Obituary: In a new era of Gaelic games, the Railway Cup ran out of line

The cancellation of this year’s interpros looks to have sounded the death-knell for a once-great GAA competition, writes John Fogarty.

Obituary: In a new era of Gaelic games, the Railway Cup ran out of line

When Kilkenny man Dermot Kavanagh went about putting together the history of the Railway Cup hurling last year, he still held out hope that it might not serve as a eulogy to the competition.

“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,” he told this newspaper 12 months ago.

“Thurles is more or less halfway for everyone so it’s ideal and the same could be done for football. 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.”

Alas, now that Connacht have pulled out and the GAA have more or less confirmed the competition will not be taking place for the second time in three years (in 2015, it was cancelled because of Storm Desmond), it certainly appears the age-honoured competition is no more.

Kavanagh’s The Story of Interprovincial Hurling — Railway Shield, Tailteann Games, Railway Cup 1905-2015 is an important chronicling of the rise and the demise of an annual gathering that was once so highly regarded.

Attendances were more than healthy too. In 1954, there were 49,000 at the final matches in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day. The sight of Christy Ring in Munster and Des Foley in Leinster colours were major draws.

Without television, the mystique that surrounded players of such quality grew but could only be confirmed in the flesh.

The vitality of the competition remained strong until the late 1970s when the finals starting to lose their berth in Croke Park.

Bringing the deciders to Cavan in 1983 was a failure when few stayed on to watch the hurling game between Leinster and Connacht.

After that, the matches alternated between spring and autumn and the lack of certainty impacted on interest in it — it did not take place in 1990 as it was suspended for review. Kavanagh’s last recollection of a big attendance at a hurling final was in 1994 when the Connacht-Leinster game preceded the All-Ireland senior club hurling final in Thurles.

Munster were by far and away the most successful hurling team, capturing 46 championships, the last of them in 2016. However, Leinster have been marginally the most prosperous province this century, claiming seven titles to Munster’s six, to bring their overall total to 29. Connacht, who have been either all or predominantly Galway, lifted the trophy on 11 occasions, the last of them in 2004.

In its later years, Ulster’s commitment to the Railway Cup has been exemplary. Although they never claimed the hurling title, finishing runners-up on four occasions, they topped the honours list in football with 32, four ahead of Leinster, 17 more than Munster, and 22 better than Connacht whose 2014 success ended a 45-year gap.

Leinster had been dominant up until the 1990s, from where they would claim six more titles compared to Ulster who landed 14, which included a five-in-a-row between 1991 and ’95 reflecting the province’s revival in the All-Ireland SFC, as did their five wins in the 2000s. Sadly, rather than illustrating their might on the inter-county scene, Ulster’s triumphs of late have had more to do with putting out a better team than opponents with the call to wear provincial colours rarely ignored.

The original cups were donated by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company and Iarnód Eireann sponsored the competition from 1991 to ’93. In 2003, with interest in the championship flagging, successful Clare businessman Martin Donnelly agreed to sponsor the event, doing so up for an 11-year period.

Although the competition lost its spring status because of the National Leagues starting and finishing in the calendar year, Donnelly’s involvement gave the competition impetus. The 2003 hurling final was staged in Rome, the following year’s football decider in Paris. In 2005, Munster’s hurlers beat Leinster to take the crown in Canton, Massachusetts and Leinster’s footballers were victorious in the final against Connacht at the same venue outside Boston the following year. In 2006, the hurling final was played prior to the first International Rules test in Pearse Stadium. Three year later, the hurling semi-finals and final took place in Abu Dhabi, only for the Railway Cup not to then take place in 2010 and ‘11 again for a review.

Unlike the All-Stars tour exhibition games, the matches were at least competitive but they never piqued enough curiosity on home soil. In his time as GAA president, Christy Cooney never made any secret of his belief that the interprovincial series had passed their sell-by date.

In 2012, Ulster captain, Monaghan’s Darren Hughes, jibed Cooney on the steps of Armagh’s Athletic Grounds as he accepted the cup from him for the province’s final win over Munster — “let’s hope Christy doesn’t get his way”.

Cooney, though, was only calling it like he saw it. Current GAA president Aogán Farrell has voiced his support for the competition although director general Páraic Duffy questioned the reason with continuing with it, when attendances were so poor — last year just 100 people paid into watch the football final in Carrick-on-Shannon while, despite the array of talent on show, only 562 people attended the hurling final between Munster and Leinster in Semple Stadium.

Twelve months ago, former Kilkenny star defender Tommy Walsh, whose affection for the Railway Cup, a competition he won six times, never dimed, was resigned to it dying. He suggested the demands of inter-county had knocked it. “Back in the day when the Railway Cup was going really well, I’d say teams went back training in March, April, May whereas now you’ve guys training in November and December trying to get everything right. Everything is geared towards the small percentage to win a match. Then throw in the club championships, which are just as important.”

Undoubtedly, the growing importance of the inter-county and club scene has crushed the idea of representative Gaelic games but then the provincial demarcation lines have been blurred too. Galway have been a part of the Leinster senior hurling championship since 2009. Antrim have in the recent past been part of a Leinster qualifying group. The demise of the knockout nature of the All-Ireland senior inter-county championships would also have had a knock-on effect on the Railway Cup when previously leading players in some counties would only have played one prominent match between the end of one league and the beginning of the next.

Kavanagh’s idea about returning the Railway Cup finals to their original St Patrick’s Day slot has been shared by former Armagh manager Joe Kernan but Croke Park’s patience with the competition waned significantly after Donnelly stepped away in 2014. Donnelly last week bemoaned how rugby now has annexed the provincial element of Irish sport. Similar to how the State of Origin games in Australian Rules football have fallen by the wayside, so too now have the GAA’s interprovincials.

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