Foot-and-mouth and mouthfuls of drink: Cork’s 1941 odyssey

Rebels met Limerick along the way in a year with parallels to the current time

The shape of the hurley is basically the same since the 1950s. The one on the left   was owned by hurling legend  Mick Mackey of Limerick. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The shape of the hurley is basically the same since the 1950s. The one on the left was owned by hurling legend Mick Mackey of Limerick. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

This Sunday Cork have the chance to bring Limerick’s reign as All-Ireland champions to an end. Strangely for counties in the same province this has happened only once in more than 100 years despite decades of knockout championship.

For Cork that year, 1941, was an extraordinary combination of good fortune and circumstances which saw the county become the last before the “back door” was introduced more than 50 years later to become All-Ireland champions without winning their province.

The county also began a sequence of four successive All-Irelands, emulated just once since by Kilkenny in 2009.

There have been seven meetings, including this weekend, when Limerick have been reigning champions. Although Cork did beat them two years ago, the match was one of the provincial round robins and Limerick ended up as Munster champions.

It last happened in 1941 and there are echoes of the present. The presence of a highly transmissible disease had shut down parts of the country. Foot-and-mouth broke out in February and lasted eight months.

The disease was largely concentrated in south Leinster and Munster, leading to the slaughter of between 21,000 and 24,000 animals, and most seriously affected Kilkenny, Carlow, parts of Laois and Tipperary.

This obviously threatened an important part of hurling’s prime territory and in the end it was Kilkenny and Tipperary who suffered most – both being withdrawn before the championship ended even though both had players involved in the Railway Cup final between Leinster and Munster in March.

Dramatic intervention

This week 80 years ago, in a dramatic intervention, the Cork-Tipp Munster semi-final match, scheduled for August 17th, was dramatically called off when the Department of Agriculture forbade Tipperary to travel because of foot-and-mouth.

The Central Council of the GAA now had a dilemma. Already Kilkenny – in many people’s eyes favourites for that year’s All-Ireland – had been hit by the epidemic. Despite being granted a bye to the provincial final by the Leinster Council, Kilkenny were prohibited from playing Dublin unless a clear three weeks had passed since the last outbreak. It was a condition the county couldn’t meet.

Leinster nominated Dublin for the All-Ireland series, but Munster decided to have a playoff (officially rebranded a semi-final) between All-Ireland champions Limerick, who had already qualified for the final, and Cork. The winners would represent Munster against Dublin and play Tipperary in the Munster final later in the year.

Cork had a big win over Limerick, 8-10 to 3-2, but again history comes with an asterisk. “Mick Mackey and his brother John weren’t playing in 1941”, according to Cork GAA historian Diarmuid O’Donovan. Mick Mackey was the most powerful hurler in Ireland and his absence a major loss to the county. Cork scored three goals within the first 10 minutes

“The death of their brother Paddy was given as the official reason but there were also undercurrents about the treatment of their club Ahane. Anyway, they weren’t there and Cork won easily. Dublin were also heavily beaten in the All-Ireland final.”

Lack of diligence

With foot-and-mouth suppressed, the Munster final was fixed for October 26th. This also gave rise to legend as Cork lost the provincial final to Tipperary, 5-4 to 2-5.

“There was a fallout from that,” says O’Donovan. “Some of the players stopped on the way to Limerick. There was certainly a lack of diligence about their approach. I think they expected to win as All-Ireland champions. There were players who didn’t play for Cork again because the county board took it so seriously they didn’t win the Munster championship.”

The late Paddy Downey, this newspaper’s former GAA correspondent, heard direct evidence concerning the 1941 Munster final.

“I later interviewed a few people in Cork like Jack Barrett and Jack Lynch, ” he said in 2001. “They said that on the way to the match Cork players stopped off in pubs to drink. They were all travelling in different cars. There was one particular place in Croom where they were supposed to have called.

“I’m not sure if that’s the match in which Jack Lynch said they remembered seeing three balls but a number of them had drink taken. There was certainly an imbalance of motivation between Cork and Tipperary.”

O’Donovan points out by way of consolation that Cork minors won the provincial titles that same day. “It may have been the best Cork minor team ever,” he says. “A year later Mick Kennefick and Seán Condon were playing in the senior All-Ireland final.”

By then they had beaten Limerick with Mackey and were on their way to history.

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