When the first county championship was being organised in Waterford in 1887, interest in the GAA spread like wildfire around the county.
Fifteen teams entered. The Dublin papers noted it as “a great joy” – Waterford was presented as a model of how to organise. The idea of organised games was seized with passion; all across Waterford there was massive interest through February and March with great crowds turning out to games.
But every game played was a football one.
No hurling championship was played in Waterford in 1887. Indeed, beyond a limited amount of internal practice matches played down in the Dungarvan club, there was no organised hurling in Waterford at all.
The game had once been played in the county, however, long before the founding of the GAA. In 1887, an old hurler wrote to the press to recall matches he had seen played in Mothel in the 1820s and 1830s. He recalled seeing 60 men stripped to the waist, hurling in a field amongst themselves and also travelling to play matches against a team from North Tipperary.
This first football championship was not something that proceeded without problems, of course. Two matches were fixed for Kilmacthomas one Sunday afternoon in the middle of March but there was a problem when the competing clubs arrived. Not alone had a pitch not been lined out, but it appears that one had not even been arranged.
Eventually, a field was found about a quarter-mile from the village and it was described by a journalist as “the worst we have ever seen any match played on, let alone championship ones, being both hilly and rough.”
There was also a problem with the Rathgormack team, whose approach to playing games appears to have been somewhat robust, as the euphemism would have it. Further complications arose when the local press carried an exchange between players of the “Waterford” club from the city about why a particular player had been dropped – it was an extremely bitter and public selectoral row.
And then, to put a cap on things, it was claimed that gambling was involved in that club’s ultimate defeat in the championship against Kilrossanty.
But – all the while – the game played was football, and not hurling.
In a gesture that now carries a certain irony, the hurlers of Mooncoin – in an attempt to foster the game in Waterford - offered to send down a team to give an exhibition before the Waterford county football final of 1887.
There is something delicious about the idea of Kilkenny hurlers offering to teach the game to the people of Waterford.
Although ‘delicious’ may not actually be the word applied from the Waterford side of the bridge.
But, back in 1887, Mooncoin’s offer to okay an exhibition was accepted. For whatever reason, however, the exhibition did not take place.
There were, though, up to 10,000 people at that Waterford football final in April 1887 – this was a county in the grip of a game that was thriving.
A further 7,000 people were reported to have attended the replayed football final a few weeks later. Again, no hurling exhibition was played.
Eventually, later in 1887, at the end of July, the prospect of staging a major hurling game appeared, with the champions of Cork fixed to play the champions of Kilkenny in the All-Ireland championship at Dungarvan.
As early as July 1885, the Dungarvan GAA club announced that it had secured the use of the old cricket grounds in the town for the playing of Gaelic games.
The driving force was Dan Fraher, a Dungarvan-based draper after whom the field was much later named. Fraher was a great athlete who won the hop, step and jump event at the first GAA Athletics Championships.
An indefatigable organiser, he combined family life with Gaelic League activism, the running of a business – he was the proprietor of a ‘Gaelic Outfitting Store’– and occupancy of a variety of roles within the GAA.
The field in Dungarvan was the best venue for Gaelic games in the early years of the GAA. The Dungarvan club had developed its grounds to the point where by 1887 a stand had been erected along one sideline.
It was perfect for accommodating spectators and a huge crowd travelled by train across from Kilkenny. The Tullaroan hurlers (representing Kilkenny) and their supporters gathered on Sunday morning at the Waterford and Central Ireland Railway Station in Kilkenny city. There was, reported the newspapers, ‘something martial in their thread, and it was easy to perceive that they were men who had a task before them.’
Hurling supporters from all over Kilkenny were noted buying tickets for the excursion and, at every stop after the train left Kilkenny city, further enthusiasts joined the train. By the time, the train moved passed Mullinavat, the smoke belching from its engine, bore testimony to the scale of the crowd on board.
When the travellers changed trains in Waterford and continued south to Dungarvan the crowds continued to grow. Soon there was no room left in the carriages and those who wanted to travel to the match were forced to climb onto the roof of the train. There they sat as the train rolled on towards Dungarvan.
After Kilmacthomas, the approach of a tunnel left some of the passengers atop the train somewhat nervous. As the train passed through the darkness, a rumble of cheering passed from the carriages and, as it emerged once more into the light, grew into huge volleys of cheers which echoed across the countryside.
Their journey was to prove in vain. Because of a dispute in Cork GAA, no county hurling final had been played. Cork were not in position to field county champions so no hurling match was played in Dungarvan that Sunday.
There is one last thing to note here.
The hurlers of Mooncoin did indeed come down to Waterford to play a match later in 1887. In a monster tournament played at the end of November, the Mooncoin men took the train across the county and played against Fenor – but it was a football match.
Regrettably, though, the match was played as the last of three big contests between teams from across Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny.
The ball had barely been thrown in when the referee decided it was actually too dark to play. The gloom of the evening had led the referee to call time. He might have been wise.
Earlier in the year, a football match involving Mooncoin had ended with exchanges so physical that the only way the county board could stop the play was to pull up the goalposts.
And as for the Fenor men? They had also been condemned for being prone to “butt with their heads” in the course of playing a game.
Football continued – and continues – to be a game beloved of certain parishes in Waterford. But, after an uncertain start, hurling came to dominate all else.
That, too, is a reminder that the playing of games is not pre-ordained, but is instead shaped by the choices that people make.