Ahead of Sunday's unique All-Ireland final clash between Galway and Waterford, a look at how Laois prepared for victory in 1915, including guards patrolling the team's hotel and controversy over the captaincy

By Dr Paul Rouse

The night before

On 24 October 1915, two dozen men from the Queen’s County stayed in a hotel on Gardiner Street in Dublin. They were the hurlers of Leix - as Queen’s County was then known in GAA circles - and they had travelled to the city by train to play the final of the All-Ireland hurling championship the following day.

After the players had gone to bed, the officials of the county board paid four men to patrol the corridors of the hotel and restrain any man wishing to avail of a night in the city. This was the suggestion of Bob O’Keeffe, team captain and schoolteacher, who noted that the "caretakers" employed "must be very strict on Saturday night. There is no use depending on any of the players." No player was thought to have successfully escaped to the pleasures of Dublin.

The morning of the match

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The Leix players had their breakfast and took mass in Gardiner Street church. Sometime after noon, they togged out in their hotel rooms and, wearing black-and-amber horizontally striped jerseys, crossed Gardiner’s Square, walked down Fitzgibbon Street, crossed to Jones’s Road and into Croke Park.

Their mission was to beat Cork and win the All-Ireland hurling championship, avenging the disastrous loss to Clare in the previous year’s and bring an All-Ireland to Queen’s County for the first time. Cork were strong favourites and nowhere was this expectation more secure than in Cork, where self-confidence in their hurling was already traditional.

So how did Leix go about contesting and winning that match? This story begins much earlier 

Hurling in Leix before the GAA

Hurling had been played in Queen’s County long before the GAA was founded. Precisely how long is lost to history, though we know from ancient Irish texts, Brehon Law and other sources that a stick-and-ball game denoted as hurling (albeit lacking the detailed, agreed rules of modern hurling) extends back at least to Middle Ages. Proof of this comes from the collection of hair hurling balls held by the National Museum of Ireland. These balls were recently carbon-dated and the oldest one dates from the 1200s.

The game evolved through the centuries and by the 1700s, hurling matches drew crowds of up to 10,000 people to see the game played. There are records of big hurling matches played in Queen’s County in the second half of the eighteenth century, notably in the area of the county close to Tipperary and Kilkenny and what might be considered the modern hurling area of Co Offaly.

Across Ireland, hurling declined in the 1800s after the Act of Union. The spread of cricket and other sports, followed by the calamity of famine, pressed the game into retreat, but it was still played in Queen’s County. Here, it was the game of both the ordinary man and others.

There is a file in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland which contains letters written by James Richardson (son of the linen manufacturer and philanthropist John Grubb Richardson) to his mother in Co. Down. Richardson wrote: "I have learned a new game called ‘hurling’ - it is knocking a ball about with a stick, each side trying to send it the opposite way. Scarcely a day passes that we do not play at it. It gives us plenty of exercise and is a fine game in which all the boys can join."

Richardson was then attending the Quaker school at Mountmellick and was subsequently elected Liberal MP for Co. Armagh in 1880. He was avowedly unionist in his politics, but opposed the arming of the Ulster Volunteers after 1913 and refused to allow his car be used for gun running or his estate at Bessbrook be used for drilling.

The arrival of the GAA

The founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association by Michael Cusack in 1884 provided the structure for the development of hurling as a modern game within a modern sporting organisation. It is repeatedly claimed that the strength of the GAA lies in the local passions that it stirs, that the power of the parish is the true power of the GAA.

This is true, but it is not the full truth. The GAA also thrived - and thrived immediately - because it provided a framework that offered a national competition for clubs to compete against each other.

The GAA ran its first All-Ireland hurling championship in 1887 and this was influenced by several factors. Firstly, inter-club contests in 1885 and 1886 were wildly popular and began to draw huge crowds. Clubs started to travel across the country to play against each other and these matches generated intense interest as the newspapers began to speculate which teams might be considered the best in the country.

Secondly, although the number of clubs was growing, many were slow to affiliate to the association, leaving it short of money. Establishing a central championship held the prospect of enticing GAA clubs to process their affiliations, just as the establishment of the Football Association Cup had done so much in the 1870s to promote the development of the Football Association in England.

