Kavanagh documents Railway journey from the peak years to its last stop
IN a timely intervention, The Story of Interprovincial Football has emerged from the pen of Dermot Kavanagh, following a similar work by the same writer on the hurling series two years ago. For all the indications are that the interprovincial series has breathed its last, bereft of tearful requiems or parting ceremonies. It simply slipped quietly out of existence.
This compact and well-researched book, like its hurling predecessor, is partly the legacy of Kavanagh’s childhood fascination with the competition during its time as the Railway Cup, when it enjoyed a more prestigious standing. Even the author admits he struggled to maintain more than passive interest in later years. His last football final to attend was 1976.
Last year the Connacht Council decided that it would not be participating. Since the Railway Cup began in 1927 the only years which drew a blank were 1990, 2010 and ’11 (when suspended for review), 2015 (unplayable weather conditions) and 2017 (when Connacht reneged). With no fixtures pencilled into the GAA calendar this year, the end appears to have come without any official announcement.
“We haven’t really been able to find an appropriate date for them, when you would have had all of the players you’d want available,” explained Fergal McGill, the GAA’s director of player, club and games administration. “We have had incidences where fellas who didn’t even play for the county in the championship turned out. So there are no plans to revive it.”
McGill’s personal sentiments are universally felt. “I think everybody liked the idea of the interprovincials, but at the end of the day fellas weren’t committing to it. Even though players said they wanted it, when it came to committing to it we weren’t able to get the players. And for the public, it just did not catch their imagination.”
Kavanagh, the son of enthusiastic match-goers and a native of Kilkenny, tells how the Railway Cup offered cherished access to the star players of the day. “The league was never a big thing here in Kilkenny in the ’50s and ’60s because we never did very well in it. So the build-up every year after the All-Ireland was around the Railway Cup. The whole winter people would be picking teams: who would be on it? Like I remember when Wexford won Leinster in ’63, thinking, ‘Ah Kilkenny will get no-one on the team now in ’64’. This kind of stuff. And then they’d have trials.
“It is like asking a young fella why do you support Manchester United against Liverpool. It got into my system and every year then we would go to the Railway Cups, it was a big treat, and my first one was ’62 and three-quarters of the Down team of the ’60s was playing for Ulster. And I loved the football anyway so it was a great opportunity to see Seán O’Neill, Leo Murphy, and the crowds would be 35,000-40,000, great games.”
But the attendances began to drop in the 1960s and when the club championships were launched in 1971, and later moved to St Patrick’s Day from the mid’80s, they began to replace the Railway Cup in the nation’s affections. When the GAA began to dabble with new dates and venues, public interest fell more. “Gradually the public decided,” as Kavanagh says, “‘Look it, if you are not interested neither are we’”.
From the record crowd of 49,000 in 1954, the attendance only ten years later had fallen by a colossal 40,000. Ten years later again, after the finals were threatened by postponement due to adverse weather, only 2,517 attended. The magic had gone.
Kavanagh went to his first finals in 1962 and stayed going annually until the middle of the next decade, after which his visits became more sporadic. “I started to get involved with it when it was sort of beyond its peak and I stayed with it then until the death rattle,” he says. “I was in Thurles in December two years ago, Munster beat Leinster in the hurling final on a Thursday night. I would say there was 400 at the match. I saw it from nearly its halcyon days down to the bitter end. Nobody wanted to be the one to land the fatal blow. It died a long, lingering death.”
The end for the football competition came in Carrick-on-Shannon on December 18, 2016, when Ulster defeated Connacht, their 32nd win in the competition. They finished four wins ahead of Leinster, with Munster on 15 and Connacht with 10.