BY: Dermot Kavanagh
As thousands of Stripy Men women and children flock to Dublin for the Kilkenny v Limerick All Ireland, author and lifelong GAA supporter Dermot Kavanagh shares his first visit to Croke Park in 1957 with The Kilkenny Observer
Mankind’s association with epic marches has been well documented throughout the ages. Those adventures involved everything from land conquest to sporting achievement, and much more in between. There was Hannibal’s momentous march in 218 BC, when he travelled from Spain to Rome with an army of 60,000 men. There was ‘The Great Trek’ of 1836 by thousands of Boers, who marched from the southernmost tip of Africa to establish homelands for themselves some thousands of miles away. Equally inspiring are accounts of the 1000 mile-long ‘Trail of Tears’ undertaken in 1877 by Chief Joseph and his dwindling band of Nez Perces Indians from their reservation in Oregon to within 30 miles of the Canadian border. This march, undertaken during one of the bitterest winters on record, was a futile attempt to escape the horrors of government policy.
Our own history books have seduced us with tales of the great marches by figures from myth and actuality alike. We have Cuchulainn and we have O’Sullivan Beara. I am tempted to think, spreading out in this context, of the excursions made by thousands of Kerry supporters throughout the first half of the 20th century. They, too, have been justifiably romanticized.
Those trains began their journeys around midnight on the eve of the big game. Having taken on supporters at every village and crossroads that dotted the railway line, the trains eventually crossed the county boundary at Rathmore, full to capacity. Arrival in the capital was timed to enable travellers to take in an early mass in the Pro-Cathedral. Then there would be a hearty breakfast in Barry’s Hotel before supporters finally made their assault on Croke Park.
These excursions were not for the frail or the fainthearted. But the return journeys, with Kerry’s propensity to emerge victorious nearly always, were less taxing.
My own earliest memory of undertaking a ‘great trek’ was to attend the 1957 Leinster Final. Despite parents and elder siblings being seasoned travellers, the trip was planned with near military precision. Special attention was given to ensuring the car was up to the task, that adequate provisions for the day were at hand, that extra clothing was available in the event of bad weather, and that, most critically of all, an extra tyre and tube were available, if the unmentionable were to befall us.
Saturday evening saw the car cleaned and topped up with oil and water, with extra quantities of both being packed, together with the extra tyre, the extra tube and one of humanity’s best inventions, the foot pump.
Within the kitchen sandwiches and flasks were being prepared. In those austere times sandwiches comprised only of ham or egg. The days of sliced ham, easi-cheese, yogurts, chicken wings and other such delights were very far off.
It was early to bed after a thorough all-inclusive scrubdown. First Mass and the mandatory Sunday morning fry made sure that both soul and body were in good heart for the challenges that lay ahead. At mass, while I do not recall imploring Him to inflict any harm on the magnificent Rackards, Ned Wheeler or the Morrisseys, I do remember reminding Our Lord that if a rare Kilkenny win could be engineered, we would get along just fine.
In an attempt to deal with possible bouts of car sickness, I was installed in the front passenger seat, but with a towel open on my lap. The front seat position — a first for me, by the way — was a boost to self-esteem, but the provision of the towel seemed almost guaranteed to bring about the mishap it was designed to prevent.
Shortly after nine o’clock, the 80-mile epic began. The journey was in the main passed by noting the many towns and villages that sprung up along the way. Sadly, some of them are now bypassed by motorway commuters. Graiguenamanagh is the first such landmark, followed by Borris Cross, Bagnelstown, Leighlinbridge, Carlow, Castledermot, Timolin, Moone, Kilcullen, Naas (with its signpost always strikingly in Irish as ‘Nás na Rí’), Rathcoole, The Red Cow (then only a barely noticeable public house), Inchicore (when the sight of St Patrick’s Athletic’s grounds confirmed journey’s end was in sight), Islandbridge, Phoenix Park, The Cattlemarket, Dalys Corner, the Mater Hospital, Dorset Street, Clonliffe Road, and Clonliffe College (where we always parked).
Having consumed a multitude of sandwiches and downed copious cups of tea, it was off to the game. With my meagre finances two items of absolute necessity were purchased. First, the four-page (‘give us as little information as possible’) official programme. Second, a choc ice, a delicacy then unknown in South Kilkenny.
My sincere pleadings to Himself for a Kilkenny win were granted, with the other Himself (aka Ollie Walsh) giving a spellbinding performance. Suddenly all the travails associated with the trip were forgotten. In a curious way I somehow felt my attendance at the game and the effort spent in getting there had contributed to Kilkenny’s unexpected win. Such was the feeling of elation within that I am unable to recall anything of the journey home, other than to confirm that the towel was again not used.
Travelling to support Kilkenny in later times, and particularly in recent times, has become less burdensome and more consistently rewarding. Yet, in hindsight, I am pleased to recall that I came through successfully my first trek to the GAA circus maximus.
* Dermot Kavanagh is author of A History. Kilkenny Senior Hurling County Finals 1887-2003 (2004) and Ollie: The Hurling Life & Times of Ollie Walsh (2006). ‘Kilkenny no 3,the lives of Kilkenny’s 14 All Ireland winning full backs’; ‘The story of interprovincial hurling,1905 to 2015’;The story of interprovincial football,1905 to 2016.’