By train to the game – Norman Freeman on the railways and the GAA

An Irishman’s Diary: Relationship between the rails and the sport still prospers

 The railways are inextricably linked to the growth of the GAA. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The railways are inextricably linked to the growth of the GAA. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Special trains to football and hurling games are part of the weft and weave both of railway history and the growth of the GAA.

One of the most legendary early instances of GAA excursions occurred when Kerry emerged to become a dominant power on the football scene.

The county team won the All-Ireland for the first time in 1903 and followed it with wins in 1908 and 1909.

During those years, single trains, crammed with supporters who had saved the money to pay the reduced fares, pulled out of Tralee station shortly after midnight.

Through the dark countryside these trains chugged, belching out clouds of coal-smoke and steam.

The firemen laboured at shovelling coal from the tender into the firebox and the drivers, oil-rags in hand, adjusted the handwheels that controlled the steam that drove the train. I don’t know if they had to replenish supplies of coal and water on the long journey but the sun was in the sky when the trains pulled into Kingsbridge – now Heuston – station.

How vital these trains were to the Kerry footballing community was demonstrated in 1910. The team again reached the final where their opponents were Louth. However, the railway company decreed that followers would have to pay the full fare. This caused outrage. The team refused to travel. As a result, the All-Ireland was awarded to Louth on a walkover. From then on, excursion fares were offered in Kerry on the many occasions the team reached the final.

Teams still travelled by train but, as the country became better-off and more people owned cars, there was less demand for special trains to the big games. The era of multiple excursions gradually came to an end

Trains to All-Irelands became an established feature, as teams from all four provinces were in contention. Usually, one train was enough to carry the supporters. However, by the late 1930s the popularity of hurling and football had swelled remarkably, partially driven by greater coverage in the media most especially by Radio Éireann.

The voice of Micheál O’Hehir conveying the colour and excitement of the scenes aroused a hunger among many to be there in person. At a time when few owned cars and the roads were patchy, more people took the train.

The railway then began to lay on several special trains, not only to the All-Ireland but to the provincial finals. By this time diesel engines were replacing steam.

Some of the big hurling events like the Munster final were held in Thurles and by the end of the 1940s seven or eight trains were needed to carry those who wanted to roar encouragement to their teams.

Coming up to the All-Ireland final the railway put notices in the newspapers giving the times when the excursions would stop at each station on the way to Dublin.

Crowds of followers, mostly male, sporting the county colours on flags and paper hats, gathered on the platforms in a frisson of excitement and expectation. The railway staff kept warning people to keep well back from the edge. Almost before the train came to a stop followers scrambled on board, anxious to find a seat, some driven by a vague fear of being left behind.

For many years, the evenings of the All-Irelands in Dublin city stations like Kingsbridge saw memorable scenes of clamour, surging crowds and celebration. Thousands poured into the entrances and hallways, constantly asking anyone in railway uniform where they might find their train home. There were bursts of jubilant yelling from fans of the winning side.

Out on the platforms the railway personnel had to stop some of the anxious or unruly fellows from climbing over the barriers.

Special trains were backing in and then pulling out one after another and the flow of passengers had to be strictly controlled in the interests of safety.

Such All-Ireland occasions generated a whole genre of anecdotes – getting on the wrong train or getting off at the wrong station because of being “ under the influence”. The most common stories were about losing coats, caps, hats and even shoes.

The railway acknowledged the patronage of GAA spectators by presenting a trophy, the Railway Cup, for a competition between the provincial football and hurling sides.

Teams still travelled by train but, as the country became better-off and more people owned cars, there was less demand for special trains to the big games. The era of multiple excursions gradually came to an end.

Yet, in recent years, more and more are choosing to go by rail to avoid the stress of crawling along in heavy traffic. And clubs have provided trains for their followers.

A recent instance was when Cuala, the Dalkey club, contested the club championship hurling finals in 2017 and 2018. For the first game the club hired two Dart trains to take their supporters to Croke Park. The following year, when defending the title in a replay in Portlaoise, a mainline commuter train was chartered to take fans there and back.

The relationship between the railway and the GAA still prospers.

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