“We were nourished in the days of yore,
With tales of hurling at the core,
The noble men of Tulla who played in ’89,
As barefoot then they played the game,
And tried the Dublin boys to tame,
A heavy downpour spoiled their fame,
The sun refused to shine.
We smile at all this now but all these men we do revere,
Who came from humble holdings in the hear of County Clare,
They were peeping into freedom’s light from out of the darkness of the night,
The first beginnings of a fight, the right to do and dare.”
Jimmy Smyth, Dalcassian Hurling Glory
IT’S called Tyrconnell Park now – an oasis of green in the heart of Inchicore that was once the much more rural setting and home to St Patrick’s Hurling and Football Club and called the Pond Field.
This St Patrick’s Day those Ballyea supporters travelling to Dublin by train will pass just a poc fada or three away from the Pond Field, but as they go they’ll hope that it’s the only reminder to the last time Clare and Dublin clubs clashed in an All-Ireland final.
Tyrconnell Park was certainly no Croke Park, but of its day it was every bit as important as the Jones’ Road venue now is. For a few months in ‘89 it was the epicentre of the GAA world – that field of dreams and home to the All-Ireland hurling and football finals in the same way that Croke Park will be this Friday.
For the hurling final it rained and then there was more rain, while afterwards the appropriately monikered Pond Field became a valley of tears for Clare hurling – indeed so deep was the ‘Pond’ that the tears hadn’t even dried away nearly 70 years later.
It’s the story of the 1889 All-Ireland hurling final; the last All-Ireland Club hurling final of its kind as thereafter clubs could draw on the services of players from other clubs when representing their county at provincial and All-Ireland level; the last All-Ireland Club hurling final involving Clare and Dublin protagonists until this St Patrick’s Day.
It’s the story of Clare’s Robert Emmets of Tulla versus CJ Kickham’s of Dublin.
The farming folk from east Clare versus the broadband coalition of hurling forces and drapers from Guineys, Clerys and Arnotts department stores.
City v Country for the honour of being the best in Ireland.
But if only it was so simple.
“WE would have beaten Dublin that day but we only had seven or eight men sober,” blasted Tulla player Danny McNamara in an exclusive interview with The Irish Independent on the 1889 All-Ireland final.
It was 67 years after the game and McNamara, who was a member of the Tulla 21 that blazed a trail for Clare in the All-Ireland championship was breaking his silence on how the All-Ireland final was lost.
He was the last surviving member of the team and in his 90s when he was interviewed by John D Hickey for his memorable ‘This Match I Will Remember’ series that was published on 10 April, 1956.
For McNamara, maybe it finally brought closure, of sorts.
For others that closure had come in the days after the game, just as the recrimination and regret filtered down to Clare where Gaels were given various explanations as to why the All-Ireland final was lost.
All because, Tulla came to Dublin with a big reputation. After a local derby county final win over Feakle side Daniel O’Connells in September, Robert Emmets opened their account in Munster against South Liberties in Newport, with the Limerick side were described by The Clare Journal as having “a reputation as a hurling team second to none in Munster”.
Yet it was the Emmets’ day by the decisive margin of 5-1 to 2-2 with the Journal moved to declare “without any exaggeration whatever, the hurlers of Clare many feel justly proud of the brilliant exhibition made by the Tulla team”.
Indeed the match reporter of the day was moved to poetic verse to describe the qualities on display:
“With upturned faces they eagerly gazed,
Thro’ the low-hanging clouds, where the flying ball went,
The cheering aloud with their hurleys refrained,
To strike it they rushed, in its rapid descent.”
That qualified them for a semi-final joust just three days later with Tipperary champions Moycarkey – a game that was both the making and breaking of the Tulla team.
Moycarkey won by 3-0 to 2-2, but Tulla were awarded the tie on an objection, with the Journal saying “the friends of the gallant champions of Clare had good reason to feel a justifiable pride in their men, for never at any previous stage of their brilliant record did they display such extraordinary athletic ability”.
“Some of the Moycarkey lads left the field before the match was over,” recalled Danny McNamara. “We were welting them. We brought down their colours and gave them a bad beating. They had not the stamina of the Tulla boys,” he added.
This was the reputation that Tulla brought to Dublin just over two weeks later for the All-Ireland final. The semi-finals were also due to be played in Inchicore on 19th Ocotber, which would have been the Clare champions’ third championship match in a week, but both Emmets and Leinster champions CJ Kickhams received byes into the final after both the Connacht and Ulster representatives failed to field in the penultimate round games.
