Waterford GAA's Early Years By: Cian Manning
November 15, 2020
WATERFORD’S FIRST HURLING REVIVAL, 1884 – 1934
By: Cian Manning
‘the Cinderella of Gaelic Games’: THOMAS DROHAN’S REFLECTIONS 1956
As Waterford reached the Munster final of both hurling and Gaelic Football for the first time in the same year (1957) Thomas Drohan, a native of Ferrybank noted that the footballers were the firm favourites having defeated Kerry in the previous round. The hurlers were considered the first to challenge the 1956 All-Ireland champions in hurling Wexford by drawing with them in the National League. Since the staging of the first All-Ireland championships in 1887 Waterford had claimed a solitary All-Ireland title coming in hurling in 1948. Such scantiness of titles made Drohan surmise that the county was ‘the Cinderella of Gaelic Games’. Though he would contend that “Despite Waterford’s lowly position in the All-Ireland honours list…the Gaelic tradition of the County goes back a long way.”
‘the hurlers of Fahastoggen’: GAELIC GAMES IN THE 18th & 19th CENTURIES
In the areas today we know as Barrack Street and Slievekeale where Walsh Park is situated was a stronghold of hurling in the early 18th and 19th centuries. This district was known as ‘Fahastogeen’ .In local folklore, it is said that it was the hurlers of Fahastogeen who introduced hurling into the North American continent. Waterford’s connection to Newfoundland from trade saw ships and emigrants settle in the area. Drohan details that:
Folk songs of the 19th century praise the “hurlers of Fahastogeen…now on the banks of Newfoundland”…as the first men to strike a hurling ball on the American Continent were the Waterford Sailor-hurlers.
The hurling that would take place at upper Barrack Street on the ‘good ould Faha fields’ saw many matches such as one recalled by Thomas Sexton between hurlers from Mothel against Kilbarry and ‘the Stogeens’, sixty men were striped to the waist in an exhibition of the game.
While in the county in 1826 during the election for the County seat, hurling and football matches helped attract and entertain crowds awaiting the arrival of speakers in an election which saw Beresford lose his seat and the momentum of Catholic Emancipation accelerate. Prior to the Famine in the 1840s, hurling and football matches were regular occurrences throughout the county. In 1848 Thomas Francis Meagher had revived hurling in Ballytruckle in Waterford city and it continued to survive. The games would take place with shouts of ‘Ballytruckle abu!’ while their usual opponents of Ballybricken would respond with a version of ‘The White Cockade’. A similar revival attempt which was short-lived would take place in the city in 1865 when a group of Fenians made up of Cashman, Kent, Grennan, Walsh and Kenny tried to evoke the work of Meagher nearly 20 years previous.
TIPPERARY v WATERFORD: THE GAME WHICH CHANGED FOOTBALL
But the county could also count an influence on the game of Gaelic Football as we know it today. A match between Waterford (composed mostly of players from Rathgormack and Windgap) and Tipperary led the brothers Maurice and Pat Davin to devise the idea for remodelling the rules of the game. The Davins wanted to rid the ‘old style’ of 34 players aside with wrestling the norm. The first match played under the new code being between the footballers of Callan and Kilkenny.
JOHN WYSE POWER: THE MAN WHO GAVE THE GAA ITS NAME
Born at Knockhouse outside of Waterford City in 1859, John Wyse Power attended Mount Sion school and is suggested to have ‘put love of country before personal advancement’ by his old schoolmate Councillor McDonald of Waterford Corporation upon his death in 1926. It seems Wyse Power’s association with Edmund Rice’s school foreshadows the strong hurling tradition of the Mount Sion in Waterford, both school and club, the latter of which was founded in 1932.
A career in the British administration in Ireland was curtailed by his simmering nationalist sympathies (also a fluent Irish speaker) which lead to a career in journalism becoming the editor of the Leinster Leader in 1883. Wyse Power was also being monitored by British authorities for his connections to the Fenians and Irish Republican Brotherhood. Moreover, it is suggested that he could have become Chief Secretary of Ireland only for the political career of William Edward Foster, known as ‘Buckshot ’, for his apparent ordering of the police to fire on a crowd. Wyse Power was arrested and spent time in Naas Jail as one of “Foster’s Suspects”.
At Hayes Hotel in Thurles on 1st November 1884 he was one of the participants in the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Furthermore, his role as one of the first secretaries of the association can be deemed to have set strong foundations that are still felt so vibrantly in twenty-first century Ireland. Perhaps his position and Waterford connection was one of the factors in Tramore hosting the first All-Ireland championships three years later. His main interest was in the ‘athletic’ pursuits of the association more so than hurling and Gaelic football. Though a fervent nationalist, Wyse Power would resign his role as an assistant secretary in 1887 as a result of the banning of RIC members from the GAA. However his association with Gaelic Games continued as the first chairman of the Dublin County Board. Furthermore, he would receive similar treatment to that of Michael Cusack by James Joyce, by also featuring in Ulysses as ‘John Wyse Nolan’.
