Leeside Legends: Jack Lynch loved hurling long after he left the game

Dave Hannigan reflects on the legend of Jack Lynch, a star at everything he turned his hand to
Leeside Legends: Jack Lynch loved hurling long after he left the game

Jack Lynch was an incredible hurler and footballer, winning All-Irelands and counties in both codes. 

THE location was a pitch in Bandon known as ‘The Bog’ on the last Sunday in November, 1938.

The occasion was the county football final between Clonakilty and St Nicholas. On a dirty, wet afternoon, St Nick’s were having the better of it against a West Cork side determined not to lose its sixth such decider in seven years. They were leading 2-1 to 0-2 with the clock starting to wind down, when an attempted clearance by a Clon defender got caught in the wind and blew into a flooded stream nearby. The conditions had finished off one ball and the future of the game was suddenly cast into doubt.

This was roughly the point when Jack Lynch assumed control. Demonstrating the leadership skills of a future Taoiseach and evincing the desperation of a man who knew little football glory to that point in his career, he waded into the gushing waters, swam after the ball, recovered it, and promptly returned to man his position for the remainder of the match. What else could he have done? He and half his team were chasing a county double, and just up from intermediate ranks that season, probably didn’t fancy giving the more experienced Clonakilty side a replay the following week. The Northsiders and Lynch hung on for their first football title.

Not quite seven years later, Lynch was standing at the Number 16 bus stop in Kenilworth Square, Terenure on the Sunday morning of the 1945 All-Ireland football final. Several packed buses had passed him by when he finally flagged one down and pleaded his case. He needed to get to Croke Park to play in the match against Cavan. The novelty of the claim so amused the driver he allowed him to board. When Lynch finally reached the dressing-room where his colleagues were already togging on for the fray, the door was opened by Jim Hurley, a selector, who greeted the late arrival.

“Hello Jack Lynch,” said the Clonakilty man, “you were great to come!”

Two hours later, Cork had bridged a 34-year gap, taken possession of Sam Maguire and made Lynch the first man to bring a football All-Ireland back to Blackpool. There are so many victories that it just seemed appropriate to start with two of the most colourful, a pair of big ball triumphs amid all that hurling glory.

His career with St Nick’s, Glen Rovers and Cork yielded five All-Ireland hurling medals (four in a row of course), one All-Ireland football, 10 Cork county senior hurling championships (eight in a row), three National Hurling Leagues, three Railway Cups, two Cork county senior football championships and a Dublin senior football title with Civil Service. Listing his achievements takes nearly a whole paragraph when most would need only a sentence.

“First and last, Jack is a hurler,” wrote a contemporary observer, John Power, in The Cork Book of Champions in 1945. “To him, the art of the camán is an open book. Fast ground play, open, overhead hurling, attack, defence — Jack has mastered them all. His game is ever clean, no shouting, no nerves, no fraying temper. He can give and take hard knocks as part of the game and being grassed — which indeed has been very seldom — can pick himself up with as charming a smile as you could wish to see. A hurler of the old and new schools. Jack Lynch seems to typify the kind of Irishman Cusack, Croke and those others had in mind when they brought back the hurling to Ireland.”

If he was indeed the archetype of what the founding fathers of the GAA had envisaged, it was kind of ironic that he had learnt much of his football skills playing with a soccer ball on the streets around Shandon. Often, the only ball available belonged to his uncle, Mick O’Donoghue, who was chairman of the Munster Football Association. When not kicking that into an improvised goal by the entrance to the Butter Market, he and his pals would buy “shape-outs” from the woodmills on Leitrim Street that they would convert into hurleys.

“As we grew older, we moved up to the open spaces of the Fair Field where others joined us from the surrounding areas, many of whom later went on to achieve fame with Glen Rovers and Cork,” wrote Finbarr Lynch, in a moving contribution to “Where We Sported and Played”, Liam Ó Tuama’s celebration of Jack’s life. “Many thrilling games were played on the hard surface and it was here that Jack further developed his hurling skills. When the games were over, we washed ourselves and drank water from the pump at Mickey Sullivan’s pub and made our way home in time for tea and some homework for school the next day.”

