rules. They tell Ewan MacKenna about the punches thrown, dreams lost and found, men made and friendships forged

The founding fathers would never have expected it to be like this. Keith Barr is sitting in the corner of Hayes Hotel in Thurles, jumping around like a child on the last day of school before summer. His gesticulations are only outnumbered by the passive swearwords flying in every direction as he takes you on a trip through some of the incidents early on in his career.

There’s the one about when he clashed heads with Anthony Molloy in a league match in Ballybofey, and played on regardless, before spending the five hours home telling Pat O’Neill something wasn’t right because it felt like his face was going to fall off every time the bus hit a bump. “And Pat a doctor, he told me to relax. When we got back I went straight to hospital and this nurse looks at me, a kid from Finglas, and asks what had I been up to? Turns out my jaw was smashed in three places. Drank steak and veg out of a tea cup for nine weeks, made it back for the championship and the first ball I went for I got a thump in the face. Those were the days.”

Then there’s the one about his run in with the Grimley brothers in Armagh. He can’t remember which of them he hit, but after firing his very best shot, the man in orange didn’t budge. “I just looked at him, knew I was in trouble, so I jumped on him and wrestled him to the ground, thinking this was my best bet. And when everyone else piled in I crawled out the side. A few minutes later I looked back at Eamonn Heery and he was like the elephant man. I broke down laughing.”

In fact he’s in the middle of the one about his international rules trip, a journey he didn’t fully appreciate because “at our age and in our part of the world we were expected to be riding horses and robbing cars”, when Dinny Allen walks in the door. With the cheekiest grin known to GAA, the Cork man takes a look at the picture of Christy Ring on the wall and announces he’s going to dig him up in a last-ditch bid to beat Kilkenny. “Here’s the bollocks that made me realise you had to be tough on a football field to survive,” is Barr’s version of a greeting.

They smile at each other and within seconds are like best friends reunited. “You know Dinny, we are the new rich, we have the pension,” smiles Barr. And they shake hands warmly and from there on, don’t stop laughing. Twenty-one years after Allen thumped Barr in an All Ireland semi-final the two are side by side, like teammates. It’s one of the greatest aspects of the GAA. Despite everything, there’s this.

But you cut through all the pleasantries and ask what happened that day in 1989. “Jesus there’s no foreplay with you,” retorts Allen. “We’ll be out of there in 10 minutes, great,” adds Barr.

Allen’s first clash with Dublin was some years before that in the All Ireland semi-final of 1983. Barr remembers the replay in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, “Hill 17. It was like we moved to Cork. I remember going down on the train, the old brown and black ones, and it was a big deal,” but it’s the goal celebrations in the drawn game in Croke Park that Allen is remembered for. Years later John O’Leary wrote of the Cork man’s gesture, “It was an outrageous affront. How dare a Cork man come to Croke Park and mock our followers”.

“He wrote that in his book,” complains Allen. “We had a long discussion about that because it’s something I’d never do. I think Cork and Dublin matches are brilliant. There’s no hate between the two of them. I swung the arm, not the fingers and there’s a big difference. There was never any trouble when we played them. I always enjoyed it and would never have jeopardised that.”

“You’re right, there was never any animosity and we are two very big footballing counties that appreciate good footballers,” says Barr. “There’s a great respect and great understanding between Dublin and Cork. Sporting cities. When I started playing football against Meath, I saw straight away there was an actual hate there. But not Cork. Never with Cork.”

“Exactly,” responds Allen. “Like fellas ask me what the best atmosphere I was ever in was, and it was the ’83 replay back in Cork. The match was at three and we had a meeting down in Blackrock, went to the ground and got off the bus at 1.50. There wasn’t a sinner outside the stadium. I made a joke that we were in the wrong place. Everyone was in there already, there was no game on before, people were just waiting. We came out on the pitch to take a look around and good God, the hairs stood up. There were 50,000 there and at least half was Dublin. Jimmy Keaveney never shuts up about that replay. I told him they were like Vikings. They came down to Cork, beat the shit out of us, had all our women and stole all our beer.”

If that was the first meeting either experienced between Cork and Dublin, it’s remarkable to think that the last time anyone saw the two come together in the championship was 1995. “I was in the top of the Cusack Stand for that semi-final, but I might as well have been on O’Connell Street,” jokes Allen. “I was about four miles away.”

“Well that day, we looked at Cork and Larry Tompkins was coming to the end and it was an opportunity,” says Barr. “We had the experience and took advantage. I remember the incident, Jason Sherlock’s goal was the turning point. It wasn’t a long kickout and Tompkins was going for it and I pushed him hard in the back, as obvious as anything, blatant. The referee gave the free. I was way out of position, I was 30 or 40 yards away from centre-back, so I grabbed the ball, didn’t look at the ref and kicked it to Sherlock. I knew the ref would blow it up and give them their free but I’d be back in position with maybe a yellow card to my name. But I saw Sherlock goal, I was running back, looked at the referee giving it and couldn’t believe it. I guess we robbed them.”

