Christy Ring made his championship debut for the Cork senior hurlers in 1940. They were dark days for the county.
In Munster, Limerick, spearheaded by the swashbuckling Mick Mackay, had their number. They beat them in a replay in that year’s Munster final, and went on to pocket their third All-Ireland title in six years. Cork hadn’t won an All-Ireland since 1931, a bewildering state of affairs for the county’s faithful. Kilkenny, over the same period, had bagged four.
All changed in 1941. Due to an outbreak of Foot and Mouth, the All-Ireland series had to be dismantled. With Tipperary and Kilkenny ravaged in particular by the disease, Cork and Dublin were sent forward to contest the deferred hurling final, which was held on 28 September, three weeks after the football final.
Cork trounced Dublin by 20 points and by seven points when the pair met in the final again the following year. Antrim became the first Ulster team to reach an All-Ireland final in 1943 but wilted. This time the Leesiders prevailed by 27 points and so became the first team since Dick Walsh’s 1913 Kilkenny team to win three All-Ireland hurling finals in-a-row.
To pass through the door for “four”, they had to overcome old nemesis Limerick in the 1944 Munster final. It proved an epic struggle. Mick Mackey, who had been playing senior hurling for Limerick since 1929, was on fire, whipping over points from acute angles and pitching in with two goals. After scoring his second one, he ambled past his marker, 22-year-old debutant Con Murphy, a future president of the GAA, and smiled: “They’ll surely be taking you off now.”
Johnny Quirke, who was born in Milltown, Co Kerry, but had been playing hurling for Cork almost as long as Mackay had been for Limerick, was equally inspired, scoring his third goal in the final minutes to pull Cork a point clear, but at the death Dick Stokes equalised for Limerick.
The replay caused huge excitement. With the country ravaged by war-time petrol restrictions, thousands set off for Semple Stadium by improvised means of transport. Peter Ryan, a 65-year-old man, walked 40 miles from Lisnagry to Thurles. Some families went to Pythonesque “Four Yorkshiremen” proportions.
“I met a man and his young sons at Thurles who had cycled from Cork,” wrote an Irish Press columnist. “As all the hotels and guest houses were full, these brave travellers slept the Saturday night in a hay barn. On the way to Thurles the chain of the 15-year-old boy’s cycle broke. His two companions made sugán ropes in a field, tied his bike to their own and towed him the rest of the way to Thurles.”
With seven minutes left in the match it looked as if Cork were done for. Trailing by four points, Mackay burst through for his second goal, but, in the days before the advantage rule, play was called back for a foul on him. Limerick missed the resulting free. Cork nicked a goal and a point to equalise.
With a minute left, Mackay’s effort for a winning point went wide. Seconds later, Ring picked up the sliotar in his own half and set off up field, slipped past a series of challenges and, from 40 yards out, crashed the ball to the net. “Someone asked him,” maintained his team-mate Din Joe Buckley, “why he had not taken a point to win the game. ‘Anyone could do that,’ he said.”
Ring won his fourth All-Ireland medal that September, when Cork overcame Dublin again. In total, nine of the team played in each of the four wins, excluding Tom Mulcahy, the team’s goalkeeper in ’43 and ’44, a plumber by trade, who later advertised his business with the tagline: “He used to stop goals, now he stops leaks”.
They were, unsurprisingly, a tight band of players — except when it came to club rivalries. Niall Tóibín, who was born in 1929, and grew up on the same street as Jack Lynch, recalls stormy affairs: “I remember Din Joe Buckley nearly taking the head off a fella called Ted O’Sullivan, who played for Midleton. He went down like a log. There was kind of a terrible silence. He managed to get up again. Oh, they were rough games. You wouldn’t get away with it now.”
Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin, the radio broadcaster who played for Dublin for a decade from 1943, including the All-Ireland final in 1948, concurred.
Before his death last year, he recalled a church fundraising game he played against Mackay’s Ahane in ’43 in which his club-mates “belted him right, left and centre” as he made his journey towards goal.
