Before there was Páirc Uí Chaoimh there was The Athletic Grounds, and before that there was Cork Park. In light of the current controversy around the re-naming of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Pauline Murphy looks back on the history of the stadium, its namesake and some memorable games that took place there.
Cork’s first GAA stadium was constructed on a plot of land at the Marina in Cork city, leased from Munster Agricultural Society, in the summer of 1898. The builder was William Flemming of Anne Street, Cork city.
Cork Park opened on July 31, 1898 to host Munster Hurling and Football Semi-Finals, for which Cork faced Tipperary in both games. Although work was not yet finished on the stadium the Cork County Board insisted on holding the two big matches there. Right up until noon on the day work was still being carried out and just as the builders packed up their tools, a large crowd arrived outside the venue for the 2pm start.
As the number of spectators increased so too did the temperature on that hot Sunday afternoon but demands for the turnstiles to open were ignored by the ground stewards. The stewards were delaying because the Tipperary teams had yet to arrive, their train having broken down just outside Limerick Junction.
The crowd grew restless and the decision was made to open; unfortuantely four turnstiles were now no match for thousands of people! Some broke through a fence, while others scaled the hoarding. More saw an unguarded door and kicked it in, discovering it led directly onto the pitch behind a goal!
It was 4pm by the time the Tipperary teams finally arrived in Cork and were, without a scrap of food to eat, hastily escorted from the train station to the Marina.
The Cork hurlers dished out an unmerciful beating on the premier county, clocking up 4-16 to 0-02. Next up was the Football Semi-Final, which proved to be a bad tempered affair. Midway through the match Cork were awarded a free kick to which Tipperary players objected and walked off the pitch. The referee declared Cork the winners because they had been leading by 5 points and thus ended a chaotic opening day for Cork’s new home of GAA.
When the large crowd dispersed the damage was assessed and many repair jobs were needed. Unfortunately similar scenes played out the following year when hoarding was broken down by supporters who refused to pay at the turnstiles. After that the Cork County Board decided they needed a better enclosure and until then all GAA games were played at Turners Cross.
At the turn of the 20th century the Cork Country Board established The Cork Athletics Grounds Committee Ltd, with James Crosbie as Chairman. Using £30 from the County Board and further funds raised through subscriptions, work began on The Athletic Grounds in 1903.
On September 11, 1904 the newly constructed Athletic Grounds was officially opened by Cork Lord Mayor Augustine Roche in front of 20,000 spectators who were there to watch the All Ireland Hurling and Football Finals. The opening had been advertised for weeks in advance and there was a great buzz in Cork leading up to the big day.
However, this opening did not go smoothly either. Too many turned up and there were not enough turnstiles to accommodate them. Some disgruntled punters climbed the fence into the ground, and damaged it in the process. Others went further and climbed up on to the roof of one of the refreshment rooms in the Athletic Grounds. The roof could not take their weight and collapsed, though fortunately nobody was badly injured.
Despite the trouble the games went ahead. Cork, represented by Dungourney, defeated a London side in hurling, while Dublin, represented by Bray Emmets, beat London Irish in the football.
To help with the cost of running the Athletic Grounds, the Cork County Board rented it out during the winter months for rugby and hockey. There were plans to hold international rugby matches there too but that never came to fruition. A weighing machine and even a shooting gallery were also set up in the Grounds for those with an interest.
Besides sport, the Athletic Grounds hosted a number of other notable events such as the first aeroplane flight in Cork, which took off from there in 1912.
The Athletic Grounds hosted another All Ireland Final in 1909 when Kilkenny took on Tipperary for the 23rd All Ireland hurling crown. It was just a few weeks before Christmas and a heavy spell of snow had fallen across Ireland. The bad weather did not deter hurling diehards so, as snow was brushed off the pitch, over 11,000 spectators made their way to the Grounds to watch a very fancied Tipperary side take on the under dogs from Kilkenny. The match did not go the way of the premier county and the cats claimed victory on a scoreline of 4-06 to 0-12, making it the first time Tipperary had lost an All Ireland hurling final.
