On Saturday night, 24 October 1915, a group of about 25 men from Queen’s County were staying in a hotel on Gardiner Street in Dublin. They were the hurlers of Leix – as Queen’s County was officially known in GAA circles – and they were in Dublin to play the All-Ireland hurling final against Cork.
After the players had gone to bed, the officials of the county board paid for four men to patrol the corridors of the hotel. Their job was to intercept any man attempting to avail of a night out in the city.
This patrolling was done at the suggestion of one of Leix’s star players Bob O’Keefe who noted that it was imperative because: ‘There is no use depending on any of the players.’ No player is thought to have successfully escaped to the pleasures of Dublin.
On the following morning, the Leix players had their breakfast and took mass in the church on Gardiner’s Street.
Sometime after noon, they togged out in their hotel rooms and, wearing black-and-amber horizontally striped jerseys, crossed Gardiner’s Square, walked down Fitzgibbon Street, then down Jones’s Road, and into Croke Park.
They had a straightforward ambition: beat Cork and win the county’s first ever All-Ireland hurling championship, thereby avenging the disastrous loss to Clare in the previous year’s final.
Nonetheless, while Leix were given a chance of victory, Cork were expected to win.
That Leix had made it to the All-Ireland final was due the work of a new generation of administrators who developed the game in the county after 1900.
At their head was Fr. J.J. Kearney who was born in Carlow but, after graduating to the priesthood, served as curate in Queen’s County.
He became the key administrator in the Leix County Board for more than 15 years. He was single-minded in his desire to promote hurling and ruled the county’s operations with both wisdom and an unflinching nature.
His great ally was Bob O’Keefe, a schoolteacher originally from Mooncoin in Kilkenny, where he had won a county hurling championship.
In 1904 O’Keefe had moved to work near Borris-in-Ossory, joined the Kilcotton hurling club, made the Leix team and went on to play for Leinster in the Railway Cup. He served as a GAA administrator even while still playing for the county team.
Led by these two men, new school and club competitions were established, and slowly Leix produced better players and became more competitive at inter-county level.
By 1912 they had made the Leinster final, losing narrowly to Kilkenny: Leix were now genuine contenders for provincial honours – and maybe for more.
In 1914, Kearney and O’Keefe took the preparation of the Leix hurling team to new levels. The story of how they managed to do this can be found in a box of files held at the GAA Museum in Dublin.
In those files lies the story of how Leix prepared for the championship and how they used that preparation to progress through Leinster by beating Wexford on May 24 by 4-3 to 1-4 in the Leinster quarter-final.
In the semi-final in Tullamore on July 12th Leix beat Dublin by 4-3 to 3-4 and then – amid scenes of unbridled joy – claimed the county’s first Leinster senior title on August 2nd by beating Kilkenny by a point, 3-2 to 2-4.
Leix were now through to the county’s first ever All-Ireland hurling final where they would face Clare – also seeking their first title.
When Clare won the 1914 Munster hurling championship, they were reputed to have prepared better than any team in history.
The ambition was to ape what other successful counties had done – the modernisation of the game of hurling had brought dramatic change to how players prepared for games.
Training regimes stressed the importance of physical fitness, skill-based drills and practice games. In Clare, for the 1914 championship, it meant taking a full week off work before championship matches and training full time for hurling.
As Clare progressed to the 1914 All-Ireland hurling final, they headed for a week’s training in Lahinch or in Lisdoonvarna before each of their championship matches, with Clare County Council, a local National Insurance inspector and a local doctor, all giving use of their motor cars to convey the team.
Throughout the week before the 1914 All-Ireland final they stayed in the Temperance Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, and among the exercises they undertook were running, walking, hurling, and gymnastics, as well as receiving massages.
Each man was up at 7am for a five-mile walk and was usually in bed by 10.30pm to rest and recuperate.
There were distractions, though, as a letter-writer to the Clare Champion wrote: ‘Our boys being so good looking, and of course such heroes in the eyes of the fair sex, attract quite a number of fair ladies to the vicinity of their training quarters every evening and as a result we have some ‘tripping in the light fantastic’ which is all very well in its own way, taken in moderation but it should not come off every night and on no account be prolonged after ten.’
Hearing of the training being undertaken in Clare an anonymous letter was sent to the secretary of the Leix County Committee which implored the players to ‘leave off work and train. If ye do not, ye will be not only beaten, but disgraced.’
As it was, the Leix team actually trained together for the 1914 final every day for three weeks at the county grounds in Maryborough, using money raised by the county committee.