THE GAA IN WATERFORD, 1885
Eleven months after the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association (1884), the Waterford branch was inaugurated at the rooms of the Waterford Young Ireland Society (located at the end house on the right side on the corner where High Street leads into Henrietta Street) in October 1885. There had been much talk in the city of the new organisation which led James Upton to note that ‘in these interchanges of views and means for the forming of clubs, the drapers’ and grocers’ assistants of the city must get the fullest measure of credit for giving…[the] GAA a habitation and a name in the old Suir-side city.’ Two active members in the movement were the brothers William G. (who would act as secretary of the County Board) and Harry Fisher who used their newspapers the Evening Mail and Munster Express to promote the development of Gaelic Games in Waterford. Meetings of the new Waterford GAA were held at J.P. Kenney’s hostel on George’s Street.
The early affiliated clubs (from 1885 to 1890) included Waterford Commercials, T.F. Meaghers (known as “the Salters”), John Mitchell’s (Ballytruckle), Thomas Sexton’s (Ferrybank), Tim Healy’s (Butlerstown), Joe Biggar’s (Butlerstown’s second team), David Gleeson’s (Stradbally) as well as teams from Dungarvan, Ring, Ballinarod, Grange (Ardmore), Kilgobnet, Clodagh Campaigners (Rathgormack & Clonea), Windgap, Carrickbeg, Kilmolleran, Erin’s Stars (Kilrossanty), Kill, Fews, Newtown, Fenor, Ballyduff (Lower), Ballyduff (Upper), William O’Brien’s (Ballinamella), Ballinacourty, Ballylemon, Callaghan Home Rulers (Nire), Portlaw, Carbally, Aglish, Dunmore, John O’Mahony Hurling Club, Slieve Gua. James Upton noted that:
The old survivors of early generations of Waterfordians who knew something of the former prestige of Waterford County in hurling were amazed to find at the inception of the Gaelic Athletic Association that the premier national game of hurling was to all intense and purposes scarcely anything more than a fast fading tradition.
The preference for football saw Ballysaggart win the inaugural county football championship in 1885. In 1886 the Waterford County Board was finally established at Kilmacthomas. Waterford was one of only 9 counties to compete in the first All-Ireland football championship staged in 1887. The Deise were drawn against Louth but as neither county had played their hurling championship only the tie between their respective footballers was to take place.
West Waterford was noted for producing many hurleys of high quality and hurling balls while in the city an old wheelwright’s shop in Johnstown produced hurling sticks and Tom Kelly, a shoemaker on Ballybricken made balls. Such was the decline of hurling in the county, in February 1888 the John O’Mahony Hurling Club were adjudged the county champions as they were the only club to enter the competition.
Though Waterford was late to the table compared to other counties, Drohan notes:
the Executive of the Gaelic Athletic Association was pleased with the successful launching of Waterford City and County as an asset in the National revival, and marked its appreciation by allotting Waterford the outstanding distinction of holding the first Gaelic Athletic Championship meeting.
It took place in Tramore on the 6th October 1885. Dan Fraher of Dungarvan was one of the notable athletes who won the ‘standing jump’ at 30 feet and 8 inches (as recorded by the Waterford News). Fraher was the winner of the ‘hop, step and jump event’. Other noted Waterford players such as in football included Tom and Jim Nolan of Kilmeadan and Eddie Dee.
MONSTER HURLING & FOOTBALL
The early Waterford Executive of the GAA tapped into the city and county’s transport services of rail by having special trains arranged to transport supporters to tournaments held in the city and county. One such competition was a ‘Monster Hurling and Football Tournament’ held at Ballynaneeshagh on the 20th November, 1887. A special train was arranged from Clonmel stopping at Kilsheelan, Carrick, Fiddown, Grange before arriving at Waterford. In addition, cities such as Waterford were where pubs were allowed to open between 2pm and 7pm on Sunday coupled with the stipulation that anyone who journeyed more than three miles from their home was entitled to be served in a pub. The proximity of the county to hurling strongholds such as Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork combined with a good rail service and the opportunity of a pint or two made Waterford a very attractive location for matches.
Twelve years later a similar tournament was held at the grounds of the Waterford Hurling Club based in Ballytruckle. It was in aid of raising funds for the rebuilding of the Christian Brothers Schools of Mount Sion in the city. A report from the Munster Express of the days events is as follows:
The afternoon was fine up to about four o’clock, with the result that something like a couple of thousand persons assembled to witness the sport. The local railways ran excursion trains to the city, and each carried a very large contingent. The hurling match between Thurles and Mooncoin might be looked upon as the event of the afternoon, as each is regarded as a crack team. The play, which was very fine, lasted for about 40 minutes, with the result that each had scored three goals and three points, but at this juncture unpleasantness began to manifest itself amongst the players, with the result that the Thurles men left the field, when the match was awarded to Mooncoin. The football match between Clonmel and Vinegar Hill teams followed, but the best of the play all through rested with the Clonmel men, who had no difficulty in disposing of their opponents. The Two-Mile-Borris hardy team easily disposed of the Kilkenny Confederates, but still the play was very interesting for the hour. Taken altogether, the afternoon’s sport was most enjoyable. The Barrack street Independent Brass Band played a selection of music during the afternoon.