In 1914 the Athletics Ground fell victim to WWI when it was commandeered by the British Army for the training and stabling of their war horses. After much protest by Cork GAA and the sport loving Cork public the grounds were given back in 1915 but they were in bad shape. A year of trampling by horse’s hoofs had caused severe damage and it took a lot of work to repair the Athletic Grounds back to what it was.
During the War of Independence the British Army returned; in August 1920 Limerick and Tipperary were due to play the Munster Final but when GAA officials arrived to prepare they were met by British soldiers who had occupied the turnstiles with machine guns.
The soldiers fired over the heads of the officials, who retreated back to the County Board offices where they decided to go ahead with the match at a different venue, Riverstown, near Kinsale.
After the Civil War the Athletic Grounds went back to being the prime location for GAA games. In 1926 it played host to the Munster Hurling Final between Cork and Tipperary. The game was a chaotic affair, even before the sliotar was thrown in at 3pm there were thousands of spectators flooding through the turnstiles. The Cork Examiner reported that the event was ‘a fiasco’ and put most of the blame on the lack of stewardship in the sports ground. Though blame was also apportioned to the fans who roughly pushed their way through the turnstiles, while others climbed over the fence.
Just 15 minutes into the game the referee called a halt due to trouble in the stands. Spectators spilled onto the pitch and it was decided to call off the match. For Cork it came as a blessing because they were trailing Tipp 1-02!
A fiery Munster Hurling Final took place at the Athletic Grounds in August 1933 when Waterford met Limerick. Under a hot August sun thousands thronged the venue; the number reached beyond capacity and tensions rose on and off the pitch!
Midway through the second half, with Limerick leading Waterford, the legendary Limerick centre back Mick Mackey was sent off for unsportsmanlike behaviour. With eight minutes to the full-time whistle Limerick player Chris O’Brien was given a belt of a hurley by a Waterford player. O’Brien’s teammate Dave Clohessey took on the offending Waterford player before a free-for-all fight broke out.
The Irish Press reported the following day on how the Munster Hurling Final ‘had turned into a pitched battle with upraised hurleys swinging dangerously at one another. A big portion of the spectators, obviously Waterford to judge by a flag they carried, invaded the playing area. Rowdyism and general fighting followed.’
Because Limerick were winning before all hell broke loose, the GAA Central Council awarded them the Munster title.
In 1935 a major reconstruction took place at the Athletic Grounds. A covered stand was erected, a new entrance was built and 18 extra turnstiles were added.
Another redevelopment, along with a re-naming, occurred in the 1970s. The Athletic Grounds were demolished and on June 6, 1976 a newly built stadium named Páirc Uí Chaoimh was unveiled.
Padraig O’Caoimh was considered the architect of the modern GAA. Born in Roscommon, the son of an RIC constable, O’Caoimh grew up in Cork when his father retired from the police and went into the garment trade, which was a booming business on Leeside in the late 19th century. O’Caoimh attended South Presentation School and later returned there as a teacher.
Along with his brother William and friend Pat O’Donoghue, Padraig O’Caoimh set up Nemo Hurling Club. It later joined with Rangers Football Club to become Nemo Rangers.
During the War of Independence O’Caoimh was an active member of the Cork City IRA. He also took on the role of secretary of the Cork GAA County Board. In 1921 O’Caoimh was stopped by police on a street in Cork city and searched. They found a hand grenade in his pocket and O’Caoimh was sentenced to 15 years penal servitude in Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, from which he was released following the Truce.
When the Civil War broke out O’Caoimh took the Anti-Treaty side. He maintained his position as County Board Secretary during those turbulent years and, at the end of the Civil War, was appointed General Secretary of the GAA. O’Caoimh remained in the position for 35 years and oversaw the modernisation of the ancient game. Under O’Caoimh the GAA redeveloped Croke Park, including building the Hogan stand. He also saw that a GAA pitch was created in every parish across the country.
Padraig O’Caoimh died in 1964, ten years before the redeveloped Athletics Ground was renamed in his honour. After further redevelopment in the 2010s a newer, larger Páirc Uí Chaoimh stadium opened in 2017 to continue the long tradition of Corkonians sporting by the banks of our own lovely Lee.