Prize for buoyant Banner remains the same – only the backdrop changes
When they made their breakthrough victory in 1914 for their first All-Ireland senior hurling title, Clare left nothing to chance
The victorious Clare team of 1914.
Occasionally, it appears as if history is repeating itself. At least it does where Clare are concerned.
As the county counts down to two All-Ireland finals in seven days (senior and U-21), there are worse things to be done than to reflect on precedent.
All-Ireland triumphs have been rare enough events for the Banner-men, but when they win them, they have a tendency to do it on the double.
It was that way in 1997 when Clare last won a senior title and added minor silverware on the same day. And it was that way, too, in 1914, that touchstone of Clare’s pallid All-Ireland winning tradition, when the county’s first senior title was followed soon after by its junior equivalent.
It may be just shy of a century ago, but that 1914 experience bears some similarity with the season now drawing to a close.
Then, as now, the championship was remarkable for the unsettling of hurling’s established order. Then, as now, the All-Ireland final drew a veil over a period of prolonged Kilkenny dominance. The similarities end there, however.
The 1914 pairing of Clare and Laois (or Leix as they were then known) was sheer novelty, but their October final was played out against the most tumultuous of backdrops.
War in Europe had broken out two months previously and it was a mere matter of weeks since John Redmond’s encouragement of Irish enlistment in Britain’s war effort fractured the surface unity of nationalist Ireland. The Irish Volunteer movement split and there were fears, not unfounded, that the GAA might go the same way.
For the most part, though, the GAA remained focused on the business of organising games and running competitions. They did so in the face of some significant obstacles. The outbreak of war had been followed by troop mobilisations, restrictions on rail travel and the commandeering of sports grounds, including some used by the GAA.
For the hurlers of Clare, the impact of all this was almost immediately felt. At the end of August 1914, the use of the Markets Field in Limerick as a paddock for military horses forced the move of the county’s Munster semi-final fixture with Limerick to Mallow.
For the GAA generally, the escalation of conflict abroad and political tensions at home threatened to stall, reverse even, the great advances it had made over the previous decade.
On the eve of war, after all, the Association had reached a point of unprecedented popularity. Club numbers were on the rise, attendance records were being smashed, media coverage was expanding and, in 1913, they finally secured a permanent headquarters with the purchase of Croke Park.
The soaring spectator appeal of Gaelic games owed much to the radical overhaul of playing rules, but important, too, was the new emphasis on training and physical fitness.
No longer could the ambitious player get by untutored and ill-prepared.
‘Nowadays, when an All-Ireland competitor takes the field he stands forth the nearest thing to Gaelic physical perfection which we have yet witnessed’, an editorial in the short-lived Gaelic Athlete gushed prior to the 1914 final.
The Clare hurlers’ pursuit of perfection took them to Lisdoonvarna.
They travelled the week before the game in motor cars provided by three local bigwigs, among them the chairman of Clare County Council.
There, under the guidance of team trainer Jim O’Hehir (father of the legendary broadcaster Micheál) they adhered to a regime of running, walking, hurling, and gymnastics, as well as massages and early morning walks from Lisdoonvarna to Liscannor and back before breakfast.
None of this was cheap. If the success now required planning, it also came with a cost.
In July 1914, in advance of the county’s Munster semi-final, a fundraising committee was established with a mission to ‘rehabilitate’ the reputation of Clare hurling. A collective training fund was established and a public appeal for subscriptions was made.
The plan to loosen local pockets appealed to heart and head: it played to notions of county pride, while proclaiming the practical benefits of collective training and avoidance by the players of all ‘distracting attractions’.
Yet some distractions were more easily avoided than others. A letter writer to the Clare Champion worried, for instance, about the potential pitfalls associated with all the attention the hurlers, ‘being so good looking’, were attracting from the ladies near their Lisdoonvarna training base.
Word of Clare’s serious intent was enough to spook one Laois supporter to write anonymously to his own county secretary. He insisted that the Laois players needed to dedicate themselves full-time to hurling and recommended that they “eave off work and train”. He added: “If ye do not, ye will be not only beaten, but disgraced.”
The newspapers saw it somewhat differently. It would not come down to fitness or training at all. Their previews pitched it instead as a contest of contrasting styles: the strength and physicality of Clare versus the craft, dash and science of Laois.
According to The Gaelic Athlete, the two teams were capable of producing hurling of a quality that would be a ‘sight for the gods’.
As it happened, they delivered nothing of the sort. Even modest expectations went unmet. Scrappy and free-ridden, the game ended in favour of Clare on the lopsided scoreline of 5-1 (16 points) to 1-0 (3 points). It was a victory built on a solid defence, which was organised around the imposing presence of team captain, Amby Power, the 6ft 4in giant from Quin, whose performance inspired comparison with the already legendary Kilkenny full-back, Jack Rochford.
A week later the Clare juniors, backboned by players from Ennis and Tulla, added a second All-Ireland title and confidence abounded that more and more trophies would follow, that the county’s fortunes were now in the ascendant.
It didn’t exactly happen like that, of course. Eighty-one years would pass before Anthony Daly would walk in the footsteps of Amby Power and add a second All-Ireland title, and this Sunday Patrick Donnellan will look to become only the second Clare man to emulate the big Quin man’s achievement.
The prize remains the same, only the backdrop changes.