Incredible tale of a man who rewrote record books in sports and politics
TP O’Mahony, author of a biography of Jack Lynch, recounts highlights of the life of the popular Taoiseach and sportsman
It was a sultry day in late May in 1990, and outside the main entrance to the City Hall in Cork three Gardai were on duty. They stood in front of the busts of two of Cork’s most famous sons—Terence MacSwiney and Tomas MacCurtain, both of whom served as Lord Mayor.
Inside, in the vast auditorium, another famous Corkman was just finishing an oration on the rostrum. As the applause died away, he walked unsteadily from the stage to resume his place in the front row. The MC thanked him, and then the applause thundered again through the auditorium as he hailed Jack Lynch and assured him that to the people of Cork he would always be “the real Taoiseach”.
It was by now a familiar tag and one to which Lynch was well used; he knew it was as much an expression of affection as anything else, though he knew too it harked back to dark and traumatic days for the Fianna Fail party and the country.
Jack Lynch was not a sentimentalist. And although he refused to see himself as a shaper of history, he knew he was the right man for his time, the leader the country needed when all of the island could have been plunged into another bloody and bitter civil war.
“He kept his head, and so enabled all of us to keep ours,” was how his fellow Corkonian, John A Murphy, emeritus professor of Irish History at UCC, described the essence of Lynch’s role in the highly dangerous years of 1969-70.
In 1990, at the age of 73, Jack Lynch was inclined to make the odd joke about advancing years. After that speech he sat in the Lord Mayor’s office and in reply to a question about his health, he said: “I’m as well as can be expected at the hospital gates”.
On being told by another admirer that he was “looking well”, he glanced at the glass of Paddy in his hand and commented: “There are three stages of manhood – adulthood, middle-age, and you’re looking well!”
The Jack Lynch story began in a small narrow laneway which intersects Exchange Street at the foot of one of Ireland’s best-known landmarks. Here, in the shadow of St Anne’s Church, Shandon, John Mary Lynch was born on 15 August 1917.
The laneway was never known as anything other than “Bob and Joan’s” – the name being derived from two statu- es at either side of the walkway. Nearby was the old Butter Market which made a passable ball- alley, and the street featured many a tussle among the young hurlers who used the Market’s doorposts as a goal. Apart from playing hurling in the streets, young Jack also swam in the summers in Crosshaven and “Hell Hole” near Inniscarra, and raced on his bicycle against the old Mus kerry tram.
From this background, not at all unusual for the northside of Cork, came the man who was destined to carve an unrivalled niche for himself in the annals of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
Jack was the fifth son, and also had two sisters. One of his brothers, Theo, became a schoolteacher and was a key figure in St Nicholas GAA Club (the sister club to Glen Rovers).
With a father from Bantry and a mother from just east of Cork City, Jack was reared, as his friend Eamonn Young once said, in “an atmosphere rich with the national traditions of the hills of West Cork and the echoing streets of older Cork”. Both left their mark.
In the Lynch household, sport was the family’s constant talking- point. Politics was hardly ever discussed. Confirming this years later, Jack told the Irish Times in January 1959: “I haven’t any idea what my father’s politics were”.
Lynch was the product of what the late John Healy once called a “village culture”. And the “village” of Blackpool simply regarded itself not only as special but as the best.
After a stint in the civil service, Lynch was called to the Bar in 1945 ( he had studied law for two years at UCC). After being approached by the local Blackpool cumann of Fianna Fail, Lynch won a seat in Dail Eireann in the 1948 election. Eamon de Valera came to Cork for the final rally in 1948 and that’s when Jack met him for the first time.
Years later he spelled out what Dev meant to him. The occasion was the launching of a book, De Valera and His
Times, at UCC on 12 October 1983. Before a distinguished gathering, Lynch declared: “I am a lifelong admirer and supporter of Eamon de Valera, his ideals, his philosophy and his policies and will be for as long as I live.”
After holding several ministerial positions, notably Edu- cation (1957-59), Industry and Commerce ( 1959- 65) and Finance ( 1965- 66), Lynch succeeded Sean Lemass as Taoiseach in November 1966. But long before electoral success put Jack Lynch into the political sections of the history books, he had made an indelible mark in another sphere.
In 1946 Jack Lynch made sporting history — Cork beat Kilkenny in the All- Ireland Senior Hurling final by 7-5 to 3- 8. And with that victory Lynch attained the singular distinction of playing in six All-Ireland finals in a row and being on the winning side in all six.
On the evening of November20, 1990, he could be found doing two things he loved most — sipping a glass of Paddy whiskey and talking about hurling. The location was the hospitality room of the Beamish & Crawford Brewery (sadly now gone) on the North Main Street in Cork. And the occasion was the launching of a book by journalist Raymond Smith entitled The Greatest Hurlers of Our Time. And not the only surprise of the night was the fact that, although Lynch had agreed to formally launch the book in response to an invitation from Smith, he himself was not included in Smith’s list of the 21 “greatest” hurlers.
The irony was not lost on Jack or of any of the other famous hurlers who had gathered for the occasion.
When Jack Lynch was asked afterwards how he felt about his omission from the list, he smiled coyly.
