Hurling, South-East Galway and the First All-Ireland
Talk given to History Society, Eyrecourt, circa 1991
It was only to be expected that a team from Galway should participate in the first All-Ireland championship. The game of hurling was played there from time immemorial and, in the nineteenth century, was particularly strong in the south and east of the county. Teams from Meelick and Killimor crossed the Shannon to play against the men of Tipperary and Offaly. In a letter to the editor of the 'lrish World' on September 15, 1888 'A Galway Man' had this to say about the area: 'Many readers of the 'Irish World', residing in this country, can call up pleasant memories of hard-fought games some 30 or 40 years ago between the men of Tipperary and Galway on the verdant sod of Shannon's banks, stretching from Portumna to Meelick, having for a background the ancient Castle of Redwood, standing out in bold relief against the green hillsides of noble Tipperary.'
Michael Cusack had learned of this hurling tradition in south-east Galway from his early teaching days in Lough Cutra school not far from Gort. Later, in 1883, when he began to re-organise athletics in the country, so that they would be open to everyone, his call was answered in the town of Killimor through the exertions of F. W. Lynch and Patrick Larkin and a few others and the game of hurling was organised in the area. When Cusack founded the Metropolitan hurling club in Dublin the Gaels of east Galway issued a challenge to the Dublin men. The 'Galway Manl, mentioned above, takes up the story in his very colourful way:
'Mr. Lynch, acting with great spirit, hastened to the neighbouring town of Ballinasloe and put the matter before a few Nationalists there, among whom was the then secretary of the Land League. With a right good will the Ballinasloe men went to work,' and despite the warnings and intimidations of every hire1ing and supporter of Dublin Castle living in the town, the inhabitants subscribed a very elegant challenge cup, which gave Captain Lynch great joy, for then he was in a position to invite Mr. Cusack and his picked team of athletes to try friendly conclusions with his own trusted men for the coveted prize. The trysting place selected for the struggle was the historic Fair Green of Ballinasloe.
'But here again the domineering way of the tyrant was. made. manifest, for did not one of Ireland's accursed absentee vampires, Clancarty, hold illegal possesion of the township property. Notice was served on the Secretary of the League, who was also custodian of the cup, by the bloated representative of this rack-renting landlord, informing him that the awful riotous game of hurling would not.be allowed to be played within th limit of the Fair Green. But this piece of bombast reckoned without his host. The edict of him and his kind was only jeered at. The teaching of lreland's leaders predominated and this same autocrat was answered back that no riotous game was about to be launched, only the game which our fathers gloried in and which their children were going to practice. Seeing that the people were determined to have their wishes accomplished this tyrant thought discretion the better past of valour by consenting to the Fair Green being taken possession-of by the hurlers but as one of her Majesty'e Justices of the Peace, holding the Legal Secretary responsible for any breeches of the peace that might occur. What an inbecile warning!'
When the game was advertised to be held on a given day, Captain Cusack brought down his team and, in the presence o£ thousands of people, crossed sticks with Captain Lynch's plucky warriors. Goal posts pitched, judges placed, the ball was raised and,as if by magic, a cheer given three times three went up which made the very grounds vibrate. What a magnificent send-off for the national game! With a will as of manor born those splendid specimens of Irish athletes fought for the coveted honour of becoming winners of Ireland's first prize in hurling. Both teams worked determinedly but, withal, brotherly, and after a long and arduous tussle, Captain Cusack's men were obliged to retire from the field of friendly battle defeated but not dishonoured. Great was the joy of Captain Lynch when th judges' fiat was given - Killimor team 1 to Dublin nil.'
Gaelic Athletic Association
In the following year, when Cusack began to lay plans for the founding of tho Gaelic Athletic Association, he saw the need for support from leaders of Church and State. From his association with south-east Galway he knew of the sterling qualities of the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr. Patrick Duggan.
He therefore wrote to William J. Duffy of Loughrea, whom he had befriended while the latter was holidaying in Dublin a few years before, and asked him to arrange a deputation to call on Dr. Duggan and ask him to become a patron of the new association. The arrangements -were made and on August 15 a deputation, consisting of Michael Cusack, three Loughrea men, William J. Duffy,_ John P. McCarthy, John Sweeney and Peter J. Kelly of KiLleenadeema and Michael Gleenon of Kilchreest called on his Lordship. Dr. Duggan was then seventy-one years of age, was in rather poor health and had already offered his resignation to the Pope. However, he was delighted to hear of the founding of th association and promised to do all h could to promote its success. But, he delcined to act as patron and advised them to ask Dr. Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, 'a fine Gael, young, vigorous and energetic' to become the first patron of the new body. And, so, Cusack came to Thurles and the rest is history.