“Hurling at the time was very physical,” he said. “The emphasis was on strength and durability. Nobody wants to hit the ball first time today. The idea of hand-passing balls never entered our minds.”
“There was a lot of holding by backs,” adds Micheál Ó Muircheartiagh. “That lasted until the late sixties until the game was freed up more and gave a greater scope to forwards.”
Tipp put a stop to Cork’s gallop in 1945, knocking them out of the Munster championship, although Cork came back to win another All-Ireland title in 1946, a day when Jack Lynch, having won a medal with the footballers in ’45, picked up his sixth winners’ medal on the trot, a record which has never been equalled.
Lynch, who, of course, went on to become Taoiseach, was the four-in-a-row team’s totem; in the early 1940s, crowds hadn’t yet begun to tingle when Ring took the pitch. Those days came, perhaps, after his fabled soloed goal against Kilkenny in the ’46 All-Ireland final.
How good were that four-in-row team? Some look past them towards Tipp’s team in the mid-1960s, which went two-and-a-half seasons unbeaten. Indeed, Mackay argued his Limerick side were better, as Cork only faced an aging Dublin side and a stage-frightened Antrim one in their All-Ireland finals. But didn’t Kilkenny’s recent four-in-a-row crop face callow outfits from Limerick and Waterford in two of their All-Ireland finals? The last word will only come if someone ever manages five-a-row. And that will be a while coming.
Cork’s four in a row: 1941-44
The season was a shambles. Tipperary, who had beaten Waterford, had to withdraw from the All-Ireland championship because of Foot and Mouth disease. People from Tipp and Kilkenny, the two worst-hit counties, were advised against travelling so the GAA’s central council “nominated” Cork – who had thrashed a Limerick side short of the Mackey brothers and Paddy Clohessy – and Dublin to contest the All-Ireland final, which Cork won by a canter – 5-11 to 0-6.
In a deferred Munster final, held in October at Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds, Tipp beat Cork 5-4 to 2-5.
Interestingly, Willie O’Donnell, who had referred the All-Ireland final, picked off 2-4 for the winners.
Cork beat Limerick in the Munster semi-final, 4-8 to 5-3. A late point by Charlie Tobin, when he doubled on the sliotar, say the history books, with one hand from 50 yards, was the game’s pivotal score. In the Munster final, smarting from their loss the year before, they thrashed Tipp 4-15 to 4-1.
For the All-Ireland final, Cork’s team lined out with seven debutants. Amongst other retirements, Connie Buckley, captain in ’41, had taken the emigrants’ boat to England. Jack Lynch, the losing captain in the 1939 All-Ireland final, raised the Liam MacCarthy Cup after Cork overcame a game Dublin side, 2-14 to 3-4.
Antrim were the story of the year. Although they failed to score a point in their All-Ireland quarter-final, they edged Galway 7-0 to 6-2, and ambushed Kilkenny, 3-3 to 1-6, in Belfast’s Corrigan Park in the semi-final.
Dublin was flooded with Ulster folk for the final, the largest crowd to witness Cork in a final to date, but the Antrim team, overawed, went down 5-16 to 0-4.
Mick Kennefick, Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s father-in-law, was only 19, the youngest ever All-Ireland-winning captain. An incredible talent, the previous year, as a 17-year-old rookie, he was detailed to mark Mick Mackey in the Munster championship.
Cork’s procession began with a win over Tipp in the Munster semi-final. After drawing with Limerick, 6-7 to 4-13, they edged them in the replay, 4-6 to 3-6. In the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, Sean Condon saved Cork blushes. Playing a captain’s role he knocked over eight points to steal a win by 1-10 to 3-3. Joe Kelly, runner-up in that year’s Irish Sprint Championships, filleted Dublin in the All-Ireland final, scoring 2-3 of Cork’s tally of 2-13. He played in two other All-Ireland finals before taking up priestly duties in New Zealand.
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