THE MON

Born on August 15, 1917, the boy would who become famous as Jack was christened John Mary Lynch, and was the youngest of seven children. His father Dan, a tailor, hailed originally from Baurgorm, near Bantry, and his mother Nora’s family were from Glounthaune. Schooled at St Vincent’s and the North Monastery — with whom he won three successive Harty Cups — his extra-curricular education began after he took the same path as his older brothers down to Glen Rovers around the age of 10. On and off the field, he was a stalwart for them thereafter.

In 1953, Lynch, by then a local TD, went to the Munster and Leinster Bank to apply for a loan of (pounds)10,000 on behalf of the club.

They needed it to fund the construction of a new premises. A tidy sum for the time, the bank manager asked him what he proposed to put down as his collateral. “The people of Blackpool are my collateral,” he replied.

On becoming Taoiseach 13 years later, a Dublin journalist asked why he’d chosen to return to the Glen Hall to celebrate his election. “Sure in the name of God,” he answered, “where else would I go?”

Where else but the club he began starring for in his early teens. A minor hurlers and footballer at the callow age of 13, he was first picked for the Cork senior hurling team while in fifth year at the Mon. That so many adolescent prodigies in every sport fail to deliver on early promise makes the subsequent length of his stint at the top — 15 years with the county alone — one more remarkable element of his persona.

More impressive still, Lynch achieved all this success in both codes while pursuing a serious academic career. From secondary school through studying law by night to qualifying for the bar, he managed to somehow balance the different sides of his life.

IN DEMAND

The juggling reached a ridiculous level on February 20, 1944. That was the day he togged out for three different teams in Dublin. His first was a league game for Civil Service against Eoghan Ruadh at Islandbridge. In order to conserve energy, he started in goal but, for once, he wasn’t a natural. To atone for a couple of costly errors, he played the second half out the field and chipped in 1-2 to his side’s victory. From there, it was into town and on to Croke Park for the Railway Cup semi-finals. At a time when that competition was still a prestigious event on the GAA calendar, he contributed a point to Munster’s victory over Ulster in the hurling. A change of jersey later, he took the field again and scored two points for the province’s footballers in their defeat by the northerners. A curious entry in his career lot, it is one that reeks of his commitment.

The irony of his inter-county career was that for a time he had no luck at all with Cork teams. His years in the minor grade coincided with the emergence of Tipperary who dominated the age group then. His early days on the senior scene were equally uninspiring. After three premature Munster championship exits in his first three summers as first-choice, his luck changed in 1939. Cork came out of Munster and reached their first All-Ireland final since 1931. The opening game of the ’31 trilogy marked his first trip to Croke Park as a fan. On the weekend that the world went to war in 1939, he returned to Dublin as captain of his county in a game that would enter the annals as the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ final.

“It was a raging storm and the rain came down like stair rods,” said Lynch. “At times it was impossible to see more than 20 yards away from you. Conditions were almost unplayable. The ground conditions themselves were very difficult and we felt a bit strange as we had not been to Croke Park before, at least as a senior county hurling team. Kilkenny had been there many times and they seemed to settle in far more quickly.

A one-point defeat was made worse for the captain by the fact he’d missed a goal chance near the end, first-timing the ball over the bar. The circumstances of the loss — arguments raged for decades about whether Kilkenny’s winning 70 was taken from the right line — reinforced Lynch’s own concerns that he might never win an All-Ireland. How wrong he was.

The circumstances in which he snagged his first Celtic cross against Dublin in 1941 were so comfortable that towards the end of that 5-11 to 0-6 rout, Lynch and John Quirke went down ‘injured’ in order to allow Bobby Ryng and Paddy O’Donovan to be introduced to the fray. The two teams met again a year later, and in the build-up to that encounter, there was an incident which demonstrated the different conditions Lynch and his peers laboured under at the old Athletic Grounds. They togged out for training in an area under the old stand, with an earthen floor, and wooden planks on upturned boxes served as seats. Having hung their clothes from nails that were driven into the seats of the stands above their heads, they returned from the field to find every item soaked through with rain. With each player using a solitary tap to wash the mud from their legs, they were soon up to their ankles in sludge.

