The Thunder and Lightning All-Ireland

The Kilkenny and Cork teams prepare for battle



When I set about recalling the Emergency years in this part of Ireland I wondered where I should start. I posed this question tentatively to veterans of that shadowy era and the answer they all gave was the same: the 1939 “Thunder and lightning” All-Ireland!

That singular event seemed to mark the opening shot in the six year ordeal the country was to face…as nations surrounding us went to war against each other, making the world a very much more dangerous place in which to live, whether you were a native of Callan, or dwelt in any other part of our imperilled little rain and wind-swept nation on the fringes of Europe.

Callan newspaper correspondent Seamus O’ Brien, like the majority of Irish people at the time, had little interest in the political earthquakes convulsing Europe in the days leading up to war. Kilkenny folk were focused on the great sporting challenge that awaited their county team in Croke Park, where it faced Cork in the all-Ireland showdown.

Seamus found it hard to contain his excitement at the prospect of attending the big match, having collected sixpences and threepenny bits for his first ever trip to Dublin.

On the morning, he and other locals, including fellow teenager Sean Holden, cycled to the train station in Kilkenny and bought return tickets to Kingsbridge. The fare was seven shillings and sixpence.

The journey was an experience in itself for them. Youngsters and adults alike sang rebel songs, laughed, and drank bottles of stout in anticipation of the much-heralded duel of Ireland’s hurling giants.

Seamus and Sean were among a group of Callan fans that enjoyed a four-course meal in Cleary’s Restaurant. The nourishing hot soup, followed by lashings of bacon and cabbage with floury potatoes fortified them for the gruelling encounter that lay ahead, for they would not only be observing the game as spectators…they would live every heart-stopping second of it, as if they were down there on the pitch amid that marathon display of athletic skills.

Seamus was not the only Callan native on his first Dublin visit. Jimmy Farrell, when asked by a waitress in Cleary’s what he would like for “sweet”, answered: “ah sure bull’s eyes would be lovely.”

The entrance fee to Croke Park was one shilling. Seamus was thrilled to have change out of his two-shilling piece for the pub afterwards. The stout would rest easy with the hearty meal. He found himself seated in the canal end of the uncompleted Cusack Stand.

He noticed there was no roof over where he sat, but in the heady atmosphere of the moment this meant nothing to Seamus or to any of the thousands of ecstatic fans who had assembled to watch. A deafening cheer went up as the two teams ran unto the pitch.

Seamus felt a surge of elation such he had never known. Hearing a match on the radio was fine, but this was the real thing. He trembled as the whistle blew. The ball was thrown in.

Above him was a troubled sky. Storm clouds gathered over the most hallowed sporting venue in Ireland… (An extract from my book Are We Invaded Yet?)

(To be continued…)

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