Hurling history: The struggle to play Cork and Limerick at the height of the War of Independence

Hurling history: The struggle to play Cork and Limerick at the height of the War of Independence
The commemorative Cork jerseys of Eoin Cadogan, Patrick Collins, and Sean O'Leary, designed to honour Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney who both died while serving as Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

As Cork’s Munster Championship clash with Limerick appears unlikely to take place next month, EOIN KEANE recalls another scheduled meeting between the two teams, 100 years ago, that was postponed under very different circumstances

Cork Lord Mayor Tomas McCurtain meets the captains at the start of a Gaelic Football match.  
Cork Lord Mayor Tomas McCurtain meets the captains at the start of a Gaelic Football match.  

“EXTREME tension and fear of momentous happenings are having their effects on the public mind.

Few think of sporting matters these days. This is scarcely pure wisdom, for games and sports form a useful safety-valve to high pressure in public feeling…

Let us hope the great game between Limerick and Cork will be played at an early date under happier conditions. Just now, the outlook is dark and the sky thunder-laden.”

No, the above excerpt is not referencing the current crisis that has enveloped the county, nor is it lamenting the inevitable cancellation of Cork’s clash with Limerick in in the first round of the Munster Hurling Championship next month.

In fact, it is from a publication of the Evening Echo dated September 4, 1920, almost 100 years ago, when the Irish Free State was still two years from its inception.

The Ireland of 1920 was experiencing ‘momentous happenings’ indeed. The country was in the midst of the War of Independence and Cork, in particular, was a focal point of revolutionary activity.

The most violent county in Ireland between 1919 and 1921, IRA brigades in Cork accounted for 16% of the total deaths at the time, earning the Rebel County an international reputation for its armed resistance against Empirical forces.

Initially at least, the GAA managed to keep its games alive and while naturally perceived as a cultural supporter of the struggle for independence, it continued relatively undisturbed by the tumult.

The independent co-existence of both national movements in Munster is best encapsulated by the events of September 7, 1919, when on the same day that Cork beat Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final at Markets Field in Limerick, an IRA ambush involving 23 Cork volunteers took place 40 miles to the south in Fermoy.

Later that month, as Michael Collins was assembling his 'Squad', his Rebel compatriots won the All-Ireland for the first time in 16 years.

As the war continued unabated into the following year, the All-Ireland champions travelled to Tralee, their provincial and national titles on the line.

It was hubris however, rather than any political interferences that almost put a premature end to Cork’s hurling season.

The Cork Examiner dismissed the host’s chances of an upset, writing that Kerry had been “for many years, rather backward in this department of the national pastime”.

As such, an encouraging display by the Kingdom “caused grave anxiety to the Cork team and their supporters.”

Despite being two points down at half-time and seemingly “hindered by an oval-shaped pitch”, Cork recovered to win on a scoreline of 2-5 to 2-2.

Job done. The winners of Limerick and Tipperary awaited them in the decider.

By August however, the conflict in Munster was escalating apace. A day before Limerick defeated Tipperary in the other semi-final, Volunteers from the East Limerick Brigade joined forces with the Second Cork Brigade to ambush an eight-man foot patrol near Kildorrery, fatally wounding one.

The following Thursday, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney was arrested as he presided over a staff meeting of the Cork No.1 Brigade of the IRA at City Hall.

Charged with the possession of “documents likely to cause disaffection to his Majesty”, MacSwiney immediately joined a hunger strike that was already underway in Cork Gaol.

Cork’s preparations for the Munster final, scheduled for August 29, carried on nonetheless. A couple of trial matches were arranged between St Mary’s (a now defunct club based in Blackpool) and a Cork County team.

The games were played in Riverstown, after which it was reported that “Cork should be able to produce a fine team in the Munster final, notwithstanding military restrictions preventing the training of players on a bigger pitch”.

But as Cork were busying themselves in preparation for their clash with Limerick, events appertaining to the Lord Mayor’s incarceration were beginning to relegate hurling to back of people’s minds.

A few days after his arrest, MacSwiney was court-martialled and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment before being sent to Brixton Prison in London.

The body of Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSwiney at Cork City Hall in October 1920. The already postponed Munster final between Cork and Limerick was delayed further in the wake of his death and wouldn’t be played until April 1922 when Cork won.
The body of Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSwiney at Cork City Hall in October 1920. The already postponed Munster final between Cork and Limerick was delayed further in the wake of his death and wouldn’t be played until April 1922 when Cork won.