The annual convention of the Leix County Committee had agreed that ‘a fund be established to defray the expenses of training the senior inter-county teams’.
Contributions were received from GAA clubs across Queen’s County, from the Tullamore club in neighbouring King’s County, from local businesses and from people from Queen’s Co. who were living across Ireland, particularly in Dublin.
In a letter to John J. Higgins, the secretary to the Leix County Committee, Bob O’Keefe stressed the need to pay for substitute workers for members of the hurling team who would miss work. O'Keefe wrote: ‘We will have to pay a man to take Jim Hyland's place.
He is a 4 coach-builder. He is working at home but they are a very large family and they could not very well afford to have Jim away so long.’
Replacing E. P. McEvoy, a farmer’s son, cost 10s. per week for three weeks for a substitute worker and 1s. 3d. per day for 16 days to cover the cost of his train fare from Abbeyleix to Maryborough.
The money raised by the training fund covered not just the cost of providing those employers with substitutes for the hurlers, but also the cost of train fares and meals for the players.
Leix was fortunate to be a crossing point for trains and, indeed, several of the hurlers were employed on the railways. Others worked as bakers, brewers and caretakers, in addition to a strong farming contingent.
All through the late summer and autumn of 1914 the Leix hurlers trained and trained and trained and left for Dublin for the final in high spirits.
And they were hammered. The final score of the 1914 All-Ireland hurling final was Clare 5–1, Leix 1–0.
Defeat to Clare was met by dismay, but not despair. After all, 1914 had brought a first Leinster title and that was a marker of huge progress. And, of course, one of the great things about sport is that a new season offers new possibilities. Leix could look to 1915 with great optimism.
Against the backdrop of the Great War, Leix set about winning the All-Ireland hurling championship. The year 1914 had seen the rise of a new power in the land. Ballygeeghan won their first ever senior hurling championship.
It was the start of an extraordinary run of success that saw Ballygeegan win five championships. Ballygeeghan nominated their best player, John Finlay, to captain Leix in 1915. The team that represented Leix in 1915 now contained six Ballygeeghan players, with the balance of the team drawn from Rathdowney, Abbeyleix, Ballacolla, Rapla and Kilcotton.
Finlay was progressive in his approach to training. He believed that the team’s preparations for the 1914 final had actually been hindered by the fact that they had trained too hard and that ‘some of the players on the team were not able to stand the training they went through.’
Early in 1915 he wrote to his players advising that they do their utmost to win the All-Ireland: ‘This we can do by acquiring the staying powers and speed necessary for a player to do his best for the whole of an hour’s hard play.’
He advised that players initially go on long, slow runs, reaching a distance of three miles. They should then start to build sprints of up to 50 yards into these runs.
Leix duly beat Kilkenny 4-1 to 2-6 on June 6th at Tullamore in the Leinster semi-final.
The victory was a sweet one – it also brought a less than wholesome reaction from the losers.
It was one thing to lose to Leix in 1914, but two years in a row was sickening. So Kilkenny lodged an appeal with the Leinster Council. It was argued that one Leix player was standing in the wrong position when a free was taken that led to a crucial goal.
As a result, Kilkenny looked for a replay. The Leinster Council said no. In the Leinster final, Leix beat Dublin in the middle of August and duly completed the two-in-a-row.
It was then that preparations to win the All-Ireland final were properly put in train. Money was raised through renewed appeals to supporters and was now used to fund a refined training regime, with elaborate drills for the players to follow during practice.
Copies survive of practice drills for catching, dribbling, striking, sideline pucks, free pucks and fighting for possession. In the drill which worked on fighting for possession, it was proposed to send a ball a short distance ahead of two players who would then fight for it ‘somewhat like two dogs for a hare.’
In the two weeks before the final, the Leix players came together to train three times a week, for two hours on each occasion. To do this, some had to secure permission from their employers to leave work at 2pm in order to be in Maryborough to train before the light faded.
A significant input into training was made by Fr J. J. Kearney, who wrote to the players stressing the importance of speed and intensity: ‘There will be no time for fancy play or raising the ball in an All-Ireland final. Men should practice striking ground balls when running at top speed.’
Kearney – in tandem with other members of the county committee – believed that the team needed outside expertise if it was to win an All-Ireland, and asked the great Kilkenny hurler Dick ‘Drug’ Walsh to take charge. Walsh knew all about winning championships. He had recently retired, having won seven All-Ireland medals, three of them as captain. Walsh was approached and duly agreed. He did some work with the team, including bringing Kilkenny hurlers in sidecars to Maryborough to hurl practice matches on three successive Sundays.
