Myshall’s Naomh Eoin were punters favourites to record their fourth county championship win in the 1978 decider against St Mullins, and a large crowd converged on Dr Cullen Park in expectation of a fire and brimstone encounter between the two neighbours and heavyweights of Carlow hurling. The initial tie was played some time at the end of September, but little did the players or spectators know that it would be close to Christmas before any silverware was hoisted.
“That final went to three draws and a replay,” recalls Carlow County Board secretary, Ger Lennon.
Hailing from St Mullins, Lennon’s interest in the saga was heightened game after game, fortnight after fortnight, until eventually, Naomh Eoin prevailed.
“Through the games it was touch and go. Naomh Eoin eventually won by two points the fourth day out.
“There was huge interest that time and it was building up game after game. It created a bit of a profile about hurling in Carlow. It took eight weeks to play off a county final and I think a national league game or two would have been played in between them. You wouldn’t see many county finals drawn twice, never mind three times.
“Every second day it was one team pegging back the other. The first day it was close all through, the second day St Mullins led, the third day Naomh Eoin led. It was a case of every second day one team would peg the other back. The fourth day it was low-scoring, getting into winter at that stage. People still talk about the 1978 final, there was that much interest.”
Thereafter, Lennon asserts that the showpiece event of Carlow hurling has drawn spectators from all quarters. For the small ball enthusiasts of the South East, it is a date pencilled in from the outset of the summer.
“You had huge interest from the bordering counties for the 1978 final. Even two years ago the Carlow hurling final was played the same day as the Wexford hurling final and we had people from Rathnure coming up for our hurling final, because there was more interest in ours.”
The drama of 1978 aside, it was a terrific decade for the Carlow venue with several high-profile hurling fixtures being played out on its hallowed turf.
Lennon remembers Tony Doran in action during the league semi-final clash of Kilkenny and Wexford, at a time when their rivalry was at its most intense. The game, in keeping with the trend of outcomes at Dr Cullen Park, ended in a draw, though it only required only one further outing to separate the pair.
“The crowds were huge for both games because it was unusual for a national league semi-final to be played there. I remember going to the matches and I would have been coming from South Carlow, the hurling area of the county, and the traffic was crazy because we would be going along with traffic coming from Wexford and Kilkenny. For a league match there were tailbacks going back miles.”
One further encounter from the 70s that stands out for the county board secretary was the meeting of St Rynagh’s and Rathnure in the Leinster club hurling final of 1972. The crowds may have been smaller, but the quality was certainly of the highest order. Indeed, the result marked the first green shoots of Offaly hurling and the glorious spell that would ensue.
“There would’ve been several Leinster club hurling finals played at Dr Cullen Park. St Rynagh’s beat Rathnure in the final and it was a bit of a surprise because Rathnure were strong at the time and they had a few great hurlers. Then again St Rynagh’s had Padraig Horan among others.”
In more recent times, Dr Cullen Park had the honour of hosting the first Friday evening fixture in the history of the football championship, but it paled by comparison to preparations prior to the 2003 All-Ireland minor football final replay landing on Carlow’s doorstep.
“Probably the biggest day at Dr Cullen Park was that minor football final replay involving Dublin and Laois. There were 17,000 at it, a full house and huge preparations went into hosting that game. There was a great atmosphere and I remember Laois winning the game because right throughout all the neutrals were shouting for them.”
Given the mammoth effort that went into staging the game, Lennon was more than pleased to see a winner emerge. On this occasion, a replay was certainly not the desired result.