You have the Liam McCarthy, the Sam Maguire, the Heinekin, the FAI Cup and the Ryder Cup, all well-known trophies associated with the winning of the many competitions across the sporting spectrum.
Now tell me this….
Have you ever heard of the Monaghan Cup?
Right then….. with which sport is it associated?
Ah ha I’ve called your bluff.
I’ll tell you. You will be well aware that we chase the unusual, the seldom, the stand out, sporting folklore anywhere we can find it.
Recently I heard of this Monaghan Cup, and my first enquiry brought me down to the delightful home of one of Kilkenny’s finest, John McGovern (Johnny to many) on the Station Road in Bennettsbridge, where he lives with his lovely wife Eileen.
He found the Cup
The welcome from both was deliciously charming and heart-warming.
To help me in my quest, I asked that peer of half-backs, Seamie Cleere, to break the ice with Johnny, who is such a quite, unassuming and private Christian.
“There it is on the table,” opened Johnny, as he pointed to a brilliantly polished silver creation, inscribed with the name of the benefactor, and the purpose for its commissioning.
I had found my Monaghan Cup!
The story follows, but in addition I dined on some of the great hurling experiences of two of Irelands greatest hurling artists.
First though, we will talk about the Monaghan Cup, and its significance.
As an emigrant during the late 1950s and 1960s, the Whit weekend games, hurling and football, were played at Mitchum Stadium in London between All-Ireland champions and National League champions. It was very much a PR exercise, in that it encouraged emigrants to join the GAA in the vibrant GAA clubs around Great Britain. Thousands from around England, Wales and Scotland would make the pilgrimage to Mitchum for those games.
“It was terrific for the emigrants to get together at those games,” recalled Johnny. “But it was certainly memorable for us players too. I went many times, starting during the early 50s, and the crowds that came to meet us from London, Birmingham, Coventry, Rugby, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Glasgow and many other places, travelling hundreds of miles, were phenomenal.
“After the games we would meet all the ’Bridge lads, and then the Kilkenny lads, and in all honesty, people from the rest of the counties were delighted to be able to meet and talk with the players. Many of them would bring lads for a jar, or even bring them home to their homes.
“You have got to understand that travel at that time was difficult. It was expensive, and many were trying very hard to hold onto jobs, that they mightn’t be in a position to get home but once a year, maybe. Travel was by badly overcrowded boats, and even more over crowded trains.
“Air travel was only for the very wealthy, and was well outside the compass of the ordinary working people. Here were we flying by aeroplane, which was certainly my first ride in an aeroplane, as it was for all the lads. It was so exciting to look down as we flew over the vast London area at nighttime, with the lights on. It was like looking down on a vast tinsel town for us. We were absolutely enthralled by the whole aeroplane experience.
“There were no jets in the early times. We flew on Aer Lingus, in Viscount four propeller planes, and they were fantastic machines”.
The Monaghan Cup was presented to the winners after the games in Mitchum. The players would meet with the crowds afterwards, news of home would be passed on, requests to be remembered to the folks at home would be made, and promises to meet when Christmas brought them all together again.
But Johnny, why did you get the Monahan Cup?
“We played Tipp in Mitchum in 1959 and beat them,” he answered. “I just happened to be captain that day, so I brought home the cup. The games were always played on the Whit Monday. The following year, the venue was changed to Wembley Stadium, and I brought back the cup.
“I left it on the table in the dressing room, and when the match was over, I remember saying to Bob Aylward that the cup was in the dressing room. Bob told me to take it back home, because it was now a different competition, being played in a new venue. There was a huge crowd in Wembley for the game. The Emigrants came out of the woodwork.
“We all got a little silver replica of the cup that day. I asked Bob what should be done with the cup, and he told me to take it home again, and if it were ever needed, they would know where it was. So back it came. When the Lory Meagher Museum was opened, John Teehan was looking for memorabilia.
