It was only to be expected that a team from Galway should participate in the first All Ireland championship. The game of hurling was played there from time immemorial, and in the nineteenth century, was particularly strong in the south and east of the county. Teams from Meelick and Killimor crossed the Shannon to play against the men of Tipperary and Offaly. In a letter to the Editor of the ‘‘Irish World’’ on September 15th, 1888, ‘’A Galway Man’’ had this to say about the area. ‘‘Many readers of the ‘’Irish World’’, residing in this country, can call up pleasant memories of hard-fought games some thirty or forty years ago between the men of Tipperary and Galway on the verdant sod of Shannon’s banks, stretching from Portumna to Meelick, having for a background the ancient Castle of Redwood, standing out in bold relief against the green hillsides of noble Tipperary.
Michael Cusack had learned of this hurling tradition in South-East Galway from his early teaching days in Lough Cultra School not far from Gort. Later in 1883, when he began to re-organise athletics in the country, so that they would be open to everyone, his call was answered in the town of Killimor through the exertions of F.W. Lynch and Patrick Larkin and a few others, and the game of hurling was organised in the area. When Cusack founded the Metropolitan hurling club in Dublin the Gaels of East Galway issued a challenge to the Dublin men. The ‘‘Galway Man’’, mentioned above, takes up the story in his very colourful way: ‘’Mr. Lynch, acting with great spirit, hastened to the neighbouring town of Ballinasloe and put the matter before a few Nationalists there, among whom was then the Secretary of the Land League. With a right good will, the Ballinasloe men went to work, and despite the warnings and intimidations of every hireling and supporter of Dublin Castle living in the town, the inhabitants subscribed a very elegant Challenge Cup, which gave captain Lynch great joy, for then he was in a position to invite Mr. Cusack and his picked team of athletes to try friendly conclusions with his own trusted men for the coveted prize. The trysting place selected for the struggle was the historic Fair Green of Ballinasloe.’’
‘’But here again the domineering way of the tyrant was made manifest, for did not one of Ireland’s accursed absentee vampires, Clancarty, hold illegal possession of the township property? Notice was served on the Secretary of the League, who was also custodian of the cup, by the bloated representative of this rack-renting landlord, informing him that the awful riotous game of hurling would not be allowed to be played within the limit of the Fair Green. But this piece of bombast reckoned without his host. The edict of him and his kind was only jeered at. The teaching of Ireland’s leaders predominated and this same autocrat was answered back that no riotous game was about to be launched, only the game which our fathers gloried in and which their children were going to practice. Seeing that the people were determined to have their wishes accomplished, this tyrant thought discretion the better part of valour by consenting to the Fair Green being taken possession of by the hurlers but, as one of her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, holding the Legal Secretary responsible for any breaches of the peace that might occur. What an imbecile warning!’’
Well, the game was advertised to be held on a given day. Captain Cusack brought down his team and, in the presence of thousands of people crossed sticks with Captain Lynch’s plucky warriors. Goal posts pitched, judges placed, the ball was raised and, as if by magic, a cheer given three times three went up which made the very grounds vibrate. What a magnificent send-off for the national game! With a will as of manor born, those splendid specimens of Irish athletes fought for the coveted honour of becoming winners of Ireland’s first prize in hurling. Both teams worked determinedly but, withal, brotherly, and after a long and arduous tussle, Captain Cusack’s men were obliged to retire from the field of friendly battle, defeated but not dishonoured. Great was the joy of Captain Lynch when the judges’ fiat was given ; Killimor team one to Dublin nil’’.
In the following year, when Cusack began to lay plans for the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association, he saw the need for support from leaders of church and state. From his association with south-east Galway he knew of the sterling qualities of the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr. Patrick Duggan. He therefore wrote to William J. Duffy of Loughrea, whom he had befriended while the latter was holidaying in Dublin a few years before, and asked him to arrange a deputation to call on Dr. Duggan and ask him to become a patron of the new association. The arrangements were made and on August 15th a deputation, consisting of Michael Cusack, three Loughrea men, William J. Duffy, John P. McCarthy, John Sweeney along with Peter J. Kelly of Killenadeema and Michael Gleenon of Kilchreest called on his Lordship. Dr. Duggan was then seventy-one years of age, was in rather poor health and had already offered his resignation to the Pope. However, he was delighted to hear of the founding of the association and promised to do all he could to promote its success. However, he declined to act as patron and advised them to ask Dr. Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, ‘’a fine Gael, young, vigorous and energetic’’, to become the first patron of the new body. Cusack duly came to Thurles and the rest as they say, is history.