The championships were open to all affiliated clubs, who would first compete in county-based competitions to be run by local county committees. The winners of each county championship would then proceed to represent that county in the All-Ireland championships. These two basic ideas - county championships between local clubs and national competition between competing counties - provided the framework for the GAA’s long-term development.

The GAA in Leix

It was precisely this which drove the early GAA in Queen’s County. The first games of the inaugural Queen’s county championships were played on a wintry, windswept field in Abbeyleix in February 1888 and Rathdowney won the hurling championship. These championships inspired the creation of clubs all across Queen’s County and by 1889, there were said to be 41 clubs affiliated with 1,692 members.

Like other counties, Queen’s County was severely hampered through the 1890s by political divides and the GAA was moribund for a spell. It recovered in the 1900s and central to this in Laois was the work of a new generation of administrators, such as Fr. JJ Kearney, who established the Leix and Ossory Schools Leagues and helped establish O’Moore Park as a headquarters for the GAA in the county. Through all of these years, the Leix hurling championship was dominated by Rathdowney (11 championships before 1914), while Kilcotton won five and Clonaslee won two.

O'Moore Park today

A breakthrough of sorts

Hurling continued to gather strength in the county. By 1907, there were 21 clubs contesting the championships, with a junior grade added to the senior one. The first signs of progress being made on the inter-county scene came in 1909, when Leix progressed to meet Kilkenny in the Leinster hurling final. They were well defeated by the eventual All-Ireland winners by 5-16 to 2-7, but getting there in the first place was an indication of what the future might hold.

New competitions were established in the county between the best hurlers and Leix became more and more competitive at inter-county level under the stewardship of Fr. Kearney and Bob O’Keeffe. The benchmark was Kilkenny and by 1912, Leix were back in the Leinster final. They lost again, but the margin was closer.

In 1913 the teams met again in the Croke Cup - a secondary competition which was nonetheless an important one - and Leix only lost by a point. Observers of Leinster hurling were clear what was happening: Leix were now genuine contenders for provincial honours and maybe for more.

It was one thing to contend, it was another to actually win, but all changed in 1914. After beating Wexford and Dublin, they claimed the county’s first Leinster senior title on 2 August by beating Kilkenny by a single point, 3-2 to 2-4. This was the damburst. Leix were now riding the crest of a wave and were through to the county’s first ever All-Ireland hurling final where they would face Clare - also seeking their first title.

And they were hammered. The final score of the 1914 All-Ireland hurling final was Clare 5-1 (16 points), Leix 1-0 (three points).

Tthe 1915 championship - who's the captain?

Defeat to Clare was met by dismay, but not despair. After all, 1914 had brought a first Leinster title and that was a marker of huge progress. And, of course, one of the great things about sport is that a new season offers new possibilities. Leix could look to 1915 with great optimism though there were challenges off the pitch such as the unravelling political situation in Ireland, the founding of the Irish Volunteers and the outbreak of the Great War.

On the field, there were also challenges as Ballygeeghan (known these days as Clough/Ballacolla) won their first ever Laois senior hurling championship. It was the start of an extraordinary run of success that saw Ballygeegan win five championships. The Leix County Committee had wished to appoint Bob O’Keeffe from the Ballycotton club as captain of the team for 1915, but Ballygeeghan had won the Leix championship and insisted - as was their entitlement - on appointing a captain from their club.

This was an important moment. From the very first All-Ireland championships in 1887 a trend developed whereby the champion clubs of each county selected a number of players from other clubs to assist them in inter-county matches. Over time, more and more players were brought in to supplement the county champions. By the early 1900s the idea of a county being represented by the best players from any club within its boundaries, rather than merely the champion club, was firmly established. It was a development which added greatly to the popular appeal of hurling.

However, the captain of the county team had the deciding say on who should constitute the team. Within the GAA, picking a county team was a delicate balance between avoiding alienating the members of your own club and picking the best players from other clubs in the county.

There were tensions between clubs who competed against each other in their own local championship. After one club match between Kilcotton and Clonaslee, Bob O’Keeffe had written that by the time they "have cleared up [doctors’] fees for the battle with Clonaslee, we may go bankrupt."