“He got a few medals, and then I told him about the Monahan Cup. I told him that it belonged to the Kilkenny County Board, but it would stir up a bit of interest if it were displayed in Tullaroan. Unfortunately that museum was closed recently, so the cup came back as well as the medals.
“It is now going into Nowlan Park, and hopefully if, or maybe when, a new Kilkenny GAA Museum is established, it will be there for all to see”.
When was his first trip?
“I went in 1954, and it was such an adventure, what with the London lights and all,” he recalled with joy. “I was sitting beside Sean Clohesy on that trip, and we seemed to be flying over London for ages. I thought that we would never get down. We were told that London was twenty-four miles square, and you have to appreciate that the aeroplane was only travelling at half the speed or less of what their capabilities are nowadays.
“It was great to see the lads that we knew at home. I remember lads like the Powers of Barronsland in Mitchum, when I was coming down the steps after getting the cup, and Ger Power- my next-door neighbour- grabbing me. I remember lads like Jim Hynes, Jimmy Phelan (Inistioge RIP), Ollie Ryan, and Tommy Scully (Rose Inn Street, Heel Bar. RIP), and our own Frankie Ryan at those games. We gave hours meeting and greeting. It was a terrific experience for all concerned.”
When were the games transferred to Wembley?
“In 1960 I think,” said Johnny. “I remember we played Cork on one occasion, and Clare on another. The pitch I though was very short, and I remember Ollie coming out to make a clearance, and he put the ball straight over the bar. Against Cork, while I cannot remember too much about the game, I remember Tom Hogan (God Rest him) playing at centre back, with Paddy Buggy and myself flanking him on the wings.
“Tom had played an outstanding game at centre-back for Tullaroan.”
When did you play in Wembley, Seamie?
“I did,” he answered. “In fact, it was my first trip to London, and like yourself, I was enthralled with the whole experience. Liam had been there before me, and I had some ideas about the experience that lay in store. But the reality hit me like a steam train.
A horse race
“I mean Wembley was enormous. Its capacity was 100,000, and even though there were thousands from all over England, they still looked very small inside the place. I remember playing against Waterford, and I was marking Mick Flannelly. I thought the pitch was wider than Croke Park, and there was a three-foot pailing around it. I don’t know what that was for, but I remember Mick raced out to the sideline for a ball, and he careered on towards the pailing. He tried to jump it, but he fell over it. If ‘twas a horse race, you could say that he fell at the first”, he laughed.
It was Seamie’s first trip overseas.
“Will you stop man? It was my first time in a plane. Imagine going from the Ring in Bennettsbridge to a city like London with a population seven times the size of the Irish Republic, on an aeroplane, and then to come home and talk about it. I went over about three times. Then we went to Birmingham to play a Warwickshire selection, and it was the same there with all the Irish. Henry Shefflin (senior) played against us, as did Joe O’Dwyer from Callan. My brother Larry was over there too.
“Those games were played in Perry Bar in Birmingham. John Cullen, our former club Chairman was Chairman of the St.Chads club in Birmingham at the time (1963). He had two sons, Phil and Noel, Phil later distinguishing himself as a Kilkenny inter-County player, and as a senior player with the ‘Bridge. The reception that night was a magnificent affair in the St.Chads Club- a super club- in Birmingham.
“We stayed in a hotel up from New Street station, which was later demolished by an IRA bomb, killing many innocent people.”
What would your abiding memory be from those trips Seamie?
“Besides the exhilaration of the plane journey, and the enormity of London, I would have to say the thousands of Irish emigrants that made their way to see the games and to welcome the players,” he said. “When money was tight, and jobs were valuable, it was amazing how the Irish responded to the visits of their sporting heroes among them, from so many miles away.
“I suppose you could say that it brought home to us what the Irish Diaspora really meant. In another sense the fact that those games were brought to England exuded a sense of holiday to many, meeting all the players, and meeting their friends and neighbours from other big English cities,” said Seamie.
What gave you the greatest kick from those trips, John?