For the first three years the activities to the new Association were confined to tournament and challenge games. Not until 1887 was the first All-Ireland hurling championship organised. Twelve counties entered but only five contested the championship. Tipperary, represented by Thurles, beat Clare (Smith O’Brien’s) and Kilkenny (Tullaroan). Galway, represented by Meelick, defeated Wexford (Castlebridge). More than ten thousand people watched the match. A reporter wrote: ”There was a good deal of heated temper on both sides. The conduct of the Wexford men was severely censured by most of those present. One incident of the day’s proceedings cannot be too highly valued. Lord Ffrench, when he heard of the great victory of Galway, directed his steward, Mr. Balfe, to go to the Midland hotel and hand from him £3 to treat the team and also £2 to be given to one of the men who lost two teeth by a blow of a hurl.’’ Wexford had got the first goal but Meelick beat them by eight goals after. To cover the expenses of the trip to Dunlin the Parish Priest, Fr. Kirwan gave £14 to the team.
The final wasn’t played until April 1st, 1888. The venue was Hoare’s field in Birr, quite close to the present hurling field, and the referee was Patrick White from the town. The Meelick team consisted of twelve men from Meelick and nine from Killimor. The two parishes had joined up as a result of three games they had played against one another the year before the championship. These games were played in Greenfield, which belonged to Ryders, and had ended in draws. Since they couldn’t beat one another they decided to join together. In the 1887 Galway championship they beat Killbecanty in the semi final and Ardrahan in the final. The score in the latter was 2-6 to 2-3. The Meelick men on the team in Birr were Pat Madden, who was the captain and one of the famous O’Madden’s of the area, Patrick Cullen, Mike Manning, John Colohan, John Scally, Willie Madden, Tom Hanley, James Kelly, Pat Manning, Jim Connelly, John Cosgrove. The Killimor men were John Lowry, John Callinan, Pat Haverty, Tom Foley, Owen Griffin, Patrick Larkin, John Manning, Charlie Melody and John Sanders. According to local tradition, only Fenians could get on the team. There was one fine player named Burke in the area who failed to get selected because he wasn’t a Fenian. There are three nephews of Patrick Cullen still living and they relate how the hurleys for the final were made on their kitchen floor. They recall stories of mounds of timber shavings! Patrick Cullen was a carpenter and skipped it to America in 1891, as a result of land trouble in the locality. He never returned.
All the team, with the exception of John Lowry, who walked all the way from Killmor to Birr, went by McIntyre’s brake to the final. When they arrived in Birr they heard that Tipperary weren’t going to appear. Some say this was a rumour put out by the Tipperary men themselves to get Meelick off guard, but it may have been due to a disagreement which did occur in the Tipperary camp that day. Whatever the cause, the Galwaymen went for some drink and while indulging heard that Tipperary were ready. Both teams ‘’togged out’’ in Cunningham’s Hotel and then marched to the field. Togging out is probably a misnomer as it is generally accepted that the Galway team played in their shirts and trousers. Each player wore a green knitted cap with a tassel on it. Meelick were led by their non-playing captain, James Lynam, who held the military rank of captain, having fought in the American Civil War. Although a noted pugilist, he was counted a nice quiet man. His family came home from Rahan in Co. Offaly and he had a farm at Eyrecourt. Later, in the nineties, he was to contest unsuccessfully the East Galway seat, in Parnellite interest against John Roach M.P.
The game was fought at a fierce pace. One of the Thurles players got a blow on the nose and had to be carried off. As a result of this incident John Lowry, the man who walked from Killimor and who played fullback, was taken off by Captain Lynam. He was none too pleased with the decision because, for some time thereafter, until he was warned by the referee, he could dart onto the field and take part in the play. Meelick were defeated by a goal and a point and one forfeit point to nil. They have never since been listed as Galway county senior hurling champions. However, because of their historic participation in the first All Ireland, the name of the small village on the west bank of the river Shannon and the tradition it represented in south-east Galway, will live for ever in the annals of the G.A.A.
Written by Seamus J King, Galway GAA Annual 1984
Full Version Available in “Pride in the Parish: Volume 2”