A unique collection of ex-Taoiseach and GAA legend Jack Lynch’s personal, political and sporting belongings is available for close inspection in his native Cork for the first time.
The items from a vast collection associated with the six-times All-Ireland football and hurling winner include one of his trademark hats.
Visitors to Cork Public Museum’s latest exhibition — a collaboration with the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) focused on ancient and modern aspects of hurling — can also see Lynch’s old Seiko watch, scarf and gloves, cigar case and wallet.
They are from a large collection of his personal items bequeathed by the former Fianna Fáil leader’s widow, Máirín, in 2005.
Although archival documents and photographs associated with Lynch’s political career were damaged in the 2009 River Lee flood, conservation work funded by the Heritage Council and Cork City Council will see those become available for exhibition in the museum in the future.
The personal effects are part of a wider exhibition, which includes a year-long visit of the NMI’s fascinating collection of over a dozen hair hurling balls.
“We’d hoped the opening would be in the lead-up to another Cork appearance in a senior All-Ireland, but it does coincide with a very successful year by any standards,” said Cork Public Museum acting curator Daniel Breen.
The Rebel County’s under-17s are already 2017 All-Ireland hurling champions, and its senior camogie team and minor hurlers are in finals over the coming fortnight.
But despite Cork’s and Kilkenny’s long prominence in the All-Ireland hurling records, none of the historic hurling balls is known to have been found yet in these counties.
There is one in the exhibition, however, which came out of an east Tipperary bog and most of the hurling balls were taken from bogs in Munster, mainly from near the western seaboard.
Modern archaeological science has allowed Clodagh Doyle, a curator at the NMI, to date one of them to as “recent” as 500 years ago.
But the oldest dates back to between 1157 and 1227, around the same time that legends of Cú Chulainn were being transcribed in the Book of Leinster. It was found in Tooraree, Co Limerick, and is also the lightest in the collection at just 13g, or barely 10% of the weight of a modern leather-bound sliotar.
However, as Ms Doyle points out, the word “sliotar” is a relatively recent one.
The Irish word for ball, liathróid, is used in manuscript sources that refer to hurling as far back as the Book of Leinster, written around 1160. But the first known reference to a sliotar is linked to emigrants from Kerry’s Ivereagh peninsula in New York around 200 years ago.
These early predecessors in the exhibition were usually made from cow hair, wrapped in plaited horse hair.
And although centuries under layers of turf have left them all in varying shades of brown, analysis to date suggests many might have been from the tail or mane of white horses, perhaps to make them more visible.
It was only with the use of X-ray equipment and other techniques that Ms Doyle determined that items like bone or stone were used as the core of the heavier ones, while others had wood or turf cores. A viewer in the exhibition allows visitors to read the X-rays just as a doctor might see a fracture after a clash of the ash.
But if lovers of the game assume that ash has always been the material from which the camán was made, they should think again and visit Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald’s Park.
“This very narrow-ended hurling stick isn’t made of ash as you’d assume, it’s made of alder,” Ms Doyle told Cork’s Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald when he opened the exhibition on Thursday.
The item in question came from an Offaly bog and is around 500 years old. It has a much rounder shaft than the modern hurley, and is in remarkable condition for its age.
Layers of peat helped preserve the balls but the likelihood is that the places they were dug up were once fields, river banks or part of a much different kind of landscape, when the balls were lost. Many were found close to parish or county boundaries.
“We need to remember that a much different type of cross-country hurling was being played long ago,” explained Ms Doyle.
But the old parish and county rivalries have not dwindled, as evidenced by photos of crowds greeting Christy Ring and other successful 20th-century Cork captains. Another shows a jubilant Jack Lynch with the Liam McCarthy Cup, hurling’s greatest prize — at least, its greatest in modern history.
‘Hair Hurling Balls: Earliest Artefacts of our National Game ’ is open at Cork Public Museum until August 2018.
Leading conservator Claudia Kinmonth will talk about work to salvage the museum’s Jack Lynch collection in a talk for Heritage Week at 2pm today.
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