This gave the Emmets the chance to recover from their exertions against Moycarkey in Boher, but at the same time a run out on the Pond Field could have made all the difference to their All-Ireland hopes.
Still, they came in confidence? “Both teams went into the fight with the very biggest reputation,” said the Freeman’s Journal, “and it was only stating a fact that the Claremen were the favourites”.
That was nearly as much fanfare and publicity as there was about the game, save a four-line preview in the Freeman on the eve of the decider:
“It is understood that the match between the Tulla (County Clare) team and the Kickhams (Dublin) for the Hurling Championship of Ireland will be played at Inchicore tomorrow at 11.30 a.m.. The Claremen will arrive in Dublin by the 4.30 p.m. train this evening.”
THE Clare team were billeted in the Angel Hotel on Inns Quay as they homed in on their date with destiny.
What to do? The hotel had a billiards room – they could try their hand at that; they could just rest up.
But the night before the All-Ireland is always a long one – most if not all of the players were probably in Dublin for the first time ever, so maybe they succumbed to temptation adn drank.
They did according to Danny McNamara, but it hadn’t stopped the Emmets hitting the ground of the Pond Field running the following morning in the game that was played out before 1,500 people.
“During the first half the Tulla men had the best of the play and scored a goal and five points to one goal for the Dubliners,” reported the Freeman.
Alas, it was as good as it got for a Tulla side that was playing in their bare feet. “After change of sides the Kickhams proved themselves entirely superior to the countrymen in staying power and hurling in the most brilliant fashion imaginable,” said the Freeman.
“Kickhams hurled as they never have done before and after the most brilliant and exciting game that it has been the lot of Dubliners to have witnessed the Metropolitans won by five goals and one point to one goal and six points.
“As regards the match it was voted by everyone present to be the finest display of our national pastime yet witnessed not only in the metropolis but probably through the length and breadth of Ireland since the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association,” the report added.
Writing in Sport, PP Sutton of the famed Metropolitan Hurling Club founded by Michael Cusack, said “it was by long chalks the finest display of our national pastime that I have ever witnessed.
“The Kickhams covered them from head to foot with honours by hurling with the most extraordinary pluck and brilliancy. Though beaten by such a big score, the Claremen are really skilled hurlers, but their discipline and staying powers were inferior to the Dubliners,” he added.
Maybe this was PP Sutton’s nod to some of the off-field activities of the Tulla players – the discipline, or lack of it, could have the previous night’s revelries and the lack of staying power could have been the result of same.
“Ten or 11 of them were out all night and we would have been much better off to go out without them,” claimed Danny McNamara. “If we had done that we would have won as the boyos who had been out all night were a hindrance to us. If McKenna and myself were wise that day we would have left those fellows off,” he added.
However, Robert Emmets vice-president William Moloney had a different view in the immediate aftermath of the game – blaming the conditions and not the drink.
“The field was against us,” he said. “The fact is it was merely a plot of building ground, so slippery that sawdust had to be spread on parts of it. The Dublin men were well accustomed to it and were prepared for its slippery condition by having their boots well spiked,” he added.
And this was backed up by the Freeman’s Journal report:
“Owing to the recent heavy rains the ground was in a wretched condition and the Claremen, who played in their bare feet, allege that the slippery nature of the sod was a disadvantage to them.
“It was quite possible this was a fact, but at the same time it must be said that the big score by which the Kickhams won proved the county Dublin champions to be undoubtedly the better men,” the report added.
“Our men were not or could not be in form sufficiently good to meet such a formidable team as the Dublin one undoubtedly was,” continued William Moloney as he also laid blame for the result on the ‘Battle of Boher’ against Moycarkey.
“The result of the match would be different to what it was if our brave athletes had a few days to heal their wounds and to get over the exhaustion which the terrible fight at Boher caused them,” he said.
The result, according to Moloney was “nine or ten of our men being very severely wounded, and one of them, Pat Liddy, dangerously so”.
Yet, lamented the Tulla vice-president, “we were called on to fight, and the question was how were we to do so with our shattered team”.
But Danny McNamara was having none of it – for him the Tulla players were shattered for a different reason entirely:
“If this day I met the fellow that brought out our lads the night before the match I would be on his neck on the minute,” he said.
“Such a thing to do,” he added wistfully.
Such was Clare’s hurling life in 1889, the only consolation being that there were three Claremen on the victorious CJ Kickhams team.
They were Michael Madigan, the club secretary who worked in Arnotts, Ned Gilligan and John Cahill.
All three were from west Clare.
There will be at last three west Claremen in the Ballyea team on St Patrick’s Day.