Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the National Hurling League final between Kilkenny and Tipperary, one of the most controversial clashes in GAA history, writes Enda McEvoy
Michael Walsh was seven years of age. Old enough to realise something was wrong, not old enough to realise exactly what or why.
All he knew was that his Daddy had been suspended by the GAA.
“It was a very strange time,” he says, recalling the events of half a century ago. “There was tension around the place. But at home it was very low key. My parents made sure of that.”
The record books state that Tipperary won the 1968 National Hurling League Home final against Kilkenny by 3-9 to 1-13, having led by seven points at the interval following goals by Sean McLoughlin and Jimmy Doyle. The record books do not state what happened in the first half of the match. For most of the spectators in Croke Park, the result of the game amounted almost to an afterthought.
The real story lay in the enmity, the lawlessness and the poison.
“Toxic,” according to Pat Henderson, the Kilkenny centre-back.
“Sickening,” agrees Donie Nealon, the Tipperary midfielder. “It was the only day in my career I felt a little bit afraid on the field.”
The game, according to the Nenagh Guardian, was “marred somewhat by three or four minutes of dirty hurling in the second quarter. Both Len Gaynor and Ollie Walsh were felled by careless blows, blows which could have resulted in more serious injury.”
But nobody was as outspoken, or as outraged, as John D Hickey in the Irish Independent.
“Hurling took a beating... eight scandalous minutes... acts of violence that must have sickened every spectator of the 27,892 attendance with a shred of respect for the precepts of law and order, never mind the canons of good sportsmanship... would be punished with a punitive sentence if perpetrated in civilian life instead of on a sportsfield ... We have, I am convinced beyond all doubt, only Providence to thank that the frightening actions we saw did not have consequences that would startle us out of our complacency.”
What Hickey witnessed had not fallen out of the sky. Does the back story really have to be told at this stage?
Kilkenny’s inability to beat Tipperary in a national final between 1922 and 1966. The “Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipp for the men” syndrome. The incident in the New York hotel elevator in the mid-1960s when a couple of players from each side descended in such glowering silence that the American couple between them couldn’t wait to get out. The worm turning at last with Kilkenny’s victories in the 1966 National League and 1967 All-Ireland finals. The gradual discovery that the liberation of the men in stripes, instead of lancing the boil, merely increased the build-up of pus. The 1967 league encounter at a rambunctious Nowlan Park in front of a crowd of 20,000, with 36 frees awarded in the course of the hour, Mackey McKenna refusing to go anywhere near the Kilkenny square on the grounds that Pa Dillon was “sharpening his hurley in there”, Dillon and Babs Keating sent off near the end and one of the newspapers sniffing afterwards that “it would have been infinitely better for the image of the game of hurling” if the match had never been played.
The ensuing All-Ireland final, which Kilkenny finished without the services of both Eddie Keher, who would hurl again, and Tom Walsh, who wouldn’t.
“The last thing any of us needed was another big game against Kilkenny,” Babs Keating would declare in his autobiography.
The powder keg was ready to explode. On May 12, 1968 it did.
While the precise sequence of events is hazy, the following is not in dispute. Eddie Keher was struck twice by John Gleeson. Len Gaynor was struck by Keher. Ollie Walsh was struck by John Flanagan. Gleeson was struck by, farcically, the Kilkenny team doctor Kieran Cuddihy who, losing the rag after Keher had been felled the second time, ran in, clocked Gleeson and was ordered out the gate by the referee, Gerry Fitzgerald of
Here is an account of Gaynor/Keher in the words of the latter, who “had been stretched on a few occasions” by then. “He raced into the centre to meet a ball arriving behind the centre-back. I came in late to tackle and as I was arriving I saw that he was going to strike directly off his hurl rather than take it in his hand. I pulled behind, catching Len behind the ear with the lower handle of my hurl. This resulted in one of the many scuffles that took place in that game. He arose bloodied and bandaged to play a stormer.”
The real flashpoint, however, was Walsh/Flanagan. One photograph showed Flanagan, on the extreme right of the shot, departing the scene of the crime. Jim Treacy and Pa Dillon were looking in Flanagan’s direction, with Dillon about to make a beeline for him. Seán McLoughlin was in the centre of the photo.
Quoted in Dermot Kavanagh’s biography of Walsh four decades later, McLoughlin said that he himself played the role of peacemaker on the day, “a role that I was not accustomed to”. Jimmy Doyle, who was close by, declared that the incident was over and done with almost immediately.
Prior to the start of the second half Fitzgerald — he may have been acting independently or he may have received orders from on high; a rumour to the latter effect subsequently did the rounds — lectured both teams in the centre of the field. Whether it was that the players were listening or whether they’d got the nastiness out of their system, the second half passed off peacefully.
Gaynor was outstanding for the winners (“one of his best displays ever in the blue and gold jersey,” according to the Nenagh Guardian), with Keating on song too. In his autobiography, Babs would pay handsome tribute to Pat Henderson for ensuring he stayed on the field. When the trouble began he was about to get stuck in, only for Henderson to spot him and drag him away.
“Get out of it, you eejit, you got into enough trouble last year!”