For the first three years the activities of the new Association were confined to tournament and challenge games. Not until 1887 was the first All-Ireland hurling championship organised. Twelve counties entered but only five contested the championship. Tipperary, represented by Thurles, beat Clare (Smith O'Brien's) and Kilkenny (Tullaroan). Galway, represented by Meelick, defeated Wexford (Castlebridge) on July 24 at Elm Park. More than lO,0OO people watched the match. A reporter wrote: 'There was a good deal of heated temper on both sides. The conduct of the Wexford men was severely censured by most of those present. One incidsnt of the day's proceedings cannot be too highly valued. Lord Ffrench, when he heard of the great victory of Galway, directed his steward, Mr. Balfe, to go to the Midland Hotel and hand from him £3 to treat the team and also £2 to be given to one of the men, who lost two teeth with the blow of a hurl. Wexford had got the first goal but Meelick beat them by eight goals after. To cover the expenses of the trip to Dublin the parish priest, Fr. Kirwan, gave £14 to the team.
The final wasn't played until April 1, 1888. The venue was Hoare's field in Birr, quite close to the present hurling field, and the referee was Patrick White from the town, but originally from the parish of Toomevara.
The Meelick team consisted of twelve men from Meelick and nine from Killimor. The two parishes had joined up as a result of three games they had played against one another the year before in the championship. These games were played in Greenfield, which belonged to Ryders and had ended in a draw. Since they couldn't beat one another they decided to join together. In the 1887 Galway championship they beat Kilbecanty in the semi-final and Ardrahan in the final. The score in the latter was 2-6 to 2-3.
The Meelick men on the team were Pat Madden, who was the captain and one of the famous Maddens of the area, Patrick Cullen, Mike Manning, John Colohan, John Scally, Willie Madden, Tom Hanley, James Kelly, Pat Manning, Jim Connolly, John Cosgrove and Arthur Cosgrove. The Killimor men were John Lowry, John Callinan, Pat Haverty, Tom Foley, Owen Griffin, Patrick Larkin, John Manning, Charlie Melody and John Sanders. According to local tradition only Fenians could get on the team. There was one fine player in the area, named Burke, who failed to get selected because he wasn't a Fenian.
There are three nephews of Patrick Cullen still living and they relate how the hurleys for the final were made on their kitchen floor. They recall hearing stories of mounds of timber shavings! Patrick Cullen was a carpenter and skipped it to America later as a result of land trouble in the locality. He never returned.
Birr by Brake
All the team, with the exception of John Lowry, who walked all the way from Killimor to Birr, went by McIntyre's brake to the final. When they arrived in the town they heard that Tipperary weren't going to appear. Some say this was a rumour put out by the Tipperary men themselves to get Meelick off guard, but it may have been due to a disagreement which did occur in the Tipperary camp. Whatever the cause the Galway men went for some drink and, while they were indulging, heard that Tipperary were ready.
Both teams togged out in Cunningham's Hotel and then marched to the field. Togging out is probably a misnomer as it is generally accepted that the Galway men played in their shirts and trousers. Each player wore a green knitted cap with a tassel on it. Meelick were led by their non-playing captain, James Lynam, who held the military rank of captain, having fought in the American civil war. Although a noted pugilist, he was regarded as a nice quiet man. His fanily came from Rahan in Co. Offaly and he had a farm in Eyrecourt. Later, in the 1890s, he was to contest unsuccessfully the East Galway seat in the Parnellite interest against John Roche, M.P.
The first All-Ireland final was fought at a fierce pace. One of the Thurles players got a blow on the nose and had to be carried off. As a result of this incident, John Lowry, the man who walked from Killimor and who played at fullback, was taken off by Captain Lynam. He was none too pleased with the decision because, for some time thereafter, until he was warned by the referee, he would dart on to the field and take part in the play.
Meelick were defeated by a goal and a point and one forfeit point to nil. They have never since been listed as Galway county senior hurling champions. But, because of their historic participation in the first All-Ireland, the name of the small village on the west bank of the River Shannon and the tradition it represented in south-east Galway will live for ever in the annals of the G.A.A.