It was the autumn of 1887. The warm summer was a distant memory. The hurlers of Tipperary and Kilkenny were about to meet for the first time in championship hurling. This rivalry — later to become one of the most vibrant in Gaelic games — got off to a start that was truly remarkable.
The match — the first All-Ireland hurling semi-final — was fixed for Sunday, October 23, 1887. The ground secured for the game was the Drill Field in Clonmel in the south of Tipperary.
The two teams travelled by excursion train down to Clonmel. Tipperary were being represented by their champion club, Thurles, while Kilkenny were represented by their champions, Tullaroan.
But when the teams and their supporters arrived to the Drill Field they encountered a significant problem.
Hurling teams from Clonmel and Moycarkey were just starting to play out a challenge match that had been postponed from a local tournament.
Frank Maloney, a vice-president of the GAA, was due to referee the All-Ireland semi-final, and he asked the hurlers of Clonmel and Moycarkey to clear the field immediately.
They declined — the hurlers insisted that they would play out their own match first and would vacate the field when they were good and ready.
This did not sit well with the hurlers who were waiting to play the All-Ireland semi-final. They persisted in asking that their match be allowed to proceed immediately — it being the more important game.
The men from Moycarkey were not for moving.
After all, they carried a deep hurt from the way they had been removed from the Tipperary championship without actually losing a game. This removal was driven by administrators who wished to advance the cause of their own clubs and Moycarkey had been extremely poorly treated.
And there was also the manner of the perceived temperament of the Moycarkey men, their approach to hurling, and their perception of their own place in the history of the game.
Moycarkey was a rural parish which encompassed the village of Horse and Jockey, near Thurles town. At a meeting in early 1885 when the local hurlers agreed to form a club and to affiliate to the GAA, the best hurler in the parish, Tom O’Grady, proposed that a letter be sent to the press. It read: “We hail with delight the revival of our ancient games, and we wish to place on record that our parish has never abandoned the national pastimes.”
And Moycarkey took to the new organisation of hurling with considerable relish.
Newspaper reports of their matches used euphemisms such as referring to them being ‘very stubbornly contested’. Indeed, the captain of the Nenagh hurling team remarked after a match that he would ‘defy even the Angel Gabriel not to lose his temper with Moycarkey’ And so it was that the hurlers of Moycarkey and Clonmel held the Drill Field and left the men waiting to play the All-Ireland semi-final with a choice of whether to stay or leave. They left. They knew it would be long into the afternoon — and possibly too late — before they would get to play.
With the weather worsening, it was now decided that the semi-final would be played on the following Thursday afternoon, 27 October, in Urlingford, Co. Kilkenny.
It is not in any way clear why a Thursday afternoon was chosen as the day to play such an important match.
In many respects, it was a very fitting way for a championship which had been a shambles. The Tullaroan men had played no championship hurling since their match against Mooncoin in the Kilkenny final back in May, though they had played challenge and tournament matches.
When the Kilkenny GAA held their annual sports day in late August 1887, they did so at ‘Duke’s Meadows’ on Canal Walk, which belonged to the Marquess of Ormonde, James Butler.
Tullaroan, as county champions, played a challenge match on the bank, while spectators were entertained by the local military band.
For their part, the Thurles team was now much stronger than the one that had taken the field during the Tipperary championship.
This was because Thurles had taken some of the best hurlers from their neighbouring clubs and put them in their own jerseys.
In the first round of the Tipperary championship, Thurles had beaten Two-Mile Borris.
Reports in the newspapers noted that, although defeated, players such as Tommy Healy, Dan Ryan, Jack Maher, Tom Stapleton, Tim Dwyer, Ned Bowe, Jer Ryan and John Mockler had played superbly for Two-Mile Borris.
The Thurles club duly recruited these very men — although this was expressly against the rules.
But the Tullaroan hurlers were wise to the machinations of Thurles.
The last of the rain had cleared when the two sets of players lined up opposing one another, with a reported 6,000 people in attendance.
The Tullaroan captain objected immediately to the presence in the Thurles team of players from Two-Mile Borris.
The Thurles contingent claimed that the hurlers to whom objections were being raised lived on the outskirts of Thurles parish and were members of the club.
Nonetheless, they agreed to remove the disputed players and replace them with men from Thurles town.
The loss of the Two-Mile Borris players in no way impaired Thurles, who won by four goals and seven points to no score.
The truth of the matter was the standard of hurling in Tipperary was then much higher than it was in Kilkenny.
Indeed, Kilkenny was at that point considered to be primarily a football county.
By contrast, Tipperary was referred to in the newspapers as ‘the home of hurling’.
When the All-Ireland championship was designed it was generally speculated that the champions of Tipperary would most likely win out.
And, with Thurles now through to the final that speculation was one step closer to hardening into reality.
Visiting the town of Thurles in the days after the semi-final, Michael Cusack remarked how the victory over the champions of Kilkenny and the prospect of an All-Ireland final against Meelick (representing Galway) was the general topic of conversation on every street, with “rich and poor, young and old, laymen and clergymen, women, children and everyone nearly wild with delight”.
Cusack also wrote that he himself would have preferred if the Clare champions had made it through to the final, but either ways, he was certain of the merit of the Thurles players.
As it was, when the final was eventually played six months later in the spring of 1888, Thurles duly won the first All-Ireland championship for Tipperary, by defeating Meelick.
As for Kilkenny, its champion clubs won the Leinster football championship before winning a hurling one, and it was only in the early 20th century that they truly emerged as a dominant force on the hurling scene.
Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.
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