Tipperary and Kilkenny’s great rivalry a century in the making

It’s the morning of the 1916 All-Ireland hurling final. The Tipperary hurlers are in Dublin — they walk down the quays and turn left onto Sackville Street.

All around them lies the wreckage of the Rising that had taken place the previous Easter. Whole stretches of buildings along the street — and along the other streets leading off it — are missing. The pounding of British artillery and the fires that swept the area had laid waste to the commercial heart of the city.

The players move down Sackville Street to the GPO. They gather silently in front of its ruins. And they recite a decade of the Rosary in honour of the rebels who had fought there.

The hurlers then head north towards Croke Park where they are due to meet Kilkenny, the dominant power in hurling and expected to win again today.

But there is a quiet confidence in Tipperary that an upset is on the way. Against the backdrop of war, this is a day for hurling. And a big crowd is heading to Croke Park for the game.

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The road to Dublin was no straightforward one.

The Tipperary hurlers were almost all from the club of Boherlahan, a rural parish in south Tipperary, near Cashel. At that juncture, counties were represented by the club who had won the local senior club championship. That club could then choose to augment its ranks by pulling in some of the best players they had played against.

This process had begun illegally from the time of the very first All-Ireland championships in 1887, but had now been legitimised. Sometimes the county champions pulled in just a few players, but the more ambitious ones were unafraid to pull in as many as were deemed necessary. This could, of course, create inevitable discontent in the county champion club among players who were now left to one side. Striking a balance was no easy matter.

On this occasion, the demands were even greater than usual. Boherlahan had won the Tipperary championship, but there was rancour in their victory. In winning, they had deposed Toomevara, the team that had dominated the championship for several years.

Led their outstanding Pat ‘Wedger’ Meagher, the Toomevara ‘Greyhounds’ were celebrated as the great glamour team of those years. They won no All-Ireland final, but were hugely admired for the style and speed of their hurling.

The rise of Boherlahan in 1914 and 1915 hastened the demise of Toomevara, however, and the fact that this part of demise involved objection and counter-objection in the boardroom, left a certain bitterness in the air.

After Boherlahan won the Tipperary county final in front of 7,000 people at the end of August, they earned the right to choose the team that would represent Tipperary. But no man from Toomevara would play with Boherlahan — and it’s not clear that they would have been wanted.

Instead, the Boherlahan hurlers were joined in representing Tipperary by a couple of hurlers from Thurles, Holycross, and Twomileborris.

Don’t miss the Irish Examiner GAA Podcast. Daithi Regan, Tadhg O’Connor, Eddie Keher, Eamonn Murphy and PM O’Sullivan join Peter McNamara to discuss the Kilkenny v Tipperary All-Ireland hurling final.

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It was never going to be enough for the men from Boherlahan to merely win a county championship. The All-Ireland was their ultimate aim — and it had to be.

Back in the dying years of the 19th century, Tubberadora — a small townland in the parish of Boherlahan — had entered the Tipperary championship as a team in its own right. They did not merely win that championship but, amazingly, their team went on and won three All-Irelands in four years between 1896 and 1899.

Drawn from just a couple of households, this was a fabled team whose fame transcends the decades. Such was their sense of themselves, they retired undefeated from competition after the 1898 All-Ireland final on the premise that, like Alexander the Great, they had no known worlds left to conquer.

The men of Boherlahan now hurled in the shadow of that glory. More than that, there was a physical reminder of those years: the old blue and gold-banded jerseys that had been worn back in the 1890s were now brought out again for a new generation.

The essential point is that they needed to win an All-Ireland. And, of course, to do that, they first had to win Munster. The first game was against Kerry and it was a washout. Kerry were being hammered until “their hurlers walked off the grounds in a shower of rain”. Limerick were dispatched in the semi-final and in the Munster final Tipperary hammered Cork by five goals to one goal and two points. It was a relentless, crushing performance. If Toomevara had been known for the style of their hurling, the men from Boherlahan were now becoming renowned for the ferocity of their play. And, with Galway annihilated in the semi-final, they were now in an All-Ireland final.

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But so, of course, were Kilkenny, the dominant power in hurling since the beginning of the 20th century.

There had been nothing inevitable about this dominance. Kilkenny had won no All-Ireland before 1900 and, initially, it had been a county given largely to Gaelic football.

All was now changed. Kilkenny built a hurling dynasty in the years between 1904 and 1913 when they won seven All-Ireland championships. They managed to win a Leinster football championship in the same spell, but there was now no denying that Kilkenny was now a hurling power without peer.

