Saturday 18 November 2017

Rise and fall of the competition that once gripped the nation

Book recalls glory days of interprovincial series and the players who made their name there

Christy Ring was a star attraction when the Railway Cup was drawing big crowds
Christy Ring was a star attraction when the Railway Cup was drawing big crowds

Dermot Crowe

Last December Storm Desmond put paid to the GAA's interprovincial series, with cancellations of scheduled matches at venues in Cavan, Newry and Salthill. The games were never played, leaving another gap in the annals of an ailing competition, as had happened at various points in recent years.

The upbeat sponsor, Martin Donnelly, has gone with a few years, having been part of a new effort to revive interest in the competition after he came on board in 2003. This year's series is down for December 10 and 11, but by Thursday last all that could be gleaned from Croke Park regarding venues was that the hurling would be in Munster and the football in Leinster, probably Dublin.

Not unlike the competition itself, debate around the GAA's interprovincial series doesn't set the pulses racing, and the author of a new book charting its rise and fall isn't attempting to suggest otherwise. Dermot Kavanagh has devoted many hours to producing The Story of Interprovincial Hurling, and is working on a football version to follow. This is what you might call a labour of love, inspired by boyhood memories of the series when it was still in its heyday. It is the first of its kind to chronicle the match-by-match evolution of the hurling competition, as it wends its way to the present day: marginalised and relying on some mix of compassion and diehard loyalism to survive.

Once the Railway Cups held a captive audience each St Patrick's Day, reaching peak interest in 1954, when 49,000 attended the finals in Croke Park. When Donnelly took over the sponsorship of the competitions they were retitled, relaunched and given an injection of cash, but various attempts to breathe new life into them have failed.

Even high-ranking officers of the GAA eventually resigned themselves to the futility of retaining the competition if pubic appeal was negligible. The stock argument in favour has been that the players still wanted it, but even that has grown thin.

Recent selections were missing some of the best players in the country not least because the late-year date clashed with successful counties booking team holidays. In 2014, the hurling final was played under lights in Croke Park at the start of March. The next year it went to December and the worst weather imaginable for any sport.

By the time Kavanagh started going to these matches the crowds were still in their tens of thousands. By the time he stopped going regularly - his last was four years ago in Nowlan Park - they had long lost their public appeal to the point where you would almost count the attendance.

He can't remember the hurling competition at its absolute zenith in the 1950s but he started going as a young boy during that decade and became captivated, developing an interest in the great footballers of the time, as well as the hurlers, the likes of James McCartan and Seán O'Neill of Down. "I was always fascinated by it," he explains. "Leinster began to win a few in hurling, and I was ferociously interested in what medals players won.

"The first one I remember was '57, when Ollie Walsh was only 19, and he came on at half-time. Art Foley had a complete meltdown in the goal and let in five goals. Ollie couldn't turn the tide but had a great second half. We had a farm here and Ollie was collecting the milk churns and would give you a wave. So I knew a fella who played at the highest level, with Ring and these fellas."

Kavanagh, who was on the only Rower-Inistioge team to win a Kilkenny senior hurling title in 1968, recounts how attendances started to grow in the 1940s and rose incrementally until the summit of 1954, when Leinster foiled Munster's bid to win seven hurling titles in a row.

From there the crowds began to slide and sometimes undulate - Des Foley's presence in both finals in 1962 fuelled greater interest. That was also the first year live television impinged on the competition, with Teilifís Éireann showing the second half of the hurling final. The author followed the competition enthusiastically through the 1970s, although the crowds were less than half what they were.

"Leinster began five in a row in '71 and you were still getting maybe 25-30,000 - and I never missed those," he says. "I started losing interest when they started fixing them maybe early in the year in places like Cavan in the pissing rain. You had the football first and virtually everyone had gone home when the hurling started."

The early 1980s saw finals being played at different provincial venues and from 1985 the club finals were a permanent fixture in Croke Park. Whereas now people discuss All-Star selections, back when the Railway Cup meant something winters were consumed with discussions on who might make the Leinster hurling team.

The reasons for the decline are well-documented. The author cites the emergence of the club championships, the later absence of a fixed calendar date, changing locations, poor marketing, expanding TV coverage, the retirement of Christy Ring - a huge crowd-puller - and changing social habits and tastes.

Playing the hurling final on the undercard of All-Ireland club hurling final in Thurles might generate greater interest, he feels, or at least help it recover some dignity. He recalls one of last decent crowds at a hurling final being in 1994 in Thurles when it preceded an All-Ireland club semi-final between St Rynagh's and Athenry.

Perhaps the most evocative depiction of the competition's demise in Kavanagh's book is in the final two photographs displayed of a generous collection - bleak images of flooded grounds at Galway and Armagh in December 2015, with the venues deserted and gates shut.

After Donnelly came on board as sponsor the hurling final was played in Rome and other foreign locations were also used for both competitions. But it remained an erratic affair: with Rome one year, Salthill the next; February one year, November the next; meeting sheiks in Dubai one year, no competition at all for the next two.

This book, self-published, isn't a maudlin lament to the unravelling of a competition that used to have a strong grip on the public imagination and which bestowed on Ring an incredible 18 medals.

It traces the journey, step by step, and offers GAA followers a useful resource and reference, detailing every player who wore their provincial colours. There may not be much more left to tell.

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