Wednesday 23 October 2019

The day Wexford dreams came true

Wexford fans will have been at a loose end this past weekend. It's not too long ago that we dared to dream that Sunday would see the purple and gold horde head north once again to do battle with our bitter rivals and illustrious neighbours Kilkenny in a first All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final since 1996. Sadly, things didn't quite pan out that way and following a courageous battle with Munster hurling royalty in Tipperary, Wexford were sent crashing out of the Championship. Compiling his memoirs in a personal project bearing the title 'Before I Forget', retired schoolteacher and Wexford native John Casey remembers a more favourable battle with the Premier County that took place on an All-Ireland Final weekend in 1968. Now a resident in Wicklow, John is a proud Wexford man having lived in Screen where he attended the local national school, before moving to Hollyfort Gorey and attending Monaseed NS and Gorey Christian Brothers. In this personal recollection, he takes us back to those heady days of '68

Wexford goalie, Pat Nolan, just manages to stop the ball from going over the bar as Tipperary forward, Sean McLoughlin (14), tries in vain to get the ball across during the 1968 All Ireland hurling final at Croke Park
Wexford goalie, Pat Nolan, just manages to stop the ball from going over the bar as Tipperary forward, Sean McLoughlin (14), tries in vain to get the ball across during the 1968 All Ireland hurling final at Croke Park
John Casey

On the first Sunday in September 1968 myself, my brothers Peter and Philip, along with school pal Michael Egan from Gorey, made the trip to Croke Park in Dublin to watch Wexford play in the All-Ireland hurling final. Our strawberry cheque arrived and we were given some money for our day out.

Having never been there before, we were as excited as little pigs in a new bed of straw. We went more in hope than in confidence though, as the great Tipperary team they were up against were raging hot favourites and had been almost unbeatable throughout that decade. We were all familiar with this team especially with names such as Jimmy Doyle (my all-time hurling hero), Donie Nealon and Babs Keating.

It was a wet morning as we were waiting for the train to arrive in Gorey station. We had queued up and got our tickets from the station master Mr Naessens, a Kilkenny native and ardent Kilkenny supporter, who smiled at us and wished us luck.

The platform was totally crowded with people going to the match, mostly men and boys. It wasn't certain if we could get onto the train the platform was so packed. Also we had no guarantee that we could get into the match as we had no tickets either. Nobody had tickets in advance of course in those days. You went along and you took pot luck.

Then we heard the train in the distance and as it drew closer to the station the lights flashed and the horns blared. It arrived in, bedecked with purple and gold flags. The crowd in the station made a mad rush to the various doors. We all squeezed on - just about. We had to stand of course as all the seats were occupied, even though there were extra carriages laid on for the occasion. Off we went amidst cheers from well-wishers on the platform and shouts of 'Up Wexford' and 'Come on the Yella Bellies' from lads leaning out the windows with their flags.

Unbelievably, more people squeezed on in Arklow, Rathdrum, Wicklow and Bray on the way up leaving us all like sardines in a tin. Eventually the train arrived at our destination, Westland Row. Out we got. What a relief! Now for Croke Park! We hadn't a clue where it was of course so we just followed the crowd down through Pearse Street and over the Liffey into O'Connell Street.

There we encountered street sellers selling all kinds of hats and scarves and flags. We bought purple and gold paper hats with Up Wexford written with marker on the front. By the time we got to the stadium the dye from the crepe paper was dripping down our faces in the rain. Things weren't looking good.

Thankfully we got in, just as the minor match was starting between Wexford and Cork. We were at the canal end over in a corner, close to a high concrete wall on which a group of wild Wexford supporters were sitting.

The wall must have been twenty feet high and if any of them was to fall they would surely have been killed. But they had no fear of heights and were chanting '2 -4- 6 -8 who do we appreciate? W-E-X-F-O-R-D - Wexford.' The minor lads were playing well. If we could win this one, at least we wouldn't be going home empty-handed.

But Cork had a blondie-haired bombshell called John Ring on their team, a nephew of the great Christy Ring, and he was playing a blinder.

On the other hand Wexford had a number of stalwarts such as Martin Quigley, Jack Russell (he wasn't terrier-like at all but a most skilful and graceful player) and a fellow called Mick Butler from the Buffers Alley club.

Wexford won the minor match amid wild celebrations from the huge Wexford support. Now the place was getting very crowded as the big game drew nearer, so crowded that you literally couldn't move. The rain had now stopped and the sun was trying to break through.

The Artane Boys Band came out and played some rousing stuff. Then the Tipperary team sprinted out onto the field to roars and cheers from the Tipp fans. They proceeded to give a demonstration of their sharp-shooting, zipping balls over the bar and into the net like hurling magicians. This was so intimidating, I thought. Some of the Tipp supporters close to us were smiling at us as if to say 'yis are in for a right hidin' now boys'.

Then the Wexford team ran out to huge roars and shouts from the Wexford supporters. They pucked the ball around as well but they didn't seem to match the skills of the Tipp lads. Maybe they didn't want to be tiring themselves out before the match had even started.

