Kilkenny: the making of a hurling tradition
By Mark Duncan
By 1913, the sight of Kilkenny teams winning All-Ireland hurling titles had become a familiar one. Success was greeted almost as a matter of routine - something to be expected. At least that's how it occurred to the legendary Dick ‘Droog’ Walsh: when pressed for a reaction to his team’s defeat of Tipperary in that year’s All-Ireland final - played on a wet November day at the GAA’s recently purchased grounds on Jones’s Road in Dublin - the Mooncoin man and Kilkenny captain responded that the he was glad, ‘but not surprised’.
It would have been strange if it had been otherwise. Kilkenny’s 2-4 to 1-2 victory helped deliver their third All-Ireland title in as many years and their seventh since the turn of the twentieth century.
This extraordinary run of success marked the effective birth of what would become a phenomenal Kilkenny hurling tradition. However, the story of the rise of Kilkenny hurling was neither inexorable nor without its casualties. It certainly took time for the appeal of the game to take hold in many parts, but once it did, and once it gathered strength, the effect would be to seriously weaken participation in other sports with well-established traditions in the county.
In the late 19th century, hurling was far from Kilkenny’s most popular sport. The game was certainly played, but not always to a standard that would endear it to the knowledgeable onlooker. Michael Cusack was one such observer. The GAA’s founder and principal propagandist had visited Kilkenny city in April 1887 and did little to conceal his disgust at what he encountered.
Writing in the pages of his own newspaper, The Celtic Times, Cusack voiced his dismay at the ‘pale, emaciated’ figures he encountered while walking through the streets of the city. On the steps of the Bank of Ireland, for instance, he came across a ‘crowd of persons, who probably call themselves men, slothfully reclining with their faces towards the sun,’ while ‘the huge pillars of the town hall supported the dead weight of a lot of fellows.’
His mood didn’t lighten when he reached the hurling field. There, a poorly attended game was being played out between two teams whose hurling was ‘the worst and most spiritless ever witnessed on an Irish hillside.’ At one point, as the game continued around them, a half dozen players took to lying on the ground to take a rest. It was, Cusack raged, a ‘contemptible perversion’ of the ancient game and enough to break the heart of the more serious hurling folk in Galway or Tipperary.
Merciless as Cusack’s verdict was, it offered only a partial picture of early GAA life within the county. Hurling was still passionately played in rural pockets like Tullaroan and Mooncoin and elsewhere Gaelic football thrived. Indeed, for a county that would become so synonymous with the development of hurling, Kilkenny occupies a unique place in the early development of Gaelic football. It was, after all, on a Fair Green in Callan in February 1885 that the first ever match under GAA rules was played, an encounter between Callan and Kilkenny that ended in an uninspiring scoreless draw.
And it would be football, not hurling, that would act as the initial driver of GAA activity within the county. The comparative appeal of the two codes was underlined when, following the establishment of a county board to administer GAA affairs in the county, the first Kilkenny club championships were held in 1887. Whereas the hurling competition attracted an entry of just four clubs, nineteen entered the football equivalent. And it was football of some quality: the winners of that local championship, Kilmacow - a team of ‘brawny countrymen’ from the south of the county - would progress to win the inaugural Leinster football championship, defeating the Blues and Whites from Wexford before 12,000 spectators in New Ross. This would be the first of three provincial football titles won by Kilkenny clubs in the three decades which followed immediately after the foundation of the GAA.
But if Gaelic football struck an immediate chord in Kilkenny, it was cricket that remained the most popular sport of all. Traditionally regarded as the pastime of a privileged elite, the sport enjoyed a broad, cross-class appeal in Kilkenny - as it did in counties such as Westmeath and Tipperary where it was extensively played in rural areas by farmers and farm labourers. By the mid 1890s, there were almost 50 cricket clubs in Kilkenny. Indeed, such was its pre-eminence within the local sporting life that, in 1895, a request was made through the pages of the Kilkenny People for cricketers to help out the GAA by turning out for football and hurling teams during their winter off-season.
