The Railway Cup hurling final between Leinster and Connacht will be played at Nowlan Park on Sunday. Avid Kilkenny hurling follower and Railway Cup advocate, Dermot Kavanagh from the Rower-Inistioge club writes passionately about a competition that once was a prized asset to the GAA. “Go along and support the game,” he urges. Dermot takes a trip down memory lane.
Kilkenny have been granted a rare privilege in having the M. Donnelly inter-provincial hurling final fixed for Nowlan Park on Sunday. It is this observers wish that hurling followers appreciate it and turn up in numbers to support the team, the management, and of course, competition sponsor, Martin Donnelly.
The inter-provincial championships once ranked second only to the All-Ireland championships in prestige and importance on the GAA calendar. The glory days of the competitions were in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s when attendances of 45,000 to 50,000 were common place at the St Patrick’s Day finals in Croke Park.
However, those inter-provincial competitions (known as the Railway Cups and first played in 1927) were not the ’Association’s first foray into inter-provincial action. Back in 1905 The Great Southern and Western Rail Company donated a specially commissioned trophy, The Railway Sheild, for the winners of a newly established inter-provincial championship.
The rules of the competition dictated the first province to win the competition twice in succession, or three times in all, would retain permanent custody of the unique trophy.
Enthralling Kilkenny final
Leinster won out in 1905 and 1907, with Munster winning in 1906 and 1908. Immediately following the 1908 final it was decided that both provinces would meet later that year to decide the destiny of the trophy.
Thus on July 19 at St James Park, Kilkenny, an enthusiastic attendance of 15,000 saw Leinster triumph in an enthralling game. The winning 17-a-side team was comprised of 15 Kilkenny players (the 1907 All-Ireland winning team less the unavailable Dan Grace and Paddy ‘Icy’ Lanigan), with Wexford’s Mike Cummins and Laois’s Bob O’Keeffe (formerly of Mooncoin ) completing the line up.
Clearly Kilkenny’s association with successful Leinster teams is well established. A visit to The Lory Meagher Heritage Centre in Tullaroan where the unique and imposing Railway Shield is on view is recommended.
When the competition was revived in 1927 The Great Southern and Western Rail Company again came on board, donating the Railway Cup for the winners. This time, however, the trophy could not be won outright.
Leinster, captained by Mooncoin’s Wattie Dunphy, were the inaugural winners.
Over time the championships grew in stature to become the ’Association’s second most important competition. Players regarded inter-provincial selection as a huge honour. To win a Railway Cup medal was the height of most players realistic ambitions, particularily those from so called weaker counties.
Sadly, the arrival of live television and the showing of the finals in the early 1960s heralded the reduction in the unique appeal of the finals. Followers could now view them from the comfort of their home without the expense of traveling to Croke Park. Attendances dropped.
Switch from Pat’s Day a blow
Two other developments dealt the championships near fatal blows. The first was the introduction of the club championships; the second the mind boggling decision by the Central Council to pre-arrange the finals in rural centres before knowing the identity of the finalists.
In 1983, for example, the final between Leinster and Connacht was played in Cavan, while the following year the final between Munster and Leinster was played in Ballinasloe. And so it went.
The switch from the traditional St Patrick’s Day fixture was another body blow to the championships. In hindsight, the wonder is not that the championship gradually lost face in recent times, but that they managed to survive so long such was the ineptitude of the ’Association in promoting and protecting them.
Immense credit is due to Martin Donnelly, initially in financially supporting the championships, and now the attempted revival. Full marks also to Clare’s Noel Walsh, who appears to be ploughing a lone furrow amongst the ’Association’s top administrators in supporting the series.
Clearly the players recognise the honour of inter-provincial selection. Anyone who doubts their commitment would have been hughely impressed by the quality of the hurling and the intensity of the exchanges at Nowlan Park recently in the Leinster-Munster semi-final.
Surely with an open minded, intelligent and aggressive marketing approach the championships have a future? Such an approach has propelled inter-provincial rugby to a stage where a game between Leinster and Munster can attract an attendance of 50,000 to The Aviva Stadium.
Yet this observer can vividly recall attending a game at Lansdowne Road in December 1978 between Leinster and Munster when the attendance did not exceed 400, despite the inter-provincial title being at stake. The power of marketing!
Railway Cup final memories? I have plenty, but a few stand out. The first is from 1962 when, before an attendance of 40,429, Ollie Walsh gave a spellbinding performance in Leinster’s last gasp 1-11 to 1-9 win over Munster to win his first Railway Cup medal.
Later that afternoon Ollie’s team mate, Des Foley, played at midfield in the Leinster footballers success, thus becoming the only player to win inter -provincial medals in both codes on the same day. The second stand out memory was Leinster’s 3-11 to 1-9 win over a Munster side backboned by 10 of Tipperary’s 1964 All-Ireland winning team.
Fronting the brilliant Ollie Walsh, and flanked by two hard tackling Wexfordmen in Tom Neville and Ned Colfer, Kilkenny’s Pa Dillon gave one of the most brilliant performances ever seen on Railway Cup final day. An attendance of 31,368 was simply awe struck by Pa’s display.
Sunday’s game is an ideal opportunity for followers to develop a good habit, ie lending their support to the inter-provincial championships. If that vista doesn’t motivate sufficiently, then perhaps the opportunity to support a team comprising 10 or 11 Kilkenny players should.
The players who have given us so much deserve our support now.
The lack of ambition and foresight of the ’Association’s President, and the relentless negativity of the sports media towards the championship, should not be allowed to influence us in our approach.
So on Sunday this observer would encourage followers to leave the mayhem of Paris and the fiction that is the Premiership and attend at Nowlan Park.