The bullet hit Mick Leahy in the shoulder.
Cork lay burning and he was bleeding, fortunate to be alive. The Auxie had come hammering on the door to Wren’s Hotel on Winthrop Street, where Leahy was the manager. Best to answer, he thought, for fear of an incendiary bomb through the window, as had happened all over city.
Slurred with drink, the soldier asked his name.
He fired, reply heard.
The infamous nights of December 11 and 12, 1920, when drink-sodden Black and Tans raze the centre of Cork City in reprisal for an IRA ambush at Dillon’s Cross. Mick Leahy is a significant figure in Number 1 Brigade.
That night, he manages to slam the door. Just a flesh wound, thanks to alcohol’s unsteady hand. He survives and recuperates, lives to hurl with Tipperary and with Cork, lives to see horizon after horizon drop into the Atlantic, to see America from New York to San Francisco.
Mick Leahy is that unusual figure, an obscure name in a famous family. He was one of the Tubberadora Leahys, a townland straddling Moycarkey and Boherlahan, where four brothers each won a Celtic Cross on the field of play. The roots of this distinction held deep. Tom Leahy, an uncle, acted as chief organiser for the Tubberadora club that strode to three All-Irelands in 1895, 1896 and 1898.
Next generation, Johnny Leahy captained Tipperary to success in 1916 and 1925. He was a selector for 1937’s triumph. Paddy Leahy, same two time All-Ireland winner, acted as de facto Tipperary manager for eight victories between 1949 and 1965 (and was a selector, along with Johnny, for 1945’s triumph). Tommy Leahy, the youngest brother, hurled in the forwards when Dublin were defeated in 1930.
The Leahys were famously affable and quick-witted, leaving them excellent leaders of men. Hurlers, like nearly everyone, love recreational complaint. Following one All-Ireland win, Tipperary’s panel was being fed in separate hotel dining rooms. One group was contemplating their main course while the other group, which included Johnny Leahy, had yet to receive a starter.
One player piped up: “Hey, Johnny, where’s our soup?” He came back: “We’ve got a bye in the first round.” Laughter defused any sharpness, as on more difficult occasions. The Leahys owned a gift for far more than hurling.
Born in 1895, Mick Leahy rose to plenty of distinctions. Following school at Gaile NS, he served time as a curate, in the time’s phrase, to a publican in Thurles. Talent for engagement made this career a natural and successful one.
Nor did recurrence of hurling talent slip unnoticed. He moved from Boherlahan to Thurles Sarsfields and won a Junior All-Ireland with Tipperary in 1915, with brother Paddy on the same team.
Mick Leahy immediately graduated to the Senior panel, a sub for the side that won a marvellous Senior Final against Kilkenny in 1916. The following season, when Tipperary were unexpectedly beaten by Dublin in the final, he lined out in attack.
Then the move to Cork in 1919, to Wren’s Hotel. He featured with Tipp that season, when Cork won a Munster semi-final by the bare point.
Jimmy Leahy, another brother, was Commandant of the Second Tipperary Brigade during the late 1910s. Having moved in those quarters, Mick Leahy moved easily into Cork’s Republican milieu. Club wise, he joined Blackrock eventually winning eight Senior Championships.
Between 1920 and 1925, in part because of that shoulder injury, Mick Leahy did not appear at inter-county level. He rejoined Tipperary’s Senior panel in 1926 and travelled on their celebrated 11 week trip to America, when they crossed the Atlantic on the SS Bremen. Those Atlantic horizons must have been something else to War of Independence veterans.
This remarkable trip was recorded in Thomas J Kenny’s Tour of the Tipperary Hurling Team in America, 1926 (1928). A native of Portroe, Kenny kept a diary and communicated the players’ wonder at their new surroundings. He gives the response of another player, Tom Duffy of Lorrha and Dorrha: “Sure we haven’t seen a tram of hay, a ditch nor a hedge since leaving the old country. But it is a fine country in other ways. They do everything in a big way.”
One player, Paddy Power, did not travel back. Back home, suddenly dissatisfied with their lot, several other players emigrated.
The three matches between Cork and Tipperary in the 1926 Munster Final magnified the counties’ rivalry and heralded a new era of huge crowds. This Sunday’s Munster clash has quite a pedigree. Back then, Tipperary were not long returned from the American trip, hailed as ‘World Champions’ after remaining unbeaten from coast to coast.
Doubters said those travels would upturn chances of title retention. But they defeated Limerick to make the decider. First day in the Cork Athletic Grounds, the game was abandoned after 16 minutes, far too many people having been admitted. Palings cracked and thousands of supporters were flung out onto the field, with Tipperary ahead 1-2 to 0-0.
Thurles hosted the second day and witnessed a tumultuous draw, courtesy of a Tipperary rally. The third day, back in Thurles, saw Cork progress by five points. They beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Final with some ease. Johnny Power, counted one of Tipp’s finest hurlers in this era, did not figure in the replay because he was leaving for America the next week.
Mick Leahy hurled hard for Tipperary in those three games and never more so than when faced with Blackrock colleagues. But a Cork life was accruing. He married Kitty Keohane, a local woman, and they were blessed with a son and a daughter, Michael Jr (later a St Finbarr’s hurler) and Imelda. This man became the proprietor of the Courthouse Tavern on Cross Street, where crossed hurleys on the building’s façade can be seen to this day. He declared for his adopted county in 1927, part of the team surprisingly defeated by Dublin in 1927’s Senior Final. The much desired Celtic Cross on the field of play arrived against Galway in 1928.
He remained there in 1931, a sub for Cork’s win after three games with Kilkenny. Mick Leahy of Tubberadora took part in a crucial period for hurling, when the game seized the country’s imagination in fresh ways.
Nor did fraternal feeling inhibit uncompromising tackles. “Mick hurled a lot against his brothers at different times,” one nephew recalls.
“Right from the time Mick was hurling with the Sars’ in Thurles, he was used to playing family members. They didn’t spare him, especially Johnny. They were great friends, but hurling was hurling.”
He continues: “Johnny was supposed to have had this terrible strong charge, rushing out from full-back. He’d meet a man full on, and broke more than the odd collarbone. I heard Mick, when he was hurling for Cork against Tipperary, which was only a couple of times, league and so on, knew all about that charge… They could laugh about it afterwards.”
Mick Leahy lived in a criss-cross of allegiances. Having retired from the field of play, he served as Secretary of Blackrock National GAA Club and proved a notably popular figure until premature death in 1950. Nobody recalls a harsh word ever uttered about him or by him.
There is obvious curiosity about where his loyalties fell, Boherlahan native and Cork resident. “When Cork were out, he was Cork,” the same nephew notes. “Same for Tipp, when Tipp were out.”
“When Cork and Tipp were out together…? He held his cards close to his chest, those days.”
Within surviving family circles, considering this subject, they like to recall the 1946 Munster Final in Thurles. Cork defeated Limerick by 11 points, in Mick Mackey’s all but last hurrah.
Mick Leahy is moving back down the town, through the Square. The Cork team had togged out in a house on it. As the family group passed, Christy Ring could be seen at an upstairs window.
The Blackrock man from Boherlahan shouts up: “Well done, Christy!” The Glen Rovers man from Cloyne swung round, scanning the throng. Ring’s preternatural eye: “Hello, Mick!” He was gone and then back in a second, waving the Munster Cup for Mick Leahy.
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