More than that, as Mark Duncan has written, these were the years in which something happened in Kilkenny that ensured that hurling was accorded a status that has underpinned everything that has happened since. It was then, for example, that the black-and-amber striped jersey was adopted as the jersey to be worn by every team that took the field to represent Kilkenny.

Photographs of these stripy men, siting proudly on All-Ireland Sunday, were published in the newspapers and hung on walls in family homes and public houses.

And in 1916 they were back as Leinster champions. The previous two years had seen them supplanted by the hurlers of Laois, who had been beaten by Clare in the 1914 All-Ireland final, before returning in 1915 to win the county’s only ever title.

It was a victory based in extraordinary levels of training with players going every day to Maryborough (now Portlaoise), their jobs being filled by men who were paid to substitute for them.

The whole enterprise was backed by a level of fundraising and general organisation unprecedented in the GAA.

When defeated by Laois in 1914, Kilkenny had been extremely gracious to the rising underdogs. Defeat in 1915 had not been well-taken, however — indeed, Kilkenny were consumed in the bitterness of their defeat that they had objected to the result on the most flimsy of grounds. And still they lost.

By 1916, though, they could countenance no further loss and duly wept through Leinster and into the All-Ireland final. Led by the legendary Sim Walton, the hurlers were predominantly from the Tullaroan club. And the newspapers were filled with comment on what promised to be an epic final.

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The final was fixed for December 3, 1916. It wasn’t played.

The repercussions of rebellion were continuing to reshape Irish life. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, the GAA had issued a strong statement denying that it had any hand or part in what had happened. More than that, the leading officials in Croke Park had entered into negotiations with the British government about receiving an exemption from taxation.

A delegation from the GAA had even met General John Maxwell Sir the military commander who had overseen the executions of the rebel leaders in Dublin in a bloodthirsty sequel to the Rising Sir and asked that he use his power to allow the GAA have special trains put on by railway companies to bring players and spectators to big matches across the country.

Later, in 1918, these meetings with Maxwell and the British government were condemned by the GAA’s annual congress when nationalist sentiment in the association swelled in line with the rest of the country.

But, at the time, there was no condemnation.

This is not to say that there were not elements of the GAA who had immediately understood that everything had changed with the rebellion in Dublin. For example, when Tipperary had played a tournament final against Laois in the months after the 1916 Rising, they had taken to the field wearing green, white and orange armbands bearing the slogan ‘Remember Tone.’ They were hugely applauded by those who turned out.

And in the ranks of the Tipperary hurlers were men who would ultimately fight for the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence of 1919-21.

As it turned out, the attempts to secure special trains in 1916 failed and the GAA moved to postpone the playing of the 1916 All-Ireland in December in the hope that this might change over Christmas.

Eventually, however, it was decided to play the final on 21 January 1917. By then most of the GAA players and officials who had been arrested after the Rising had been released. Included among them was the President of the GAA, James Nowlan, who was a Kilkenny man.

Nowlan had nothing to do with the Rising, but the incompetence of the British military response had included him in the list of suspects to be rounded up.

In time, the random incompetence of the internments and the exuberance of the welcome for those who arrived home from prison to the cheering of huge crowds and the waving of tricolours contributed significantly to the radicalisation of GAA members.

But on 21 January 1917 — All-Ireland Sunday — it was hurling that mattered more than anything else.

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The Tipperary team was led out onto the field by their captain, Johnny Leahy. He was the best known member of an extraordinary family whose entanglement in hurling and in politics was legion. Playing alongside him on the team was his brother Paddy. Two other brothers — Mick and Tommy — also later won All- Ireland medals.

A fifth brother — Jimmy — was Officer Commanding of the 2nd Tipperary Brigade in the War of Independence. He lost the sight of an eye on an attack on Borrisoleigh Barracks during that war, which restricted his hurling career but no less an authority than the great Tom Semple deemed Jimmy to have been “the handiest of them all”.

Whatever about that, when Johnny Leahy took the field in Croke Park, it was a wet day and the ground was heavy. The area in front of terrace known as Hill 60 — so-called after a recent battle in World War One, though renamed Hill 16 in the 1930s — was particularly wet, even boggy.

The upshot was a war of attrition, particularly in the early stages. For 16 minutes no score arrived. But then Tipperary landed a goal and “hats and caps went soaring skywards”. The goal was enough to help Tipperary into a half-time lead of 1-2 to 0-1.