“These things are always subjective, aren’t they? But there are some on that list who wouldn’t meet my definition of hurling greatness.”
Others present echoed similar sentiments. By any standards, the omission of Lynch was astonishing. And in retrospect, one would have to say it took some chutzpah (“neck” they would say in Cork) for Smith to invite Lynch having, in effect, snubbed him. It also says something about Lynch that he accepted readily in the circumstances. But then generosity towards opponents had always been one of his characteristics — both in sport and politics.
It all started in 1935. In his fifth year in secondary school (the Nor th Mon) he was chosen for the Cork senior team ina league match against Limerick. He was pitted against no less an opponent than John Mackey ( brother of the great Mick Mackey). “Everything must have gone right for me,” he recalled, “for I stayed on the Cork team until 1950.”
The following year, while still at school, he was on the championship side. “I think it was recognised fairly early on that I had ability as a hurler and, frankly, I took advantage of this for missing an occasional class, as I used to have allowances made for me by teachers who were convinced I was otherwise preoccupied, which may not always have been the case.
“My older brothers, Theo, Charlie and Finbar, had joined Glen Rovers at an early age and I did likewise. There I came in contact with one of the great father-figures of the Glen, Paddy O’Connell, who took a special interest in my progress, suggesting to me that I had some potential.”
Paddy O’Connell held up Mickey Cross, the Limerick half- back, as the player to emulate. Jack Lynch learned well. He was one of the few Glen Rovers players to collect eight successive Cork county senior medals, starting in 1934.
During the famous four-ina-row All-Ireland hurling finals of 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1944, he made another bit of GAA history ( in 1944) when he played three games in one day. He turned out for the Civil Service club in the Dublin hurling league in the morning and, in the afternoon, figured with Munster’s hurlers and footballers in the Railway Cup championships.
Incidentally, he was on the winning side in all three.
“I came on to the Cork senior hurling side during one of the county’s leanest era in the sport. Cork had won the 1931 All-Ireland title, but Limerick dominated hurling in Munster for most of the rest of the decade. I played with the Cork minors in the early thirties, but unfortunately Cork were also eclipsed in the minor sphere by Tipperary. My first game
with the senior team was in the 1935-36 season in the National League against that famous Limerick side of that era.”
Cork won the Munster championship in 1939, but were beaten by Kilkenny by a single point, scored in the last minute of the final in Croke Park. The game was played in atrocious weather conditions (know never since as the “thunder-and-lightning” final). The other disaster was the outbreak of World War II on the same day: September 3.
Although beaten by Limerick the following year in the Munster final, Lynch felt Cork had an All- Ireland winning combination, especially with the advent of Christy Ring.
“Ring was one of the most accomplished hurlers of all time, and I would omit the qualification were I not to know I would be accused of bias. He had supreme confidence in his own ability, refusing to be taken off a marker who may have been getting the better of him, feeling that he would turn the tables sooner or later. And so, too, he often did with a remarkable burst of sheer excellence that would turn the course of a game. He was by no means a hurling robot. He had a fine intelligence and marvellous perception.”
Lynch’s graveside oration in Cloyne at Ring’s funeral in March 1979 is still remembered in GAA circles. But Lynch himself joined Ring in the Team of the Millennium.
In December 1983, when Lynch was elected to the Texaco Hall of Fame, the broadcaster Micháel O’Hehir recalled his style of play and the spirit he instilled in colleagues. “And he had time for everyone.”
The late Val Dorgan, who played with Glen Rovers in the fifties, and who covered GAA games for years for what was then the Cork Examiner, knew Lynch well.
“An Adonis-like figure, he had a graceful style, total dedication and an innate sense of fair play. But nobody took liberties with Lynch.”
In the twilight of his intercounty career as a hurler, when he was a TD, Jack Lynch played corner- forward for Cork against Tipperary on a day when Tony Reddan was having an inspired game in goal. Reddan, widely regarded as the greatest goalkeeper of all time, suffered from a speech impediment. Halfway through the second half, with the Cork forwards frustrated, Willie John Daly, who was half- forward for Cork, ran into Lynch.
“Will you get into the square and do something about Reddan, he’s breaking our hearts. Give him a dig or a box of the hurley.”
Lynch nodded. “Next time you get a ball out around the middle of the field, lob a high one into the square and I’ll take care of Reddan.”
Sure enough, four or five minutes later Daly got possession and floated a high ball into the Tipp square. Reddan was standing under the dropping ball, waiting to grab it, when Lynch came charging in from the left.
The Tipperary keeper saw him coming out of the corner of his eye, grabbed the ball, neatly side-stepped the charging Lynch, and cleared the ball out the field.
Lynch missed the tackle and finished up in the back of the net. As he was picking himself up, Reddan, angry, turned to him. “F-fuck you Lynch,” he shouted. “The next f-fucking time you try that there’ll be an early f-fucking by-election in Cork!”
TP O’Mahony’s The Lynch Years was published by The Dolmen Press, Portlaoise, in 1986.
In the Lynch household, sport was the family’s constant talking-point. Politics was hardly ever discussed
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