But if it was theft, perhaps it was just taking back what could have been Dublin’s in 1989. Most of the mayhem between Dublin and Cork, quite an achievement considering all of the above, was when Allen and Barr came face to face in that year’s semi-final. At the time the joke asked what Dinny Allen and Tony Jacklin had in common. “Yeah, non-playing captains,” says Allen with a dry look. “Micheal O Muircheartaigh said that at a do one night and I nearly put him through the window.” But Allen did start that game yet with a winter in his face, Dublin raced into a 1-4 to no score lead.

Only later in the half did it all fall apart for the Leinster champions. There were two penalties that John O’Leary might have prevented and John Cleary scored and there was Dinny Allen tearing into Keith Barr before Barr was the one who bizarrely saw red. “I was asked this just the other day,” notes Allen. “It’s like asking Pele if he tripped a guy in some match. I played for 40 years and fellas ask me about that little thing with Keith.”

“Well it was a right belt you gave me to be fair,” laughs Barr. “All I can remember is Dinny hitting me a haymaker. If I could get away with it I would have done it. The crime is not belting someone, the crime is getting caught. But you could tell he was around the block. I wasn’t a real obvious shot. It was an experienced dig. Bang. It was from the hip so no one saw it.”

“I can remember it well,” says Allen. “I was inside at full-forward and you came back in on me and introduced yourself by having a bump off of me. F**k it, I just reacted straight away. I lost eight Munster finals in a row before 1983 and lost the previous two All Ireland finals. I guess I wasn’t going to let anyone stand in my way. But about 10 minutes later there was a skirmish in the middle of the field and I was standing beside Mick Kennedy and Keith jumped in from 10 yards away, and pushed someone at the most. That’s all you were sent off for.

“But sure look, I was up in Maher’s Pub in Fairview before one of the All Irelands a few years back and I met Alan Larkin and he said he remembered playing a National League game against me down in the old Athletic Grounds. He said I didn’t finish it. I said didn’t I? I thought I did. ‘No’ says he, ‘you ran into a bit of a haymaker from me and you were carried off’. I didn’t even know. About a quarter of an hour later I met Gay O’Driscoll and he told me about another match I didn’t finish either. I was wondering did I finish any f**king match.”

“That’s why when you look at me and Dinny’s incident, sure it was only minor,” agrees Barr. “It was really the pupil meeting the master. I was young and naive and enthusiastic and he was through two All Ireland finals. And after those eight Munster finals without winning one, I’d say he was close to putting his feet in concrete.” “There’d be enough people to do that for me,” comes the response. “I’m the Jimmy Hoffa of the GAA.”

There was concrete also involved as the sides headed down the tunnel that day in ’89. “I was one of the first into the tunnel and the screw-in studs made it very slippery. Jimmy Kerrigan, for some reason, was pushed on top of me and we fell. He said to me afterwards, ‘You bollocks, I got four digs in the back of the head over you. Well no better head than his. But we were all falling and everyone stood up and there was just a standoff. We went into the dressing room and there were a few Dubs trying to get in and Tompkins and another couple were standing there like bouncers. It wasn’t Tony Davis anyway, he was over doing his eyebrows in the mirror.”

Barr says even that was no big deal in the great scheme of things and tells the story of a row with Kildare that spilled down the tunnel years later. He was first into the dressing room and was chewing on a sugared orange when he realised no one else was coming in to join him. So he stuck his head around the door, saw chaos and a Dublin Garda on duty shouting, “Break it up” and swinging at Kildare men repeatedly. But that day in 1989, the GAA took it a little more seriously than Allen and Barr do.

“Mickey Kearns was referee and he pulled myself and Gerry Hargan together before the second half and said he had the officials in the referee’s dressing room and they told him that anyone who steps out of line is to be sent off. For anything at all. They were afraid it would get out of control. So I came back to the huddle and Tony Davies was asking what did he say? I told the lads that he said go out and enjoy yourself for the second half.”

In the end, the 14 of Dublin fought against the dying of the light, Allen finished with two points as his side won by four. Next day out the full-forward finally had his All Ireland and got out of the game, while Barr soldiered on and eventually won his. But of all the days that remind them of today, it’s that semi-final in 1989. “I guess Cork and Dublin back then both came out of the shadows of bigger teams as well. And in Cork we were being called cowards. It’s just like this game,” concludes Allen. “But a few days after that clash with Dinny, I did a piece in the paper about it,” says Barr. “I was pulled aside by senior players and told what happened on the pitch stayed there. So as much as it was similar to now, it used to be very different.”

In cities of no angels they played by their own rules, but that was their common ground, why there’s so much respect and why the two are side by side like reunited friends. Here in Hayes Hotel, the founding fathers could never have expected it to be like this, even if it’s exactly the way they would have wanted it.

22 August 2010
Sunday Tribune

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