PAUL ROUSE: Mackey, Limerick, and the decade when Hollywood documented the glories of hurling for US cinema

Mick Mackey with the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1940.

There’s something about the 1930s that sets it apart in the history of hurling, writes Paul Rouse

Partly it is the glamour which attaches itself even to the names of the era: to Lory Meagher and Eudie Coughlan and Mick Mackey, to the ‘Thunder and Lightning Final’, and to ‘The Trilogy’ — the three matches played out by Cork and Kilkenny to decide the 1931 All-Ireland hurling final.

This was the decade when Hollywood films were made documenting the glories of hurling for showing in American cinemas. And it was also the decade when almost every year saw a champion hurling team cross the Atlantic by boat to play exhibition matches in the great cities of America.

America may have been shaken to its core by the Great Depression, but it seemed impossibly alluring to men who travelled from rural Ireland.

Even at home in Ireland, there was change. The populism of Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil had swept Cumann na nGaedheal from office; the country lurched into economic war with Britain, the latest manifestation of an ancient conflict.

More modern variations of change came through the spread of jazz and the rise and rise of the radio.

And in the age of radio, the first great team to capture the public imagination was Limerick. And at the heart of the team was Mick Mackey, described by his biographer, Séamus Ó Ceallaigh, as ‘the most colourful hurler the game has known’ and ‘the greatest man ever to wield a camán.’

Biographers, and especially sports biographers, have a tendency to overstate the importance of their subject. The fact that Ó Ceallaigh was a local man completely besotted with Limerick hurling did nothing to temper his adulation of Mackey.

Nonetheless, it is a simple fact to record that the arrival of Mick Mackey on the inter-county scene carried with it a sense of excitement and glamour which changed perceptions of the game.

Playing at centre-forward, Mick Mackey became the greatest star that hurling had yet known. That is not to say he was the greatest hurler in history — or even the best hurler in that great Limerick team of the 1930s — rather that his name dominates the popular memory of the 1930s above any other.

It is easy to see why.

The leading journalist of the 1930s, PD Mehigan (Carbery), described Mick Mackey as “the greatest playboy and stunt artist in the game, dummying and swerving his way through, shooting goals and points with easy freedom”.

Mackey led Limerick to a success which the county had never seen before and has never seen since.

Mick Mackey talks to the Limerick team who he trained in 1955
Mick Mackey talks to the Limerick team who he trained in 1955

His family had been involved in hurling in Limerick from the founding of the GAA. His granduncle, Michael Mackey, had played for Castleconnell in the first ever Limerick hurling championship, which was played in 1887.

That championship was unfinished when, after the final whistle blew in the Limerick county final, both teams were chaired from the field by their respective supporters and claimed victory.

The dispute became so bad that it led to Limerick later enjoying what one local commentator referred to as ‘the luxury’ of having two county boards.

Mick Mackey’s father, John — better known as Tyler Mackey — was famous as the captain of the Limerick team that won the 1910 Munster hurling championship. Tyler Mackey was a ferocious hurler: a noted referee of the period, Willie Walsh, once described Tyler as being ‘of impetuous nature.’

Other newspaper reports from the day describe him as ‘robust’ and ‘committed’. Nobody who saw him play can have doubted what was meant by such euphemisms.

But hurling in the early years of the 20th century was routinely violent. There was much pride taken in the capacity to administer punishment. Tyler Mackey, himself, said that the toughest man he ever played against was one Jim ‘Spud’ Murphy from the St. Finbarrs club in Cork.

Tyler said of Spud Murphy that he was ‘never one to bother overmuch with rules’ — this was intended as an admiring compliment, rather than any criticism.

The legacy of this physicality was evident in the hurling of Mick Mackey. Mackey played in straight lines and the Limerick team of which he was the central figure were renowned for their physicality.

In general, match reports from that era record contests between teams that were ‘somewhat hot’ — to use another euphemism of the day.

In later years, when rules supposed to clean up hurling were introduced including banning third-man tackling and charging the goalie into the net, men who played with Limerick in the 1930s were scathing in their criticism.

For example, Timmy Ryan, who captained the Limerick team to win the 1934 All-Ireland, claimed in the 1960s that changes to the rules of hurling were turning it into tennis.

The general physicality of hurling at the time was a noted feature of the game. Eudi Coughlan, the great Cork hurler who won his fourth All-Ireland medal in 1931, noted: “If you didn’t get rid of the ball quickly you got a flake off a man and the ball was flaked away from you. If you put up your hand for the ball, it was strictly at your own risk.”

In the case of Mick Mackey, his physical approach was coloured by the presence at wing forward of his brother, John.

It is an axiomatic rule of Gaelic games that brothers playing on the same team changes the usual dynamics. In this case, as in many others, it meant a lot more timber being broken.

As Mick Mackey said: “With us, it was hit one, hit two.”

His physical prowess should not, of course, diminish the hurling skill which Mackey possessed. One without the other would not have allowed him develop into the crowd favourite he became.

