Early in the second half a big black cloud, which the crowd had had under anxious observation for some time, seemed to be split by a flash of forked lightning.
Thunder belched and rain began to descend in torrents. Spectators on the sideline rushed for cover. The match, far from being abandoned by the referee, MJ Flaherty from Tullamore, continued with even greater abandon.
Croke Park this day 75 years ago. Cork and Kilkenny. The Thunder and Lightning final. An unforgettable All-Ireland played on an unforgettable date: September 3, 1939.
It is a match remembered for the weather, for the drama of the climax — many of the attendance couldn’t see the last-minute winner through the curtains of rain — and not least for the backdrop.
This was one All-Ireland final that did not take place in its own cocoon. That noise in the background, audible if one strained? The chimes of doom as the world turned to night.
For the second time in a quarter of a century the dogs of war had been loosed in Europe. The throngs arrived in a wet Dublin for the match to discover that at 11.15am Neville Chamberlain had announced from 10 Downing Street that, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain was at war with Germany. While Cork and Kilkenny were battling a few hours later a young Bostonian called John Fitzgerald Kennedy sat in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons and listened to the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, declare that it was not a question of fighting for Poland but of saving “the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi Germany”.
Cork, who were appearing in their first All-Ireland final since the three-part epic of 1931, also against Kilkenny, had won their way there by virtue of a two-point victory over Mick Mackey’s Limerick in the Munster final. Among their number were Billy Murphy of the long puck, Micka Brennan of the black knicks, the fair-haired Jim Young and, from the Glen, captain Jack Lynch.
Kilkenny, who’d surprised the MacCarthy Cup holders Dublin in the Leinster final in Portlaoise, had more than their own share of youth, with a healthy contingent from the 1935 All-Ireland-winning minor outfit including Paddy Grace and the uber-stylist Jim Langton. The man in the No 3 jersey, on the other hand, was a grizzled veteran and survivor of 1931, the diminutive, cap-wearing Paddy Larkin.
Yet great games are not only about the men on the field. Among the attendance of 39,302 (gate receipts: £3,678 8s 0d) was a teenage Nicky Rackard from Wexford, cheering for Kilkenny and his hero Paddy Phelan, like Langton a member of the Team of the Century, and an obscure and reluctant clerk in the Monaghan branch of the Munster and Leinster Bank, one Tony O’Malley from Callan.
An estimated 14,000 supporters had left Cork that morning to travel to the capital. The first half was played in sunshine and dominated by Kilkenny. They led by 2-4 to 1-1 at the break, both of their goals coming from Jimmy Phelan and Cork’s from Ted O’Sullivan. On the resumption the Munster champions had a goal variously attributed to O’Sullivan, Lynch and Bobby Dineen. The rain continued to pour and the thunder continued to rumble.
It was 2-6 to 2-3 with a couple of minutes left when a long free from midfield by Billy Campbell eluded backs and forwards and found its way into the Kilkenny net. A draw would have been by far the fairest result in the circumstances but the Leinster champions had one last foray in them and forced a 70. The sliotar being even heavier than usual, Paddy Phelan’s attempt dropped short and landed about 25 yards out. Jimmy Kelly gained possession and landed the winning point.
Not that this was evident to many people at the time. Had Phelan, confused amid the tempest, hit the ball from his own 70 rather than Cork’s? Thus went one version of events. Another story that did the rounds was that the match reporters had to check afterwards to see who’d scored the winner, and this was no urban myth.
In the words of one report on Kelly’s point: “It came from nowhere. Few knew who had scored it. From the Cusack Stand we vainly tried to stare through the wall of water that fell from the heavens. We could not see the ball. We had not seen it, except for an occasional flashing glimpse, for the last 15 minutes. Terry Leahy’s hurley swept round in an arc. The white flag was raised and the crowd went mad. We thought it was he who had scored, but other members of the team and officials told us afterwards that it was Jimmy Kelly who had nipped in to drop-shot the greasy leather over the bar.”
Many of the actors that deathless day would be heard of again. Jack Lynch went on to become Taoiseach; far more impressively, he also went on to win six All-Ireland medals in a row. Nicky Rackard would lead and embody the astonishing Wexford hurling revival of the 1950s. Paddy Larkin had a son nicknamed Fan and a grandson called Philip. Paddy Grace spent 37 years as Kilkenny county secretary; one of his grandsons is a certain Tommy Walsh. And Tony O’Malley was to be one the most acclaimed Irish artists of the second half of the century, though not before he and his travelling companion embarked on an eerie journey north that night through a blacked-out land, scoured dark Dundalk for a pub and celebrated by guttering candlelight, “contented Kilkenny hurling men although the shadow of a world war hung about us everywhere”.
If Cork’s spirits drooped they needn’t have drooped for very long. A month later they faced their conquerors in the National League at the old Athletic Grounds. The result — a 6-5 to 4-7 win for the hosts — was less important than the identity of the 18-year-old youth from Cloyne who lined out at wing-forward, marking none other than Paddy Phelan.
His name was — well, you don’t really have to be told, do you? But that is quite another story.