Solved: Mystery of this 1886 sliotar brimming with history

In search of some answers John Arnold burned the midnight oil this week, going through GAA books, the pages of The Cork Examiner and Freeman’s Journal - he was thrilled with what he discovered
Solved: Mystery of this 1886 sliotar brimming with history

Avondhu hurling team in 1961. Batt Thornhill is four from right, back row, his son Bobby is the mascot, front row.

NOW and then, they say the stars align, things fall into place in a manner not always planned but with amazing results. Some call it serendipity, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’ and others simply say ‘twas just a coincidence - pure chance’.

One way or another, when it happens, I am simply stunned.

Since one of Cork’s greatest hurlers, Seanie O’Leary, died in December, I’ve gone back over many of the great games he played in the Blood and Bandage. Statisticians tell us Seanie scored 30 championship goals in the Red and White of his beloved Cork, and I reckon I saw 22 of those ‘live’, in other words I was lucky to have been present in Cork, Limerick, Thurles and Croke Park to see the Youghal man raise so many of those green flags.

One of the few of Seanie’s games I missed was the 1972 All-Ireland semi- final in the Athletic Grounds. He scored three goals that day as Cork beat London 7-20 to 1-12 but I was in Carrigtwohill to see Bride Rovers qualify for the East Cork Junior Hurling Final with a narrow 2-10 to 2-9 win over Aghada.

The previous September, in Buttevant, the Senior Hurlers of Cork and Limerick played a benefit match for the family of the late, great Batt Thornhill, a native of Buttevant and hero of Cork’s four-in-a-row team of the 1940s.

That 1971 game saw Fr Seanie Barry of our club play his last game with Cork. He was wing forward that night and inside him, in the corner, was a ‘new kid on the block’, the youthful Seanie O Leary - a case of a Seanie going and a Seanie coming.

Well, I wondered, was there any photograph taken on that September evening in North Cork? I searched The Cork Examiner and Evening Echo to no avail. So last Monday I contacted Bobby Thornhill, a son of Batt, to enquire about any possible picture.

Bobby has long lived in Cork city and been involved with Blackrock as a player and mentor - he trained the Rockies to an Intermediate County only two years ago. He wasn’t aware of any picture taken of the Cork team at the Buttevant game in 1971, but said he’d make enquiries.

We chatted at length, mainly about hurling and history. Before we finished, Bobby put a ‘hurling puzzle’ to me! He recalled on Sunday, June 6, 1966, travelling with his father Batt to see Tipp and Limerick in the Munster Championship in Cork.

The city was crowded and, as was customary for so many Gaels, a visit to Mackessy’s pub in Oliver Plunkett Street before the game was part and parcel of the day out.

‘Old’ Billy Mackessy was a native of Buttevant so the two families were great friends. Billy was Cork’s first real dual star and won All Ireland Senior medals in both hurling and football. He became a successful businessman in Cork city. His son took over the family pub after Billy’s death in 1956.

Anyhow, behind the bar was a very, very old brown leather sliotar dating back to 1886. Well, young Bobby Thornhill took a shine to it and, urged on by hurling fans, his father asked Mackessy for the relic of bygone days for the youngster.

Loathe to part with it, the barman agreed that if he threw out the sliotar and the youngster caught it with one hand, he could keep it. The missile was hurled towards the door but miraculously young Bobby caught it. Next day, the sliotar was on display in Batt Thornhills barber’s shop in Buttevant.

Since Batt’s death in 1970, the sliotar, marked ‘Barrs v Holycross 1886’, has been a prized possession of Bobby Thornhill but he never knew the history of the game for which the leather was used all of 136 years ago -just two years after the foundation of the GAA.

I promised Bobby I’d do my best to elicit some information. Lads, I can tell ye now I ‘burned the midnight oil’ on Monday night - ’til 3am if the truth be known! I perused a few old GAA books, the pages of The Cork Examiner and Freeman’s Journal, and was thrilled with what I discovered.

Less than two years after the GAA held its first meeting in Miss Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles, a series of ‘Exhibition Matches’ were arranged for Cork on Sunday, August 29, 1886. Hurling and football teams from Tipperary came to Cork by train to take on local clubs in a huge day of Gaelic sport. ‘Great Hurling and Football Tournament in Cork Park’ was the banner headline on the Examiner the next day. The report on proceedings was massive and minute details were dealt with.

“The largest crowd, probably, ever seen in the Park came together yesterday, to witness a series of hurling and football contests between teams from Cork City and County and teams representing several districts of County Tipperary; and although they swarmed over the enclosed ground at intervals and often got in front of the white-washed mark at the end and side-lines - thereby interfering with the carrying out of the programme by necessitating the curtailment of the time of play and having the last match postponed - still a more good-humoured crowd of some thirty thousand it would be hard to find in any part of the globe.”

The train from Templemore and Thurles didn’t arrive in Cork until 12.15 - there quarters of an hour late. All teams were 21-a-side and games of 90 minutes duration had been agreed but because of the late start the time was reduced to 50 minutes.

The hurlers of Aghabullogue and Killenaule were first into the fray, with the Mid Cork side winning easily “by 14 points (that is 2 points and 4 overs) to nil”. Cork Nationals (Blackrock) then took on Moycarkey – the only score recorded was a goal for the Tipperary men.

The footballers of Glanmire were next into the fray, against Fethard. The match report stated: “The Fethard men went in for wrestling to a large extent and in this respect the Glanmire men fought shy of them for by the revised rules of the GAA wrestling is not allowed.”

This game was a draw “but a draw in favour of the Tipperary men”!

The last game of the day was a brilliant hurling clash between St Finbarr’s and Holycross.

The referee for all the games was GAA founder JK Bracken and I could well visualise him throwing in the sliotar now in Bobby Thornhill’s possession. Back in 2009, as a member of the GAA’s National 125 Committee, I was in Tankardstown cemetery near Kilmallock when we re-unveiled the Celtic Cross at Bracken’s grave.

Holycross won the game against St Finbarr’s by one point and two overs to two overs for St Finbarrs.

After the games, all the teams were entertained and fed at the Cork Gymnasium Club in the South Mall. At the end of a great day’s sport, the Tipperarymen departed on their train at 8.30pm. In the Freemans Journal the following Friday and Saturday, ‘Letters to The Editor’ concerned the games - and the performance of the referee!

JK Bracken was no shrinking violet and also put pen to paper, defending his decisions in Cork!

We will never know who kept the sliotar from the Barrs v Holycross game, but it eventually came into the possession of Billy Mackessy and remained with that family until 1966. It is a fantastic link with the earliest days of the GAA.

On Tuesday afternoon, I travelled over to Newtownshandrum to meet GAA stalwart Chris Morrissey. Here I was collecting another photograph, this time of the Avondhu Senior Hurling team that contested the 1961 County Final. Chris was a member of that team.

One of the selectors was Batt Thornhill, and I felt the hurling ‘link’ was completed when I saw the Avondhu ‘mascot’ on that County Final Day. It was none other than the ‘keeper of the sliotar’, a very young Bobby Thornhill!

I started out looking for a picture and discovered so much more.

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