Glen Rovers led by Jack Lynch against Sars at the Cork Athletic Grounds, September 1940. 
Glen Rovers led by Jack Lynch against Sars at the Cork Athletic Grounds, September 1940. 

As captain, Lynch left the session and made it to the regular Tuesday night meeting of the County Board in time to voice the players’ anger about the conditions under which they were training. However eloquently he put their case, the reaction of the delegates and officials was unanimous. “I’m afraid I got short shrift,” he wrote later. Despite the board’s unwillingness to do something about the standard of facilities, Dublin were duly dispatched again, and, as captain, Lynch lifted Liam MacCarthy.

“I was marking Jack in that game,” recalled Dublin’s Harry Gray in Tim Horgan’s magnificent “Cork’s Hurling Story”. “And I must say it was a pleasure to play on him. He was a great ball-player, very clean and had wonderful anticipation. Jack would move into position as soon as the ball was struck at the end of the field, and he always picked the right spot to be under it. My gambit was to pull in the air as the ball landed. Otherwise I might as well say goodbye to it.”

The next September, Antrim had shocked Kilkenny in the semi-finals but playing into the wind in the first half of the final, the northerners trailed Cork by 3-11 to 0-2 at the break and the game was over as a contest. Later, Lynch would often speak of his sympathy for his opponents that day, more especially when a couple of them informed him they’d often been prevented from getting to training by the local authorities back home. 

When Taoiseach in 1969, as The Troubles kicked into high gear, he stepped in to ensure the Antrim U21 footballers could get to Cork for an All-Ireland semi-final. With roadblocks preventing them journeying south, he organized for them to fly down.

En route to the four-in-a-row, Cork’s most difficult games were always in Munster. They were actually defeated by Tipperary in the 1941 provincial final — the game was played after the All-Ireland because of a foot-and-mouth outbreak — and at least three of Lynch’s team-mates made the unwise decision to stop off in a Croom pub on the way to the re-fixed Munster final.

They needed a replay and a wonder goal by Christy Ring to get past Limerick in 1944, and, though strong at the time, Dublin never seemed able to bring their best form on the days that mattered most. In 1944, they did make a promising start to their third appearance in four deciders, and kept Cork scoreless for the first 10 minutes.

“Lynch’s 70s were going wide of the mark but he collared one and double-turned swiftly to hit a darling ball off his left,” wrote Carbery. “Sixty yards out, it travelled all the way above the bar and Cork’s procession of scores was underway.”

Six points clear at the interval, Cork won by 14. For the first time ever, a county had managed four All-Ireland hurling titles in a row and Lynch had been one of nine players to play in all four finals.

“It’s a funny thing,” said Lynch. “But I always felt at a loss on the football field. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, being so used to holding a hurley. It was a strange feeling which one got over only after many, many matches.”

When the hurlers were caught by Tipperary the following summer, Lynch continued a remarkable run by returning to Croke Park with the footballers. According to popular lore, he had protested upon first being selected for the county team years earlier that he was “no footballer at all”. To which the trainer, Jim “Tough” Barry responded, “But you have the brains.” 

A GIFTED FOOTBALLER

At a crucial point in the All-Ireland victory over Cavan, Lynch was moved from corner-forward to centre-field and told not to field but to break every ball towards Mick Tubridy. From exactly one such ball came Derry Becket’s goal that clinched the triumph over the much more fancied Ulster champions.

“He could play well, facing the ball or doubling it,” said his team-mate Eamonn Young. “Reflexes faster than normal, a mature shrewdness and an ability to keep cool, allowed him not only to see what way the tide was flowing but to take advantage of that flow by adjusting his own play or suggesting changes. Never one for spirited exhortations, he led more by example than by word. Anything he had to say was said in that quiet, determined, level-toned voice which became so familiar to the entire nation later on.”

