Saturday 18 November 2017

'They said wait 'til the All Blacks get you - they'll kill you' - The Dublin publican who conquered New Zealand

Sean Lynch on tour with the Lions in 1971 (left) and beside his bust in The Swan Bar.
Sean Lynch on tour with the Lions in 1971 (left) and beside his bust in The Swan Bar.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

If you are a regular inhabitant of Dublin pubs, or have raised a glass in any of the city centre’s most popular establishments, then you are probably familiar with The Swan Bar.

And if you have ambled through the door of the Aungier Street tavern and ordered a drink, you may have wondered who the individual is, sitting atop a counter in the corner, that has been immortalised in bronze.

While waiting for your pint to settle, Ronan Lynch – who now runs The Swan – could regale you with tales of his father Sean, whose achievements in rugby were impressive enough to warrant a bust in the pub that has been in his family since 1937.

It is at this time of a Lions year when the ‘pinnacle’ of Lynch’s rugby career gets another well-deserved airing – for he, along with silken skilled legends like Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards and Barry John, and with the oaken leader that was Willie John McBride, formed part of the only Lions team to ever win a series against the All Blacks.

The tour was almost 46 years ago, so every little detail doesn’t immediately come to Lynch right away – thankfully, his wife Marline is on hand with an impeccable knowledge of her husband’s famous 1971 summer.

“I think there were five Irish out there,” Lynch says.

“There were six,” Marline interjects.

“I think there were five?”

“Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride, Fergus Slattery, Ray McLoughlin, Mick Hipwell and yourself.”

“Thank God I have you with me Marline or I’d be lost!”

Lions legend Jim Telfer likens winning a test series to climbing Mount Everest, but the way Lynch describes his 77-day, 26-match slog makes it sound more like an Ernest Shackleton expedition – with a similar chance of having a few fingers maimed.

“In total I was gone for three and a half months,” he says, with Marline adding that her husband left Dublin, and The Swan Bar, on April 30 and didn’t return until August 16.

“I got an allowance of 15 shillings a day, not that I wanted anything.

“I was honoured to be selected as an Irish Lion. There was no commercial aspect to it from my angle. I was running The Swan at the time and I had to get a few barmen in when I went out.”

For Lynch’s sake, it is lucky that monetary reward wasn’t his key motive for touring – it’s tough to accurately convert 15 shillings per day into today’s money, but it is about as lucrative as a JobBridge internship.

The flip side to Lynch leaving The Swan for an entire summer was the profile boost that came with being involved in such a historic rugby achievement. Lynch and his Irish team-mates weren’t exactly Brian O’Driscoll after his Parisian hat-trick, but the attention he did get didn't hurt one bit.

“The kickback off that was good business-wise, it was good for the pub and people would come in here,” Lynch says.

“I remember walking down the street and people would stop him and shake his hand,” Marline adds.

“We even got our picture on the front of the paper when we get married!”

Lynch had only made his Ireland debut a few months before the tour, and was thought to be firmly down the pecking order along with Scotland’s Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan when the rugby got underway.

First-choice props Sandy Carmichael and Irishman Ray McLoughlin then went down injured, vaulting Lynch and McLauchlan into the test team.

Ray McLoughlin was the victim of one of those notoriously tough midweek games where the edict handed down to the club players is a simple one: kick the living sh*t out of the tourists.

“I think Ray McLoughlin broke his fist against Canterbury,” Lynch says, leaving you to imagine what sort of rugby justice was inflicted by the Irish prop to acquire such a particular war wound.

“Let me put it this way – we didn’t need them in the end. Myself and Mighty Mouse came in and did the business.

“The New Zealand props were good – at least they were until they met us. Myself and Mighty Mouse visited a school with about 1700 pupils and they all burst out laughing at the size of us and said ‘Wait ‘til the All Blacks get you, they’ll kill you’. And I said, ‘time will tell’.”

The Lions sealed a 2-1 test series win against Colin Meads and company after JPR Williams tied the fourth and final test with a drop goal, with Lynch and his team-mates ‘blowing town the next day’ with a lifetime of memories and everlasting glory.

“We had a good celebration, I’ll put it that way. What happens on tour, stays on tour,” he says.

Lynch returned to The Swan, which was then firmly as established as Dublin’s rugby pub, with 22 stitches near his mouth - a souvenir from the New Zealand Maoris.

After Lynch retired, the Irish Triple Crown-winning teams of the 80s were regular visitors to The Swan for a pre-match ritual long before the days where Instragramming pictures of coffee cups qualified as players letting their hair down.

“This is where they used to drink,” Lynch says, pointing to an area beside us that served as a quasi-tactical war room for the Irish team.

“In those days they could come in and nobody would see them – well, people knew they were here but they didn’t know that people knew they were here! We used to have two pints. You needed two draughts to relax before a match. You wouldn’t see that today – there would be murder!”

Lynch is as excited as ever for this summer’s tour and desperately wants a new generation of Lions to join him and his team-mates in their exclusive All Blacks-conquering club. The prospect of another St Mary’s prop, Jack McGrath, repeating his feat adds extra interest for Lynch, who, despite enjoying success with Ireland, values his Lions experience above all.

“It is great to have it on my CV, they can never take it away from me,” he says.

“We won a championship with Ireland but I think the Lions was the pinnacle. It will always stay in my mind as long as I’m alive.”

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