The hurlers were carrying their hurleys across their shoulders as if they were carrying long rifles. James Lynam, a veteran of the American Army and a leading organiser for the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood in Connacht, was in control.
He shouted: “Right, about”, and the hurlers turned as one and marched shoulder-to-shoulder through the streets of Parsonstown.
They crossed the Camcor River and headed for a field beside the Railway Station. The hurlers were in Parsonstown to play the first All-Ireland hurling final. In the final were Thurles, the champions of Co Tipperary, and Meelick, a team drawn from the East Galway banks of the River Shannon.
The bright, cold day left conditions perfect for hurling and around 3,000 people were waiting in the hurling field. Among the crowd were members of a British army regiment, the Scottish highlanders, who were stationed in nearby Crinkle barracks and who regularly attended hurling matches around Birr. Around them, hawkers were selling apples, and tricks-o’-the-loop were doing a roaring trade as they tried to induce spectators to gamble which of three thimbles covered the pea.
It had been a long wait for the final. This was actually the final of the 1887 championship, delayed to 1888 by a calamitous series of events that culminated in the GAA almost being pulled asunder as rival political factions tried to gain control. Things had worsened to the point where the association’s annual convention had ended in a free fight between priests and Republicans.
Only a temporary lull in hostilities allowed arrangements be put in place for the playing of the final.
Waiting in the centre of the field for the hurlers was the referee, Patrick White. At 3pm he called the hurlers to the middle of the field and, for the second time that day, the two teams lined up alongside one another. They lowered their hurleys to the ground and set themselves to play.
White took the red leather hurling ball into his hand and threw it in between the hurlers. For 11 minutes the game was furious and, according to a local reporter, the play was constantly “whizzing in all directions, now here, now there, threatening one goal, now another”.
The Meelick hurlers “put forth much vigour”, but when “the Thurles men went to work with determination”, they broke away and struck a point. The score was not decisive — Thurles pressed, but were repeatedly driven back by Meelick and for 15 minutes before half-time, “the play was simply fierce”.
Early in the second-half, Meelick suffered a blow. There is considerable confusion over what exactly came to pass, but the ultimate result was that Meelick were deprived of one of their best players, John Lowry.
The most often repeated version of events speaks of a Thurles hurler being led off the field with a serious nose injury (having been struck with the hurley by Lowry) and he was not replaced as there was no provision for subs. And, according to this version, almost immediately, the Meelick men were also down a man as Lowry, himself, was put off the field for tripping.
In Meelick, the version which survives, notes Lowry accidentally wounded a Tipperary man in a melee, but was removed from the fray by James Lynam as a gesture of honour.
And it was then that Thurles did the damage which won them the match. This version of events is supported by the reporter on the Midland Tribune who commended the Meelick men on their gallantry in removing a hurler so that both teams played with the same number.
John Lowry lived into his 70s and his recollection of events is somewhat different again. He recalled when there was little to choose between the teams, a Thurles player began to cut lumps out of the Meelick men. He was, remembered Lowry, “the wildest hurler he ever saw”, who had floored three Meelick men in rapid succession.
Eventually, Lowry claimed he was obliged to react. He took on the Thurles Wildman and cleaned him out. The result was that the Thurles player was forced off the field, but Lowry was also made to leave by the referee.
hatever the true version of events, what is clear is that Lowry was removed from the game — but not entirely. In fact, he continued to join in the play by rushing onto the field whenever the ball came near him, and as he was following the play up and down the line, that was more often than not. Lowry stopped interfering only when the referee warned him victory would be awarded to the Thurles team if the intrusions persisted.
While Lowry was finally off the field, Thurles struck for the vital score. The Tipperary captain, Jim Stapleton’s memory of the winning goal is a reminder it is not just the winners who write history, but also those who live the longest.
Stapleton was captain on the day only because the usual captain Denis ‘Long Dinny’ Maher, and six other hurlers from the Killinan end of Thurles had refused to play in a dispute over expenses. The Killinan men had been left out of pocket from earlier rounds of the championship, but the club refused to pay their train fares to Parsonstown. Instead, they collected the best hurlers from surrounding villages and installed Jim Stapleton as captain.
In the 1940s, when all his team-mates were dead, Stapleton recalled how he helped bring the ball down the field through a central rush of hurlers, before — seeing the chance of a score — he passed the ball out to Tommy Healy who caught it, and drove it hard and low through the goal.
However, an independent observer has written that the crucial goal was scored by Jim Leahy, who struck the ball off his left side from the middle of the field, in under the tape which served as a crossbar, for the winning goal.
This latter version is partly endorsed by the Meelick goalkeeper, John Mannion, who, until the day he died, lamented the concession of a goal he would normally have stopped. “The ball” he said, “came down to me out of the sun and a 17 stone Tipperary man arrived at the same time. The ball went in between us, but they won it fair.”
The goal decided the match. When Patrick White called for full-time, Thurles had beaten Meelick by 1-2 to 0-0, and were duly crowned the first All-Ireland hurling champions.
Their celebrations were immediate. The newspapers wrote: “The enthusiasm of the Tips seemed to be unbounded when play was declared. They took the plucky captain, James Stapleton, on their shoulders and carried him though the field.”
The newspapers stressed the Meelick men took their defeat in the very best of spirits: “From the time the Thurles and Meelick men met, their intercourse was characterised by the utmost good feeling and good humour, and the defeat of the latter did not in the least change that for they accepted it in the same spirit as they would victory.”
After the teams had cheered each other off the field, they were again lined up in military fashion by Captain Lynam and marched back to Cunningham’s Hotel where they were served dinner.
Dinner, however, was not all that was served that evening. At Parsonstown Petty Sessions on April 13, 1888, case after case of drunken and disorderly behaviour following the hurling final came before the magistrates. The King’s County Chronicle recorded how Thomas Meara, from Roscrea, had been fined 10 shillings for beating a man with a stick; how Thomas Molloy had been “one of the rioters in Parsonstown on the day of the hurling”, but had given a false name and was now fined 26 shillings, or one month in prison.
More than 20 men from across south King’s County and North Tipperary were fined between five and 20 shillings for drunkenness. These included Thomas Coy, who was fined seven shillings and six pence for being drunk in charge of a donkey and car.
The presiding magistrate, JT McSherry, RM, recorded “it was monstrous people could not come into town for a day’s amusement without carrying on such conduct.”
The championship was reviewed at a two-day meeting of the GAA central executive in Dublin three weeks after the final. The matter of providing medals for the championship winners was discussed.
The winning teams were to receive gold crosses and the runners-up to get silver ones. For more than two decades nothing happened. Some All-Ireland medals were finally presented to Thurles players just before the outbreak of World War II.
The Meelick club have yet to receive their silver crosses.