The record-setting sixth consecutive All-Ireland medal — a feat nobody is likely to match — came via victory over Kilkenny in the 1946 final. With typical modesty, Lynch always claimed it would have been seven if he hadn’t missed a couple of easy points against the same opposition the following year. There had been just one bump on the road on the path to that sixth medal.

In January, 1946, Lynch and Paddy O’Donovan attended the final Irish international rugby trial at the Mardyke. Lynch’s brother-in-law, John Harvey, a full-back with UCC, was among those trying to convince the selectors of his merit in that game. For the “crime” of going along to see how Harvey got on, the duo incurred an automatic three-month suspension from the date of the offence. This cost Lynch his place on the Munster football team for the Railway Cup, and although he and O’Donovan began an appeal against the fact they hadn’t been allowed to appear in their own defence, that was soon dropped. By the business stages of the national league, both men were back in the fold.

The defeat by Kilkenny in ’47 heralded the end of the good times. Lynch spent three more summers with Cork and, indeed, near the finish of his inter-county career, made one of his most memorable cameos. Towards the end of a first-round tie against Tipperary in 1949, Cork were trailing by four points when his wonder goal set them up to snatch the draw.

“It took the old master, Jack Lynch, to display a flash of his superb genius,” wrote Carbery. “Ranging upfield as the time was ebbing, he took the law into his own hands. Showing surprising speed, the ball in perfect hopping control, he bore his weaving way through the staggered Tipp backs and 15 yards out, he let fly with a short, sweet wrist-snap. The net bulged…”

Then Taoiseach Jack Lynch speaking at the North Monastery School, where he won many a Harty Cup medal with, back in 1967. 
Then Taoiseach Jack Lynch speaking at the North Monastery School, where he won many a Harty Cup medal with, back in 1967. 

Rarely included in the barstool debates about the greatest hurlers of all time, Lynch endured enough to figure alongside Lory Meagher at centre-field on the team of the century in 1984 and the team of the Millenium in 1999. 

As the decades passed, he also appeared to have carved out a unique place in the affections of people across the country. As his political career flourished, Professor Dermot Keogh once wrote of a distinguished Fianna Fail scion describing campaigning with Lynch as, “like walking into a town Cuchalainn.” Witness the reception he received when introducing during the on-field ceremonies preceding the 1984 All-Ireland hurling final.

“The biggest cheer at the centenary hurling final was evoked, not by the Cork team, or even Offaly,” wrote Stephen Collins in The Irish Press. “The entire crowd — Offaly supporters as well as those from Cork — erupted in sustained applause when Mr Lynch made his appearance as one of the 38 surviving All-Ireland-winning captains.”

Jack Lynch with Kilkenny’s Noel Skeehan and Eddie Keher among the surviving All-Ireland captains in 1984.
Jack Lynch with Kilkenny’s Noel Skeehan and Eddie Keher among the surviving All-Ireland captains in 1984.

Long into retirement, sport coursed through his very being. In 1972, Lynch became the first western head of state to invite Muhammad Ali — in town to fight Al “Blue” Lewis at Croke Park — to visit the seat of Government, an honour gratefully acknowledged by the boxer in his autobiography, The Greatest. The two men sat on a couch in a Leinster House room normally reserved for cabinet meetings, and, with the usual modesty, Lynch quipped, “I played many times, Muhammad, on that field where you will be boxing.”

He had grown up a time when young boys made their own hurleys and thought nothing of sitting on the crossbar of a bike for a five-mile journey to play or watch a match. The friendships he made through sport were so unique and special that in his seminal history of 20th century Ireland, Professor Joe Lee justifiably speculated that after the death of Christy Ring in 1979, Lynch seemed to lose his appetite for politics. There was certainly a noticeable catch in his voice when delivering his famous eulogy at his former team-mate’s graveside.

After his own death in October, 1999, the funeral procession that carried the coffin from North Cathedral through the city to St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Glasheen was clapped every inch of the way by onlookers. One more round of applause for the city’s favourite son. The headstone over the grave where he is buried contains a single quote: “Happy is the man who finds wisdom”.

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