Kieran Cuddihy, by day the regional state pathologist for the south east and a Dubliner who’d moved to Kilkenny in 1952, whereupon he became as fervent a hurling man as the locals, was no sooner out of Croke Park on foot of his banishment by Fitzgerald than the man on the gate let him back in. He sat behind the Kilkenny dugout, allegedly disguised in Paddy Grace’s hat. For a few weeks afterwards the joke went around that he should be given the freedom of the city. As the years went by the episode seemed less amusing to him and was not a story on which he dined out.
In different circumstances that might have been the end of it. John D Hickey helped ensure it wasn’t. He kept the pot boiling in Tuesday’s edition of the Irish Independent under the headline, “Juveniles did not deserve Croke Park ‘scenes’ - CENTRAL COUNCIL MUST ACT — Punitive measures now imperative”.
Think of the children, he implored — specifically the “hundreds of juvenile boy guests in the Nally Stand” who witnessed “Sunday’s shameful affair”, a match that “could do irreparable damage to the game if the Central Council does not take punitive measures to express its indignation about the whole sorry business”.
He was sick and tired, Hickey complained, of being told by certain authorities, “not without a distinct tone of chastisement in their voices, that it wasn’t all that bad. Such misguided ‘friends’ of the game are its real enemies. In this enlightened age, a time when ‘sacred cows’ are being assailed on all fronts, it is time for those responsible to face up to the duties of their offices. If they again turn the blind eye to what happened on Sunday, the Association could well find itself compelled to forfeit its hurling revival plan with a scheme to save the game from extinction.”
After that, Central Council had no option but to empanel a committee of investigation. Among the witnesses called was Ollie Walsh, who it was assumed was there to give evidence against John Flanagan. Such assumptions proved misplaced.
Both Walsh (“guilty of jabbing with the hurley”) and Flanagan (“guilty of striking with the hurley”) received a six-month suspension, with Keher and Gaynor cleared and Gleeson warned about his future conduct.
Where Walsh was concerned — according to Sean McLoughlin, he shouldn’t even have been summoned to the meeting — it was as patent a stitch-up as could have been imagined.
One conspiracy theory had it that the GAA were out to get him after he’d expressed his opposition to the Ban (on GAA members from playing or attending foreign sports) during the course of an appearance on The Late Late Show.
“Apparently I was supposed to be next in line if Ollie wasn’t suspended,” Pa Dillon reported years later. “There might have been some cause with me. With Ollie, none.”
Fury followed in Kilkenny, with an emotive special meeting of the county board hearing the Thomastown (Walsh’s club) representative propose that the county withdraw from the Leinster final. The atmosphere was so charged that Nicky Purcell, the chairman, adjourned the meeting for three days to allow tempers to cool. When it reconvened a letter from Walsh was read out.
In it he restated his innocence and requested that Kilkenny play the Leinster final. This they did, with Purcell pointing out that if they withdrew the real losers would be the provincial council, who were blameless.
Unsurprisingly their hearts weren’t in it and Wexford saw them off by 3-13 to 4-9. The year didn’t end happily for Tipperary either despite Mick Roche’s blinding first-half performance in the All-Ireland final. Donie Nealon has ever afterwards nursed his own what if.
“If only we’d had John Flanagan, who was young and strong and energetic, when Wexford came back at us in the second half...”
In a demonstration of solidarity with the victimised goalkeeper, the 1968 Kilkenny championship was held up while he served his suspension, the final eventually taking place on April 27, 1969.
“We find it difficult to know the reason for Ollie Walsh’s suspension,” Paddy Grace stated in his county secretary’s report, adding that the episode had had “an overwhelming effect on the Kilkenny team generally, and the morale of the players was adversely affected.”
For the rest of Walsh’s life, which ended prematurely on March 9, 1996, hurling was the main topic of conversation at home. But he never said a word about 1968.
The events of the 1968 National League Home final had different aftermaths in both counties and for entirely different reasons.
On Noreside the fury was aimed at the GAA authorities. Across the Munster river it was aimed at the national media.
The news of the suspensions resulted in the following statement from the Tipperary County Board. “The board
expresses complete dissatisfaction at the severity of the sentences imposed on both players and is also solid in its condemnation of all national press reports on the game. It also feels that the press reports created a climate of public opinion which helped in no small way to encourage Central Council to arrive at their decision.”
These were not empty words. The board blackballed six journalists: John D Hickey and Donal Carroll of the Irish Independent, Mick Dunne, Gerry McCarthy and Pádraig Puirséil of the Irish Press and Paddy Downey of The Irish Times. They were particularly irked with Hickey, one of their own. While all of the journalists had apportioned the bulk of the blame to Tipp, none had been as furiously condemnatory as the Thurles man.
For the Tipperary County Board to declare war on the media was a PR own-goal, but the journalists compounded the situation by trying to ban all mention of Tipperary.
The week before the All-Ireland final the Independent referred to the forthcoming showdown between Wexford and “you know who”. There was a pair of them in it.
“We were wrong,” Paddy Downey acknowledged of the journalists’ retaliatory stance in Keith Duggan’s book The Lifelong Season in 2004. “We felt we were doing the right thing at the time but no.”
The Tipp board lifted their ban the Wednesday after the All-Ireland final. The NUJ lifted theirs at the end of the year, claiming they “made their point”. Common sense came dropping slow. But in the end, it dropped.
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