In the minutes after half-time, Kilkenny raised their game to a level which had come to define them. They pummelled Tipperary and the Tipp men seemed to have no answer. The hurling, recorded one journalist, “was magnificent and thrilling in the extreme”. Three goals flowed in and Kilkenny now led by five points with 10 minutes to go.

A bookmaker working in the ground began to shout long odds against a Tipperary victory, but as the inimitable journalist ‘Carbery’ wrote: “Little did he know Tipperary and he lived to regret his rashness.”

Led by Johnny Leahy, a Tipperary resurgence turned the game on its head. One report noted how “the representatives of the old scientific school of hurling were hustled and bustled and dazzled out of its form by the rush and flash of what can only be described as the personification of Kickham’s ‘Magnificent Tipperary’.” Against scenes of unrestrained joy, they powered through the Kilkenny defence and rattled in goals of their own. It was enough for them to claim victory by 5-4 to 4-2.

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The newspapers after the game were filled with admiration for the power and determination and sheer drive of the Tipperary players. There was no doubting that their physical approach to the contest had won the day.

Seamus Leahy, the nephew of Johnny Leahy and a GAA historian of distinction, recalls what happened after the final whistle blew: “A feature of the game had been the ferocity of the duel between the two captains. When the final whistle was blown the pair sought each other out and the verbal exchange became part of the lore of hurling finals. ‘We were better hurlers than ye, Leahy,’ said the Kilkenny captain. The Tipperary captain did not disagree but he was not without an answer. ‘But we were the better men, Sim,’ he replied.”

And Seamus Leahy also recalls what happened next when news of the victory was relayed to Cashel: People from Boherlahan and other nearby parishes had gathered to hear the result. They now celebrated by lighting tar-barrels and by marching through the town led by a Fife and Drum band. The team arrived home the following day and were met by a huge crowd, and more music. The players were carried shoulder-high to a reception. They had broken the Kilkenny stranglehold.

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In the days after the 1916 All-Ireland hurling final, the celebrated GAA journalist and author Phil O’Neill — who wrote for many years under the pseudonym ‘Sliabh Ruadh’ — penned a ballad celebrating the victory and sent it by post to the winning captain, Johnny Leahy.

The ballad — sung to the air of the ‘Rising of the Moon’ — ends

Then here’s to Tipperary,

To her hurlers bold and brave,

To her homesteads bright and cheery,

Where they never reared a slave.

And a toast I give you, And let each one fill a can.

Here’s many more All-Irelands To the boys from Boherlahan.

Later, in 1931, when O’Neill wrote his history of this crucial period in the development of the GAA, he included that ballad and sent a copy of his celebrated work to Boherlahan. The inscription inside read: ‘To Captain Johnny Leahy — a worthy representative of Kickham’s County.’

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Across south Tipperary — and particularly in Boherlahan — the stories of this epic final victory continue to resonate, not least the story of the hurlers praying outside the GPO on their way to Croke Park.

Several of the sons and daughters of men who played in that final are alive and they cherish the medals won that day with huge pride.

The impact of their success can still be felt today. Rody Dwan recalls how his father Tom — a Holycross man who played with Thurles — was the goalkeeper on the team.

Rody was born after Tom married when he was 50. He recalls going to Tipp matches with his father, and remembers his father listening to matches broadcast on the radio and, later still, watching matches on the television.

And always his father shouted at the players to let fly on the ground, giving out about the fixation with rising the ball.

Most of all Rody remembers his father — and his uncle Willie, who also played for Tipperary — joining the dozens of boys from Thurles and Holycross who gathered on Sunday afternoons in the 1950s and 1960s to play hurling in the field in front of their farm.

One of his father’s old hurleys — used when he was playing for Tipperary — was broken in one of those front-field games and Tom Dwan cherishes the momento of what remains.

And, more than anything, he cherishes the medal won by his father in the 1916 All-Ireland hurling final: ‘That medal is the most important possession I have.’

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And time eased any strains generated on the field. Local lore recalls that when Sim Walton wanted a safe house for Republicans on the run during the War of Independence, he brought them across the county border and into the home of his old adversary in Boherlahan, Johnny Leahy.

The two men sat around the kitchen table, and talked of hurling and farming and politics. They stopped when it was time for the cows to be milked and for Sim Walton to head back to Tullaroan.

They had hurled against each other in a time of war — but were bound together by the field that they had once shared and by their shared politics of revolution.



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