The players were given a type-written document: ‘Notes for players previous to match’. This re- iterated all the work that had been done in training, stressed the importance of moving the ball quickly, of playing unselfishly and concluded: ‘The team possessing the greater SPEED AND DASH will win.’
Cork players, too, trained assiduously for the final. As well as training collectively, many players trained to their own regime.
One of the stars of the Cork team in 1915 was Larry Flaherty who had won an All-Ireland as long before as 1903. He developed a training regime which saw him train on a hill behind his house in Douglas, commencing at 5.30am.
He followed a regime of jumps, as well as tying a 6 lb. weight to his hurley, before working on his swing. (Flaherty lived into his 90s and later commented on watching hurling on television in the 1970s: ‘To be honest, I don’t like watching fellows doing things which I sometimes feel I could still do better myself.’)
On their passage to the 1915 final, Cork had defeated Tipperary, Limerick and defending champions Clare to win the Munster championship. Many members of the Leix team had travelled to watch Cork beat Clare, ‘each man to observe the style of his opponent.’
In the national press there was comprehensive coverage of the final. One GAA correspondent, Frank Dineen, the man who had bought Croke Park and then sold it to the GAA in 1913 wrote a preview of the game, having travelled to Maryborough where he had interviewed the Leix captain, John Finlay.
As Dineen later recalled, Finlay appeared to have already adopted the pose which was to become so associated with GAA teams: ‘Speaking to Mr. John Finlay, I was made to think that they had not the slightest expectation of defeating Cork ... John Finlay, across a table, was a quiet, unassuming, sociable country gentleman, who talked of everything but hurling.’
On Sunday, October 24th, 1915, special trains were run from Cork and Queen’s Co., and also from the hurling heartlands of Tipperary, Limerick, Galway, Offaly, Kilkenny and Waterford. In all, the Great Southern and Western Railway put on 17 special trains which were filled to capacity.
In the end, around 12,000 people paid gate receipts totalling £362 on the day; among them was the former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnston who was visiting from America.
The crowd would most likely have been greater but for the wetness of the day. Leix were better prepared for the rain than Cork and appeared on the field wearing their overcoats.
The Irish Independent was later to comment that the appearance of the Leix men was ‘somewhat unconvincing because they all wore mackintoshes,’ but it was a decision rooted in common sense. On top of that, the Leix team had brought resin to put on their hurleys to improve the grip; Cork had not done this.
The referee, William Walsh (who refereed the match using an RIC man’s whistle), threw in the ball to start the match at 2.54 p.m. and Cork started as if they were sure to justify their position as favourites and scored three early goals.
Leix settled midway through the half, however, and scored two goals of their own, as well as two points, and trailed by just one point at the interval.
The match was won in the early minutes of the second half. As the rain worsened to a downpour, Leix scored three quick goals and, despite a late rally by Cork, when the final whistle was blown the score stood at Leix 6–2, Cork 4–1.
In Cork, the view was that the match was decided in favour of Leix because of the rain which stopped their boys hurling: the Cork Examiner complained that when the hurling ball had been thrown up, it was as if ‘one side was armed with stout ash camáns and the other side with frail tennis rackets. And Laois certainly weren’t the side equipped with tennis rackets.’
For the Leix players, officials and supporters, there were huge celebrations. The team travelled home by train, repeatedly singing ‘Lovely Laois’ and the Kilkenny standard ‘The Rose of Mooncoin’.
Bonfires blazed across Queen’s Co, there was a procession through Abbeyleix where John Finlay was carried shoulder-high behind a pipe band. Congratulatory letters arrived from many parts, not least from Sir Algernon Coote, who wrote from the House of Commons:
‘Will you convey my hearty congratulations to the Leix team, upon winning the hurling championship?’ A telegraph also arrived from the nationalist MP for Queen’s Co., Patrick A. Meehan.
There was praise for Bob O’Keefe from Frank Dineen:
‘His hair has turned grey at the game for he has been over 20 years behind the camán. He has had a long and successful career as a hurler, and no one who ever knew him will grudge him his All-Ireland gold medal.’ There was gratitude, too, for the work which administrators had done to achieve victory: a special commemorative watch worth £25 was struck and presented to Fr J. J. Kearney.
It had taken more than a decade of hard work and planning – and it had worked.