As it turned out Ballygeeghan nominated their best player, John Finlay, to captain Leix in 1915. Possibly under advice or pressure from the county committee, Finlay picked the best hurlers in the county and the eventual team contained just six Ballygeeghan players, with the balance coming from Rathdowney, Abbeyleix, Ballacolla, Rapla and Kilcotton.

Finlay was also progressive in his approach to training. He believed that the team’s preparations for the 1914 final had been hindered by the fact that they had trained too hard and that "some of the players on the team were not able to stand the training they went through".

Early in 1915 he wrote to his players advising that they do their utmost to win the the All-Ireland: "this we can do by acquiring the staying powers and speed necessary for a player to do his best for the whole of an hour’s hard play." He added that players should initially go on long, slow runs, reaching a distance of three miles and then start to build sprints of up to 50 yards into these runs.

Putting Kilkenny and Dublin to the sword

Leix beat Kilkenny 4-1 to 2-6 on 6 June at Tullamore in the Leinster semi-final. The victory was a sweet one and confirmed that 1914 was no fluke. It also brought a less than wholesome reaction from the losers. It was one thing to lose to Leix in 1914, but two years in a row was sickening. Kilkenny lodged an appeal with the Leinster Council, arguing that one Leix player was standing in the wrong position when a free was taken that led to a crucial goal and looking for a replay, but the Leinster Council said no. In the Leinster final, Leix beat Dublin by 3-2 to 0-5.

Up for the match: preparations in Leix and Cork for the All Ireland final

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Preparations to win the All-Ireland final were then properly put in train. Money was raised through renewed appeals to supporters and used to fund a refined training regime, with elaborate drills for the players to follow during practice. Copies survive of practice drills for catching, dribbling, striking, sideline pucks, free pucks and fighting for possession. In the drill which worked on fighting for possession, it was proposed to send a ball a short distance ahead of two players who would then fight for it "somewhat like two dogs for a hare". In the two weeks before the final, the Leix players trained three times a week, for two hours on each occasion. To do this, some had to secure permission from their employers to leave work at 2pm in order to be in Maryborough to train before light faded.

Cork had already won six All-Irelands and their passage to the 1915 final had seen them defeat Tipperary, Limerick and defending champions Clare to win the Munster championship. Many members of the Leix team travelled to watch Cork beat Clare in the Munster championship, "each man to observe the style of his opponent". Bob O’Keeffe said that the match "was not classic hurling (because) Cork were superior everywhere and their forward line is the best ever I saw working."

The Leesiders also prepared assiduously for the final. As well as training collectively, many players had their own regime. One of the stars of the Cork team in 1915 was Larry Flaherty who had won an All-Ireland in 1903. He had learned his hurling ("as many") when playing the game as a boy using a sycamore branch and a can. As an adult, he developed a training regime which saw him train on a hill behind his house in Douglas, commencing at 5.30am. He followed a regime of jumps, as well as tying a 6lb weight to his hurley, before working on his swing. Flaherty lived into his 90s and later commented on watching hurling on television in the 1970s: "to be honest, I don’t like watching fellows doing things which I sometimes feel I could still do better myself."

The final

The match programme

Cork entered the final as strong favourites. In sections of the national press, there was comprehensive coverage of the game and there were several weekly newspapers dedicated to coverage of sport. One of those papers was Sport, whose GAA correspondent was Frank Dineen, the man who had bought Croke Park and then sold it to the GAA in 1913. Dineen’s preview of the game included pen-pictures of the players.

In compiling the preview, Dineen travelled to Maryborough and interviewed Leix captain, John Finlay. As Dineen later recalled, Finlay appeared to have already adopted the pose which was to become so associated with GAA teams: "speaking to Mr. John Finlay, I was made to think that they had not the slightest expectation of defeating Cork... John Finlay, across a table, was a quiet, unassuming, sociable country gentleman, who talked of everything but hurling."

Even if Dineen could winkle little from Finlay, the evidence which sat before him was enough to convince him of his team’s worth. He wrote: "the Leix team of this year are as fine a body of young men as could be found in any county in Ireland. The majority of them are over six feet in height, and all of them are handsome-looking athletes of power and strength and speed. They know how to hurl, they know how the Cork team will hurl, and they will play to the last minute."

