Kilkenny man Dermot Kavanagh has written a comprehensive history of the competition, chartering its halcyon days in the 1950s and ‘60s to its dramatic decline in the 2000s.
Hailing from Rower-Inistioge, Kavanagh’s love for the Railway Cup stems back to when his hero Ollie Walsh, then 19, came on a substitute for Leinster in the 1957 final against Munster. He remembers as a child being promised he would be brought to finals providing he behaved himself and how representing one’s province was “the equivalent of an international cap”.
However, he accepts they are now on their last legs. “It’s the last throw of the dice for it now but if the club hurling final was moved to Thurles and the final played before that, it might work. Thurles is more or less halfway for everyone so it’s ideal and the same could be done for football.
“The last big crowd at a Railway Cup final was in Thurles in 1994 when Leinster and Connacht preceded the All-Ireland semi-final replay between Sarsfields and Toomevara. There isn’t usually much crossover between the club finals and the Railway Cup in terms of players. I think if it doesn’t work that way, then it’ll never work. It has been a tremendous competition but that’s the way it is.”
From the introduction of the All-Stars in 1971 to a rise in the amount of live TV games, Kavanagh has heard all sorts of theories behind the demise of the Railway Cup. He has his own thoughts.
“In 1950, there was a trip to America put up for the winners of the National League to boost them. The Railway Cup final was drawing 45,000. The All Stars didn’t kill off the Railway Cup — they were like the Lions. There was no match report carried and sure it was grand if a fella from your club was an All Star but that was it. There were trial matches for the Railway Cup teams. At one time, Kilkenny would have played the rest of Leinster.
“(Christy) Ring retiring did have an effect — he was such a draw. Lar Foley was too — he was a pin-up — but what killed it altogether was changing the dates and playing them in places like Cavan in 1983. It moved from February to October to other months at the end of the year and people just lost interest, but then the GAA had lost interest themselves.
“Former presidents like Paddy Buggy and Liam O’Neill have said while the players are interested, it has a future but it’s like they have to say that because they can’t be knocking their own competition. It’s a pity.
“There was a time when people like myself were consumed with picking Railway Cup teams. Fellas picked for teams would have a pep in their step.
“People have just got used to not going. It was, of course, on St Patrick’s Day and people came to Dublin to take in the parade and then head to Croke Park. But then everyone started hosting their own parade and there was no mass exodus to the capital.
“The Railway Cup had a certain democracy to it. You had players like Willie Walsh from Carlow playing for Leinster and for a while they were regarded as tokenistic but they always provide their worth.”
Kavanagh’s Rower-Inistioge claimed an All-Ireland intermediate club title two years ago but he was left a little cold by how the team and management were treated by officials on their big day in Croke Park. He’s not sure giving clubs such centre stage has been a success. Perhaps, the interprovincials could enjoy a revival similar to the equivalent in rugby?
“In Lansdowne Road in December 1978, Leinster and Munster played the final match of the interpros. It was attended by 300 people and the following day the future of it was being questioned in the press. Now that same fixture has shown to be able to fill Croke Park. Put Munster and Leinster in Nowlan Park this weekend and you might only get 250 people at it. A combination of circumstances has led to that but things can change.”