So what happened to shift the power balance between cricket and hurling? No one event explains it; rather, it was a confluence of a number of contributory factors.
For a start, the GAA began to repair itself in the early 1900s after a dismal decade of division and decline which followed revelations of Charles Stewart Parnell's extra-marital affair and the consequent split in the Irish Party and wider nationalist movement. Led by new cohort of officials, among them Kilkenny’s James Nowlan as President, the GAA received an administrative overhaul which saw, amongst other things, the introduction of Provincial Councils, each with a responsibility for running its own football and hurling championships.
The re-born GAA not only became more efficient and business-like, it also acquired a new ideological purpose. It aligned itself with the rising tide of cultural nationalism and, in 1902, reinstated a ban on GAA membership for anyone who played rugby, soccer, cricket or hockey - games that were characterised as Anglicised and alien to native culture. It was a move that effectively scuppered any prospect of a harmonious co-existence between the GAA and any sport it considered its rival.
In Kilkenny, as elsewhere, sports like cricket got caught in the cultural cross-fire.
The effect was evident in the decline in the number of cricket clubs and in the hardening of attitudes to the sport among GAA members. When, for example, GAA members were found to be helping revive a cricket club in Castlecomer in 1911, a member of a neighbouring club wrote to the Kilkenny People to accuse them of being ‘Judases of Irish Ireland’, men intent on winning for themselves the ‘approval of those whose social status’ they would crave.
Better organisation on the part of the GAA and a more polarised cultural and political environment clearly played their part in the demise of cricket, but the rise of hurling was ultimately facilitated by the coming together of an extraordinary generation of hurlers.
Players like the aforementioned Dick ‘Droog’ Walsh from Mooncoin who captained three All-Ireland winning teams and took his nickname from the ballad ‘The bold dragoon’, which he was known to sing on formal occasions.
Like Dick Doyle, also from Mooncoin.
Like Jack Rochford, the famed full-back from Threecastles hurling club.
And like Sim Walton, from Tullaroan, who would later be described by the legendary GAA journalist and broadcaster, P.D. Mehigan, as one of the greatest forwards to play the game.
These four men would each compete in - and win - seven All-Ireland titles over the course of a glorious decade. But for a backdrop of inter-club feuding and general discord, it could well have been more. Tom Ryall, a historian of the GAA in Kilkenny, has gone so far as to speculate that Kilkenny might have won eleven All-Ireland titles in a row had a greater unity prevailed.
Whether or not they would have is debateable. What is not in doubt, however, is the contribution of Kilkenny hurling success during the early 20th century to the strengthening of a distinctive county identity.
For all the internal disputes that plagued the Kilkenny GAA during this period, through the adoption of unique county colours (the use of club jerseys was, by the time they began their three-in-a-row run in 1911, abandoned in favour of the now familiar black and amber stripes) and the encouragement of a supportive local press, the idea of an identity centred around hurling prowess began to take shape.
The 1913 All-Ireland winning team were therefore held up as standard-bearers not only for their clubs and for the Kilkenny GAA, but the county as a whole.
As the victorious team returned from Dublin by rail to Kilkenny city, they were greeted by scenes very different to that witnessed by Michael Cusack on his visit over a quarter of a century before. With tar barrels set alight along the route and a brass band and torchbearers leading the procession, the Kilkenny hurlers were escorted to the same town hall that had once, if Cusack is to believed, ‘supported the dead weight’ of local layabouts. On arrival, they were feted by the Mayor and Corporation of Kilkenny. A resolution of congratulation was passed and notice was given that the freedom of city be conferred on players who had done so much to bring distinction to their native county. They would not be the last.
Mark Duncan is a Director of Century Ireland and a founder of the InQuest Research Group.
His books include The GAA: A People’s History (2009) and The GAA: County by County (2011), both with Mike Cronin and Paul Rouse.