While on hunger strike, he became an international figure, triggering mass demonstrations globally. The British cabinet, however, remained unyielding and on the Thursday before the Munster Final was due to be played, declared that “the release of the Lord Mayor would have disastrous results in Ireland and would probably lead to a mutiny of both military and police in South of Ireland”.

By this stage, prisoners in Cork Gaol were more than two weeks into their hunger strike and in seemingly perilous condition, to such an extent it was reported that “removal, in lorries, to a barracks, might prove fatal”.

The perishing men included Joseph Kenny from Grenagh (great-grandfather of former Cork hurler Tom), Joseph Murphy from the Pouladuff Road who hurled with the Plunkett’s Club in Togher and Michael Fitzgerald, a GAA playing member with Fermoy.

A cohort of five Limerick natives, namely Christopher Upton, Michael Reilly, John Hennessy, and John and Peter Crowley were also among the hunger strikers in Cork.

On the Friday night, the Cork selection committee held an emergency meeting.

There, the decision was made that “in view of the treatment being meted out to the Lord Mayor and other political prisoners by the British government, and especially the exceedingly perilous condition of these patriots at the present time, that the Cork team would not travel to Thurles to fulfil the engagement with Limerick in the Munster hurling final. It is felt that this decision will have approval of not only the Gaels of Cork City and County, but also the approval of the Gaels of Limerick City and County and every part of the country”.

A wire was sent to Limerick, intimating Cork’s stance. As expected, Limerick replied, approving of their decision and agreeing to the postponement.

It is perhaps indicative of the times that by the Sunday, news of the postponement had yet to filter through to all quarters of the national media. One newspaper, previewing the game, noted that although “Cork have been handicapped by the present unsettled condition of affairs in their county, we understand they intend fielding a strong combination that is expected to uphold the honour of the southern capital”.

Unaware of its cancellation, the publication anticipated “one of the best contests played in the cathedral town in some years”.

On October 25, Terence MacSwiney died in Brixton Prison. Joseph Murphy died that same day in Cork Gaol. A week before, Michael Fitzgerald had become one of the first hunger strikers to die.

The day after MacSwiney’s death, the central council of the GAA held a special meeting, where they unanimously decided to make the following Sunday a closed date throughout the country, after which all GAA games were to be postponed “so as to record the sympathy of the GAA with the Lady Mayoress of Cork in her great bereavement and admiration for the Lord Mayor’s heroic sacrifice”.

The conclusion of the 1920 Munster Championship would have to wait.

Funeral procession at Daunt's Square, Cork during Irish War of Independence period circa 1920
Funeral procession at Daunt's Square, Cork during Irish War of Independence period circa 1920

By the end of the year, the war had reached its crescendo and on December 10, the British government declared martial law in Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, and Kerry.

Mass gatherings of young men were forcefully terminated, often with tragic repercussions. On February 7, 1921, a military patrol opened fire on a body of civilians near Knocknagree, who were thought to have been armed.

Two boys, aged nine and 11, were wounded as they were “hurling in a field adjoining the village”.

Michael J Kelleher, aged 14, was killed. That year, almost no GAA activity occurred in Cork.

The absence of Gaelic Games was often remarked upon in ‘Carbery’s Column’, a regular feature in the Evening Echo.

One such column, published on May 9, 1921, observed that the “cessation of hurling, football, coursing, handball, bowling, and kindred native pastimes leaves a big void in the lighter side of our outdoor physical life…in Tipperary, Clare, and Limerick, as well as in Cork County, games are almost dead”.

Carbery proceeds to solemnly ponder how long it would be “before Cork hurling will again fill its old place in the weekly and seasonal life of the populace.”

Carbery would have to wait a further 11 months. On January 22, 1922, the Munster Council met in Limerick, where it was decided that the deferred Munster final would be fixed for March 5 in Dungarvan.

British tanks on a beach near Cork, circa 1920. Picture: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
British tanks on a beach near Cork, circa 1920. Picture: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

However, at a subsequent meeting held in Cork in February, a deputation on behalf of the Southern Division of the IRA requested that the games be devoted to “the members of the IRA who were incapacitated through active service”.