The unique All-Ireland pairing attracted huge crowds with Great Southern and Western Railway putting on 17 special trains which were filled to capacity from Cork and Queen’s County, and from the hurling heartlands of Tipperary, Limerick, Galway, Offaly, Kilkenny and Waterford. Around 12,000 people paid into Croke Park and the gate receipts totalled £362 on the day. Amongst them was the former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnston who was visiting from America to perform in a revue. It is claimed in local lore in Laois that Johnston "appeared to be a supporter of Leix too".

Rain fell in torrents before the game started. Leix were better prepared for the weather than Cork and appeared on the field wearing overcoats. The Irish Independent later commented that the appearance of the Leix men was "somewhat unconvincing because they all wore mackintoshes", but it was a decision rooted in common sense. On top of that, the Leix team had brought resin to put on their hurleys to improve the grip.

The referee, William Walsh (who, the press would later write, "controlled the game in a masterful way, giving satisfaction to all"), called in the two captains and spun the hurley. The Cork captain, Sheehan, had correctly chosen on which side the hurley would fall and directed that his team would defend the city end of the pitch (now known as the Davin Stand). Walsh threw in the ball to start the match and Cork scored three early goals. Leix settled midway through the half, however, and scored two goals of their own, as well as two points, and trailed by just one point at the interval.

The match was won in the early minutes of the second half. As the rain worsened to a downpour, Leix scored three quick goals and, despite a late rally by Cork, when the final whistle was blown the score stood at Leix 6–2, (20 points), Cork 4–1 (13 points). In a somewhat wistful summary, Frank Dineen noted that he was growing old with the GAA and had now seen many All-Ireland finals, but that he was "lost in admiration at one of the most magnificent battles that had ever been played in the final...every stroke of the hurley was like an electric shock, while the ball shot here and there and everywhere with lightning-like speed."

In Cork the reaction was a little bit more cutting. In a bitter aside, the Cork Examiner complained that when the hurling ball had been thrown up, it was as if "one side was armed with stout ash camáns and the other side with frail tennis rackets. And Laois certainly weren’t the side equipped with tennis rackets." It should be noted that all other publications credited the Leix hurlers for their skill and their subtlety, even if it should also be acknowledged that the memory of that Leix team as being filled with huge men survives in folklore.

The homecoming

There were huge celebrations on the field after the match, with players and officials congratulated on their success. The team travelled home by train and are reported to have followed the passion for singing which GAA teams traditionally displayed on train journeys. The Leix men sang their local song "Lovely Laois" and the Kilkenny standard "The Rose of Mooncoin".

Bonfires blazed across the county and there was a procession through Abbeyleix where John Finlay was carried shoulder-high behind a pipe band. Congratulatory letters arrived from many parts, not least from Sir Algernon Coote, Lord Lieutenant of Queen’s County, who wrote from the House of Commons: "will you convey my hearty congratulations to the Leix team, upon winning the hurling championship?" A telegraph also arrived from Westminster from the nationalist MP for Queen’s County, Patrick A. Meehan.

There was praise for Bob O’Keeffe from Frank Dineen: "his hair has turned grey at the game for he has been over twenty years behind the camán...he has had a long and successful career as a hurler, and no one who ever knew him will grudge him his All-Ireland gold medal."

O’Keeffe had missed much hurling earlier in the year, not least because one of his daughters had suffered successively from pneumonia, measles and scarlet fever, but could now exult in that medal. There was gratitude, too, for the work which administrators had done to achieve victory. O’Keeffe was later involved in ensuring that a special commemorative watch worth £25 was struck and presented to Fr JJ Kearney in recognition of his work in promoting the GAA in the county through the establishment of schools’ leagues and proper structures for adult games.

To conclude, Leix’s win was a success rooted in the vision of a few men committed to the cause of Leix hurling. They mobilised many around them as they brought the county from the margins right to the mainstream and then on to the peak. It was arduous, intensive, laced with failure for many years, but ultimately successful - a reminder of what can be done if people of will row as one.

About the authorDr. Paul Rouse is a lecturer on Irish history and sports history at University College Dublinand a director of Century Ireland. This is an edited version of the full article which can be read here on Century Ireland.