Ka­vanagh doc­u­ments Rail­way jour­ney from the peak years to its last stop

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES / RESULTS / ROUND-UP - DER­MOT CROWE

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.

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