Standing on the shoulders of giants as Tipperary so far away

Standing on the shoulders of giants as Tipperary so far away
A massive turn out on Talbot street to remember Tipperary hero Seán Treacy. Photo by Eamonn McGee

It’s just after noon on the day of the All-Ireland hurling final. About one thousand Tipperary people are gathered on Talbot Street in Dublin. They fill the footpaths and the road, and the passage of buses has become impossible. There’s a microphone and a large amp set up on a stand.

Seamus Leahy, a GAA historian of distinction, steps up to the microphone and there is a deep silence in the crowd.

He begins to read:

‘IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood,Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom……’

By the time he has finished reading the proclamation, there is a long and sustained round of applause. Later, prayers are said and ‘A Nation Once Again’ is sung and there is a beautiful rendition of ‘Tipperary So Far Away’.

Then, at the end, the crowd gathers in a rousing ‘Tipp, Tipp, Tipp, Tipp…..’ And the walk to Croke Park starts. This is a tradition that is lived out every time that Tipperary reach an All-Ireland final. But what brought all of these people wearing blue and gold colours to take control of a Dublin street?

The answer lies back in the War of Independence — and the death of Seán Treacy, one of the leaders of the IRA in Tipperary, who was also a prominent member of the GAA and the Gaelic League.

He was a man devoted to the idea of armed revolution. Indeed, he was a central figure in the killing of two policemen at Soloheadbeg on 21 January 1919 — the event considered to mark the start of the War of Independence.

Along with several other prominent Tipperary, he moved to Dublin to engage more closely with the activities of Michael Collins and was involved in various assassination attempts on senior British officials in Ireland.

On October 14, 1920, an abortive attack, brought Treacy to stand in the doorway of the Peadar Clancy’s shop at 94 Talbot Street, just off O’Connell Street. As well as running a drapery shop at this address, Clancy was also a hugely important figure in the Dublin IRA.

From the doorway of Clancy’s shop, Seán Treacy engaged in a shootout with members of the British intelligence services in Ireland. In a hail of bullets, Treacy died, as did one of the men who was shooting at him. He was brought home to Tipperary and buried in Kilfeacle graveyard.

The shop where Treacy was shot is now a pastry kitchen and café called ‘The Wooden Whisk’. The only physical reminder of its place in Irish history is a plaque high above the shop sign which reads: ‘In memory of Sean Tracey (sic), 3rd (South) Tipperary Brigade I.R.A. Killed in action by British forces outside this house 14th October 1920.’

The people who gather under this plaque on the morning after the All-Ireland hurling final are a reminder of the complex entanglement of hurling and history. This is an entanglement that works at many levels. Take, for example, the family history of Seamus Leahy, the reader of the proclamation.

When Tipperary were led out onto the field for the 1916 All-Ireland hurling final, their captain was Johnny Leahy, Seamus’s uncle. He was the best known member of an extraordinary family whose activities in hurling and in politics were extensive. Playing alongside him on the team was his brother Paddy. Two other brothers — Mick and Tommy — also later won All-Ireland medals.

A fifth brother — Jimmy — was Officer Commanding of the 2nd Tipperary Brigade in the War of Independence. He lost the sight of an eye on an attack on Borrisoleigh Barracks during that war. This destroyed his hurling career, despite the fact that he was judged to have been “the handiest of them all”.

The Leahys were from Tubberadora — a small townland in the parish of Boherlahan — who entered the Tipperary championship as a team in its own right and went on and won three All-Irelands in four years between 1896 and 1899.

Then, on the premise that, like Alexander the Great, they had no known worlds left to conquer, they disbanded their team. Nonetheless, the old blue and gold-banded jerseys that were worn back in the 1890s lived on from past into present.

By the way, after Johnny Leahy had led Tipperary to defeat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final in 1916, he ended up having an encounter several years later with the defeated Kilkenny captain Sim Walton.

Local lore recalls that when Walton wanted a safe house for Republicans on the run during the War of Independence, he brought them across the county border and into the home of his old adversary, Johnny Leahy. The two men sat around the kitchen table, and talked of hurling and farming and politics.

They stopped when it was time for the cows to be milked and for Sim Walton to head back to Tullaroan. They had hurled against each other in a time of war — but were bound together by the field that they had once shared and by their shared politics of revolution.

None of this, of course, is not enough to draw in all the people who were present on the morning of the All-Ireland hurling final, as showers of soft (wet!) rain fell on Dublin.

Indeed, gathered around the shop on Talbot Street were people who have only marginal interest in Republican protest and who stood for prayers when the last time they had attended mass is a date they would have to ransack the memory to discern.

So why were they there? Partly, the answer lies in tradition, in the idea that this is what people have done for decades and so the custom is perpetuated. The first time this happened was in 1922 when the Tipperary team who played in the All-Ireland hurling final came to the spot where Treacy died and paid their respects. Such respects were paid across the decades until the evolution of the gathering in its current form.

Partly, the motivation behind people attending lies in spectacle, in the basic fact that there are always people who go to events just to be there and to see what’s going on. This notion of gallery should never be underestimated in the motivations that draw people to form part of a crowd.

And, of course, there were also a few people who were only there to pick up tickets, to dip into someone else’s bag of sandwiches and to find someone to drink pints with on the way to Croke Park.

Mostly, though, what drew people appears to be a sense of identity. Through the crowd were Tipperary people who had come up from the match,Tipperary people who lived in Dublin, the sons and daughters of Tipperary people and, indeed, their grandchildren.

They joined in the song‘Tipperary So Far Away’, written about Sean Treacy:

His comrades gathered around him

To bid him a last farewell.

He was as true and as brave a lad

That ever in battle fell.

They dug a grave and in it they laid

The bones of Sean Treacy so brave,

He will never more roam to his native home,

Tipperary so far away.

But, perhaps the most eloquent expression of the identity on display was manifest, ultimately, in that chant of ‘Tipp, Tipp, Tipp…’ at the end of proceedings.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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