The Gaelic Field in Dungarvan would stage tournaments which saw sides from Ballytruckle, Middleton, Shamrocks of Clonmel, Kilmacow, Shandon Rovers (Dungarvan) and Gracedieu compete. Such was the appreciation of the Gaelic Field at Shandon it was used to host the tie between Cork and Kilkenny in the first All-Ireland hurling championship in 1887.
BALLYTRUCKLE PIONEER HURLING CLUB & AMERICA
In 1897 the Irish in America began preparations to mark the centenary of the Insurrection of 1798. They predicted that a quarter of a million visitors from Ireland would cross the Atlantic in celebrations that would include music, pageantry and sport. Gaelic Games was high on the agenda of events with teams and representatives from all over Ireland looking to take part in what was to be a major cultural event in the history of Irish-America. In Waterford, John Garvey of Johnstown and James Moir organised a group of young men and held a meeting in Garvey’s parlour. From the meeting they formed the Ballytruckle Pioneer Hurling Club. Garvey allowed the players to use the field at the back of his shop for training purposes. The side’s first game came against a Kilkenny outfit at Kilmacow where they lost by a small margin. Sadly, events in America were cancelled due to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. The Ballytruckle club continued for a few years after but gradually died out with a lack of opposition to face in the city and county.
ERIN’S HOPE: MUNSTER CHAMPIONS AND 1898 ALL-IRELAND FINALISTS
Though Ballytruckle would miss out in playing in America, the people of County Waterford had plenty to cheer. A club called Erin’s Hope reached the final of the 1898 All-Ireland Championship where they were pitted against Geraldines of Dublin. ‘The Hopes’ were the first Waterford side to claim provincial honours but missed out on ultimate glory when defeated on a score-line of 2-8 to 4 points. The team was made up of: J. Wall (captain), Michael Cullinane (vice-captain), W. Meade, P. Meade, J. Meade, J. Nagle, James Nagle, J. Healy, P. Sullivan, J. Power, J. Kennedy, N. Noonan, J. Franklin, W. Brien, J. Begley, Declan Flynn and J. Foley.
Though the success that followed Erin’s Hope was undoubted, it wasn’t all plain sailing to begin with as in 1895 they demanded £3 and 25 free tickets from the Cycling and Athletics Sports’ Committee for the use of Captain Curran’s field at Shandon. Curran denied the claim that the use of the field was only for the sport of Gaelic Football which led to the Munster Express opining of the Dungarvan outfit that ‘as Gaels, and following Gaelic sports, they should forward rather than retard the promotion of sport.’
DAN FRAHER & THE WEST AWAKES
By the early 1900s Dan Fraher was President of the Waterford GAA as the county could count on 9 football clubs and 8 in hurling to number their championships. The study The GAA: County by County records that ‘nobody came close to exercising the influence that Fraher had over the early GAA in Waterford.’ The Dungarvan draper with his ‘Gaelic Outfitting Store’ was a renowned athlete, administrator and was responsible for leasing Captain Curran’s field and developing it into a sportsground now known as Fraher Field. The venue has staged more All-Ireland finals than any other outside of Croke Park. It hosted hurling finals in 1903, 1905, 1907 and 1911.
Though Gaelic Games were developing in the city and county, Waterford’s record at intercounty level left a lot to be desired. In 1888 Na Deise (Carrickbeg being the representatives) played its first Munster Championship match in hurling, losing to Cork (2-8 to no score) in a game held at the Gaelic Field in Dungarvan and refereed by D. Fraher. The following 14 years was made up of walkovers and first round defeats as the county’s drought for a win continued into the 20th century. Waterford’s victory came over Kerry in 1903 in hurling on a score line of 5-6 to 2-9 reaching their first Munster final (which took place in 1904) losing to Cork. Their second hurling championship win would not be till 1925 when Waterford beat Clare to reach their second Munster final. Tipperary were the provincial victors as the Gentle County remained the only one in Munster not to win an All-Ireland hurling title.
‘rank with the best in the country’: HURLING COMPETITIVENESS IN THE 1930s
Yet the 1930s would see an upturn in the counties fortunes with the Waterford minors winning an All-Ireland in 1929; and the Junior hurlers winning three titles in 1931, ’34 and ’36. Performances improved at senior level also as Waterford drew in the 1931 Munster final with Cork but later lost the replay by 15 points. Back-to-back (‘33& ‘34) provincial deciders at the Cork Athletic Grounds against Limerick saw the county reach 5 Munster finals in 10 campaigns (1925-34). ROVER writes ‘until the good old Gael from Dungarvan, Dan Fraher, set the West going, and after a few years the game came towards the East, with the result that Waterford hurlers of the present day rank with the best in the country.’
The game of hurling was finally revived in Waterford to a level which made the county competitive leading it to the cusp of a provincial breakthrough and its first Golden Age in the Gaelic Athletic Association.