The Artane Boys Band played Boolavogue for all the Wexford fans and Sliabh na mBan for the Tipperary faithful. Then the parade started and the whole place erupted. We had never witnessed anything like this before.

The ball was thrown in and the game was on. The Tipp lads were lording it over Wexford, dominating the play and shooting points from impossible angles. Babs Keating was having a field day. The Wexford lads seemed to be off the pace and out of their depth against the Munster champions.

Only for Pat Nolan in goal the scoreline would have been worse. Things weren't looking good. Nothing seemed to go right for them. Even when they had the ball in the Tipp net it was disallowed. By half time Tipp were eight points ahead and Wexford faced humiliation.

At half time the crowd were given a special treat when our favourite ballad group Emmet Spiceland (Donal Lunny, Brian Byrne and Mick Byrne) came out onto a stand in the centre of the pitch and sang The Streams of Bunclody which was very popular at the time. I can still remember them in their white shirts as they sang in harmony for their appreciative audience. The sound system wasn't great but it was fabulous to see them live. The Artane Boys Band came out again and played more tunes. I remember thinking 'my God, those poor young fellas are all orphans'. We had often heard that they came from an orphanage in Artane in Dublin. Years later we were to find out more about that place.

The second half started in the same way as the first with a Tipp score. Goodnight.

Then all of a sudden the game changed. As if a light bulb had been switched on, the Wexford lads woke up out of their slumber and got to grips with the game. Tipp's Jimmy Doyle had gone off injured just before half-time and maybe that had tilted the game slightly in Wexford's favour. The next thing the ball was in the Tipp net and all hell broke loose.

It was at the other end of the pitch, at the Railway End, so we didn't have a good view. There was just this almighty roar that nearly lifted the roof of the Cusack Stand where the Wexford supporters were concentrated. Then a few minutes later another goal. The place went wild. It was that red-haired fella from Buffers Alley, Tony Doran. A couple of minutes later Doran got the ball again, swash-buckled his way into the square and palmed the ball to the net - another goal. 'Who got it'? A fellow beside us enquired. 'It was f***in' Doran again' someone beside him answered, all excited. 'You f***in' beauty Doran' he then roared in delight as he embraced his friends. A minute later another goal for Wexford. Then another goal. This was a goal avalanche. Suddenly Wexford were eight points ahead and the great Tipperary team were shell-shocked. By this time young blondie-haired John Quigley was on the Wexford team and he was running amok.

But Tipperary weren't finished yet. They found their mojo again and worked their way back into the game. Donie Nealon and Mick Roche were catching everything that came their way and the Tipp midfielders were beginning to dominate again. Then Tipp came up to the Canal End and the ball was in the Wexford net. A few minutes later they were up at our end again. A free in for Tipp - another goal. It looked as if they were going to deny our lads at the death. But the sixty minutes were almost up and they couldn't find that extra goal or couple of points. Wexford had won by two points, Wexford 5-8 Tipperary 3-12. All the yellow bellies flooded out onto the pitch and there was absolute bedlam. The Wexford captain Dan Quigley, didn't know what to say for his acceptance speech but stumbled through something or other. He probably had nothing prepared. But he had a great game and Wexford supporters didn't give a hoot about speeches as long as they were bringing Liam McCarthy home. Some were crying with joy. I was anyway. Dreams do come true sometimes.

The rain came down again as soon as we left Croke Park and so we hot-footed it to Westland Row to get the train back home. Again the train was packed and there was barely standing room, but who cared! This had been one of the greatest days of our lives. Not so for two of the passengers that we knew though, our teacher, Tipperary man Tom Flaherty, and his teacher friend from Gorey, Corkman Diarmaid O'Súilleabháin. They looked as if they had one too many to drown their sorrows. Mr Flaherty was going go get an awful slagging in school the next day, the first day of the new school year.

The following evening our whole family, dad, mam and all, went in to Gorey to welcome home our hurling heroes. They were to mount a lorry which was on the lower main street so that people could see them and cheer them on. The whole main street was jam -packed with flag-waving supporters. Then the cavalcade of cars arrived up Esmonde Street from Dublin with captain, big Dan Quigley holding the McCarthy Cup in his hand out through the car window. After a while they were all on the back of the lorry and the ecstatic crowd feted them all : Dan Quigley, Eddie Kelly, Willie Murphy, Jack Berry, Phil Wilson, Tom Neville, Tony Doran, Dave Bernie, Seamus Whelan, Paul Lynch, Christy Jacob, Vinnie Staples, Jimmy O'Brien Ned Colfer, John Quigley…….'and we'll be back here again with the McCarthy Cup next year' they vowed to their adoring fans. Unfortunately it would be another twenty eight years before that promise would be fulfilled.

Wexford also won the All-Ireland camogie final in 1968, making it a clean sweep. Then they won it again the following year, something that the lads couldn't match.

Gorey Guardian