Consequently, it was decided that the game should be postponed once more until the first Sunday of April.

The Cork team prepared diligently, arranging trial matches against both Collegians at the Mardyke and Shamrocks in Shanbally. The Munster final, itself, was played out in front of an estimated 14,000 strong crowd at the Cork Athletic Grounds on April 2, 1922.

The eagerly anticipated clash lived up to its billing, the Cork Examiner eulogising the performance of both teams, claiming it had never seen “a more strenuous contest than that in which the hurling prowess of Cork and Limerick was put to the test”.

Cork emerged victorious, on a scoreline of 3-5 to 0-5, thanks in no small part to the stellar performance of one Brendan Considine, who contributed 1-2 to the winning tally.

One of the few building facades still standing on Patrick's Street following the burning of Cork in December 1920.
One of the few building facades still standing on Patrick's Street following the burning of Cork in December 1920.

Twenty-two months after its commencement, the 1920 Munster Hurling Championship had finally drawn to a close.

Or had it?

A couple of weeks after the game, it emerged that Limerick had lodged an objection to the result, on the basis that Cork had fielded an illegal player.

The player in question? Brendan Considine, a Clare native whose nomadic hurling career owing to his position in the Munster and Leinster Bank had seen him don a Dublin jersey, winning an All-Ireland in 1917, before pitching up in Cork, where he hurled with Collegians. Considine is also reputed to be the youngest player to ever win an All-Ireland hurling medal having been part of Clare’s victorious team in 1914 at the age of 17.

Limerick argued that Considine had already played in the championship for Clare, albeit two years previously in their defeat to Tipperary and was thus ineligible.

Ultimately, the 1920 Munster Championship would be settled in the boardroom.

Considering that Ireland, and Munster in particular, was on the precipice of a vicious Civil War, further division in the province was certainly undesirable.

On April 12 (two days before 200 anti-Treaty IRA men took over the Four Courts), the editor of the Evening Echo warned that “a division in the Gaelic ranks at the present time is to be guarded against” and that should Limerick be awarded victory it would result in the “severance of a friendship that has been cemented on many a hard-fought field”.

Whether or not Cork’s young recruit from the Turnpike area of Ennis had actually played against Tipperary is unclear. The match report from June 1920 references a T Considine, possibly Brendan’s brother Turlough, who also hurled for Clare.

Nevertheless, a special meeting of the Munster Council GAA was arranged for Sunday, April 23 in Tipperary to resolve the issue as amicably as possible.

The Cork representatives went on the offensive, lodging a counter-objection, claiming that Limerick had breached a rule in relation to the payment of two shillings to the Provincial Council from each affiliated club.

The Munster Council pleaded for a harmonious settlement, asking both Cork and Limerick to come to an agreement among themselves. After much deliberation and consultation, it was eventually decided that both the objection and counter objection would be withdrawn.

Cork would be allowed to progress to the All-Ireland final as Munster champions and in order to “preserve the friendly relations subsisting between Cork and Limerick”, both counties would also compete in the final of the 1921 Munster Championship, which had, to that point, remained un-played.

After some reluctance, the representatives of Waterford, Tipperary and Clare acquiesced in the hope of “maintaining the splendid feeling which had animated the Gaels of Munster”.

Finally, the saga was over. Cork were Munster champions.

Hurling action between Cork and Tipp, circa 1916. 
Hurling action between Cork and Tipp, circa 1916. 

On May 14, 1922, Cork lost the final of the 1920 All-Ireland Hurling Championship to Dublin (a representative team from Faugh’s GAA Club). Two weeks later, they lost the final of the 1921 Munster Hurling Championship to their old foes Limerick.

Unsurprisingly, Brendan Considine played in neither game. By then however, the sobering inevitability of civil war in Ireland had trivialised those outcomes, the Cork Examiner reflecting after the defeat to Dublin that “none will deny that such contests — no matter who may be the victors — are infinitely preferable to rivalries of another kind which it is not necessary, more minutely to describe.”

More pertinently, Gaelic Games had returned at last to Cork and to Munster. The epic story of the 1920 Munster Championship is a timely reminder that sport in Ireland has persevered through testing times before.

It will return. Eventually. As our old friend Carbery alluded to; our native games are merely in a period of enforced hibernation. “How long the sleep, no man can know but that it is sleep and not death is certain.”

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