“I would agree with all that Seamie said. But from my own personal satisfaction, I got to see first hand places like the Houses of Parliament, Madam Tussauds (Jack Mulcahy and Jim Langton were with us I seem to remember on that trip), Trafalgar Square and the pigeons, Baker Street (Sherlock Holmes), and Buckingham Palace”.
Did ye get bundles of pocket money from the County Board to defray expenses, Seamie?
“No such thing, and neither was there a demand made in that regard. Our travel was paid for and our accommodation in the excellent Royal Hotel in Russell Square. But never was money mentioned thereafter. The underground fascinated us.
“We couldn’t get over the idea that trains could clatter along at terrible speeds under the ground. We used go for a spin on them to nowhere in particular, and often we would stay down there for hours, all for the one money. We were totally gob smacked by the whole experience,” said Seamie.
Were wives and girlfriends allowed travel, John?
“No indeed, but there were other people around the county who travelled, paying their own fare. I remember one trip when Paddy Grace stopped at McTiernans in Kilcullen for a cup of tea on our way to Dublin Airport. Joe McTiernan asked Paddy where he was going, and when Paddy told him we were on our way to London, he just asked Paddy to wait for a minute until he got his overcoat from the peg, and jumped on the bus with us.
“Tom Muldowney from the Cave Bar I distinctly remember travelling with us on many occasions too”.
“Going back to the expenses and things,” said Seamie, “I remember in the Russell Hotel that the dinners were very normal, too normal for the big Irish guys, so we would go up the street to a terrific Italian Restaurant, and get a fine steak for ourselves. The Italian didn’t have the Arran Banners, but whatever he had sent us to bed with a full belly.”
We all roared with the laughter.
We deviated from our story somewhat when the name, Christy Ring came up.
Ye met and played on him lads?
“He was the greatest hurler that I have ever seen, but young Shefflin has upstaged him in my opinion,” said Johnny McGovern.
Praise indeed from a man that has won every honour the game had to offer at club and inter-county level.
“Henry has superb skill, tremendous balance, and is a terrific athlete,” was the all embracing reply. “The big difference between the two is that Henry surpasses Christy because he is by far a better team player. Nothing comes close to him with regard to a contribution to the team stakes.
“Often I’ve seen him laying off balls to a teammate, even though he was in a position to score himself. There have been great skilful Kilkenny hurlers over the years. We had Seamie there, Sammy (Carroll) the best club hurler I ever saw, Denis Heaslip, Sean Clohosey, Mickie (Kelly) God Rest him, Keher, and others. Then we thought that we would never see another Keher until D.J. arrived.
Shefflin is special
“Could he be followed we wondered, and then came young Shefflin. Ring (18 Railway Cup medals, and 15 county championship medals), marvellous though he was, would not come remotely close to Henry as a team player, that’s why I go for the Shamrocks man.”
You would concur, Seamie?
With every word John said, he assured.
“I will endorse his opinion on Henry Shefflin by saying that he has never been worse than good, and on the vast majority of occasions, he has been magnificently or brilliant.”
In a word, what do you think of the present game?
John: “It is a beautiful game, with terrific skills. It moves fast, with tremendous control, but I cannot abide these referees who dish out yellow cards for nothing. They will kill the game if somebody does not check them up. I love watching it.”
Seamie: “It is a beautiful game. When you watch the likes of young Hogan’s goal, the way it was created by Eddie Brennan, and buried without catching it in the hand would bring you back if you weren’t gone too far. But we have great players now, and they have given us tremendous enjoyment. Hickey, Jackie Tyrrell, and Tommy Walsh, Richie Power, and Michael Fennelly are tremendous men.
“And where would you leave the likes of young Larkin, and the exhibition he gave in the County Final. It was faultless. I love talking about them all,” said two of the greatest halfbacks that ever graced the hurling fields of Ireland.
I started with the Monaghan Cup, but look at where our story has taken us.
That is why I love doing this column. I never know where or when it will come to a cul de sac.