Regular readers of this Blog will know that there are two sports teams that I follow more keenly than any others: Leeds United (English football) and Kilkenny (All-Ireland hurling), known by supporters and non-supporters alike as The Cats.
Over the course of 10 seasons, beginning in 2006, Kilkenny won 8 All-Ireland titles, an unprecedented run of success in the sport. For most of my lifetime, Cork have been Kilkenny’s main rivals, but in the 15 seasons between 2006 and 2020 they failed to win a single title. They made it to the All-Ireland Final just twice (in 2006 itself and again in 2013).
From the 2004 Final until today Cork had failed to beat Kilkenny in a Championship game at Croke Park, the home of Gaelic sports. Until this afternoon I thought that Cork had failed to beat Kilkenny in any Championship game but I had forgotten about the 2013 quarter-final. I blanked it. I was unable to watch it, the only Kilkenny defeat since 2001 that I have not seen on TV or in a pub. I heard commentary from part of the game on RTE Radio, online. It was played at Thurles in Tipperary and (if I remember right) it was the first All-Ireland campaign in my lifetime when The Cats did not play a single game at Croke Park.
Many of the years that I have mentioned in this piece so far have special significance for me. 2001 (the last time I missed a Championship defeat) was the year I got married. 2004 was the year my son was born: my wife was 7 months pregnant when we watched the Final in a private club that closed soon afterwards, when the owner died aged 47. My daughter was born in 2006, a month after Kilkenny beat Cork in the Final to deny them the first 3-in-a-row in hurling since the 1940s. Kilkenny went on to win 4-in-a-row and did not lose an All-Ireland game until just before her 4th birthday. They did not lose another one until 10 weeks before her 7th birthday, that quarter-final against Cork in Thurles.
This afternoon Cork beat Kilkenny after extra-time in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. At least we were able to watch at home. I have written before about the years spent trying to find local pubs that were showing the games. That 2004 Final was made more unbearable by being outnumbered by Cork fans, all of whom seemed to be smoking, oblivious to the heavily pregnant woman in a Kilkenny cap a few feet away.
The 1999 Final was even worse. Just like today (and in 2004) Kilkenny were leading at the break but Cork came from behind to win. We were watching at a place on the High Road called Jack Stamps Beer House (no apostrophes), formerly a Fuller’s pub called The Windmill. There was a particularly unpleasant cockney cheering for Cork (“Cowk”) and taunting a young woman standing on her own near me, decked out in Kilkenny colours. He approached her from behind and went to put his arm around her and tease her some more as his chosen team stretched their lead. I was ready to jump in and tell him to leave her alone (with a stronger choice of words) but she was well able to deal with him. She turned to face him, furious, and screamed in his face: “Would you EVER – FUCK – OFF!” Very Kilkenny, and the only thing that brightened up a miserable afternoon. He didn’t bother her again after that.
Leeds United spent 16 years in lower divisions before returning to the Premier League last year. It’s 16 years since Cork won an All-Ireland Final (they beat Galway in 2005). Maybe they’ll beat Limerick in two weeks’ time to end their unprecedented barren run, but I won’t be watching. I don’t want either of them to win.