And the mix of talents in the Limerick team was such that they won four Munster titles in a row and played in four All-Ireland finals: They won two of those finals — 1934 and 1936 — and, of course, came again in 1940 to win a third.

On top of that, in the 1930s, Limerick also won five National Hurling League titles in a row. The National Leagues had just been established and their arrival allowed the legend of Limerick hurling to grow still greater.

Indeed, Mick Mackey later recalled that the hurling match that gave him most enjoyment was a league match in Nowlan Park in Kilkenny in the late spring of 1935.

He said: ‘The scoring was low — never more than two points between us. It was a thriller from start to finish. I always enjoyed playing against Kilkenny. There must have been a crowd of 25 or 30,000 people at the game.’

The success of Limerick accorded the players a unique position in the city and county. For example, in the week after winning the 1936 All-Ireland hurling final, the players were invited to attend the Savoy cinema in Limerick city as special guests. Many hundreds of people were turned away. At the interval the Limerick players were introduced to the crowd one after the next, while the cinema’s organist Jack Courtenay played a special tune he had composed in their honour.

That tune has been lost in history. One image remains clear however. When Mick Mackey was introduced to the crowd, there were scenes of ‘the wildest enthusiasm’ as he showed off the Liam MacCarthy cup to the crowd. He took the microphone and said simply: “We won the All-Ireland final this year and we mean to do the same next year.”

They didn’t manage it. In fact, although the decade is remembered as Limerick’s, the bulk of the titles in the 1930s were won by the traditional powers of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork. Kilkenny won four All-Irelands, Tipperary won two and Cork won one.

It should be noted of course that there is something unreal about looking at a decade of hurling in isolation. The calendar which divides our years into neat decades is a mere instrument in the arrangement of time. The life of hurling teams and of hurling players does not lend itself to such neat division.

After all, the Limerick team which lit up the 1930s went on to win the 1940 All-Ireland Championship and were a prominent force in Munster hurling for much of the 1940s.

There are two other things to mention. The first is that many of the great hurlers of the 1930s also played football to a high level. For example, Mick Mackey and his brother John were on the Limerick team that won the Munster Junior Football Championship in 1939.

What is also most striking about the 1930s is the extent to which so many of the stars of that decade stayed involved in the GAA, even after the glory of their playing days.

Lory Meagher, for example, served as a selector on Kilkenny teams and was Tullaroan’s representative on the Kilkenny county board for decades.

Mick Mackey, himself, was for many years a Limerick delegate to the Munster Council and also served as an umpire at many matches.

The remarkable photo showing him and Christy Ring in the same frame was taken from a Munster Championship match between Tipperary and Cork.

Mackey, Limerick, and the decade when Hollywood documented the glories of hurling for US cinema

It would be nice to imagine that the two stars were sharing a fond word — the consensus is that Ring was passing a barbed comment on the quality of Mackey’s umpiring after he had failed to disallow a Tipperary goal which was scored after the Cork goalkeeper was barged into the net.

Mackey also trained club teams and was the trainer of the Limerick team which won the 1955 Munster Championship. It was an entirely unexpected success.

Clare had entered the final as strong favourites. Dermot Kelly, one of the players on the Limerick team, recalled Mackey’s input on the day, saying: “He got up on a table and spoke to us like I have never heard anyone speak since. It was so moving we knew we had to win.”

It is one of the finer traditions of the GAA to believe that the men of today are not fit to lace the boots of those of yesteryear. So it is that in the Irish Times sports pages of March 23, 1965, Mick Mackey was quoted as saying that hurling had been in decline since 1940, the year he won his last All-Ireland.

Hurling,” he said, “is too timid these days.

In the same 1965 article, Jim ‘Tough’ Barry, who trained every Cork All-Ireland hurling winning team from 1926 until the 1960s, agreed, saying: “Nearly everybody now admits that the game is not as good as it was.”

As the years passed, the hurlers of the 1930s were brought together at occasional reunions and awards ceremonies and at golf outings. Mostly, though, and increasingly, they met at funerals, as they buried the men whom they had played against.

In 1975, when John Keane, the great Waterford centre back, knew he was dying, he set off for Kilkenny and stayed the night with the great Jim Langton.

He went then to Cork to hurlers he had played against and on to Tralee where the old Limerick hurler, Jackie Power, was living.

The following day he set off for Limerick to meet Mick Mackey. He died on the way. It was a powerful statement of the comradeship of the hurlers of the 1930s.

This was a decade which showed the great potential of hurling to expand its boundaries and to create new possibilties for the game.

There are echoes of this year in that the spread of great matches broadened from a narrow context between two great teams into something more compelling.

Across these summers, Limerick hurlers harnessed that change — and drove it — and in the process won All-Irelands and earned a place in history that is conferred on only a few teams.

They were impelled by a sense of desire and destiny. They played without fear. And they played expecting to win.

These are traits that are apparent in the current Limerick team. History never repeats itself, but its resonances are real.

The current Limerick team is emphatically shaped by the demands of the present, but it bears also the marks of the county’s past.

- Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD and his new book The Hurlers is published on September 6.

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