At the start of the twentieth century, the Gaelic Athletic Association seemed trapped in a quagmire of perennial upheaval. As the fledgling organisation attempted to find its feet in a country bound by political and economic flux, organisational failings exacerbated its dysfunction. Difficulty in acquiring pitches proved particularly challenging, owing in no small part to clerical opposition following the Parnell scandal and the GAA’s support of their patron. As well as this, the flimsiest of perceived slights could result in a team’s refusal to play while objections raised by losing teams resulted in many games being decided in the boardroom. The 1905 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship provides the perfect encapsulation of the chaotic nature of the GAA around this time. Throw in a bit of espionage and you’re left with one of the most peculiar championship endings in the history of our national games.
The 1905 championship commenced in May 1906, as was the style at the time. Due to a myriad of reasons, as outlined above, competition backlogs were not uncommon. In fact, the championship hadn’t concluded within the calendar year since 1890 when Cork defeated Wexford in a November final (that match was actually abandoned and Cork were later awarded the title). In the opening round, Cork made short work of Waterford. That game was sandwiched between the delayed All-Ireland semi-final and final of the 1904 edition, the latter of which saw Kilkenny beat Cork for the first time in a decider, denying them the three-in-a-row. As the Munster Championship was running behind schedule (wasn’t it always?), Cork were nominated to represent Munster in the All-Ireland semi-final, where they beat Galway by ten points. So far, so good.
Later that year, Cork returned to provincial competition to take on Tipperary in the Munster semi-final. With twenty minutes remaining in the game, Cork were four points in arrears. After a prolonged Tipperary attack, the ball went out of play and the Tipperary players, adjudging that the ball had come off a Cork stick, became incensed when the umpire called for a puckout. Tipperary refused to play on and after lengthy debate, the match was abandoned. Cork were awarded the victory. The St. Finbarr’s club (Cork’s representatives in that game) however, refused to accept “a bloodless victory” and agreed to a replay, confidently proclaiming that “Cork was not afraid of Tipperary any day”. As the championship trickled slowly into the new year, the replay was fixed for late January. That was until a few days before the game when Tipperary informed the Munster Council that they would be unable to play due to “the illness of three of our most prominent players, as well as injuries to three more”. This time, there would be no reprieve and Cork were awarded the game. In the Munster Final, Limerick were comprehensively defeated and Cork progressed to the All-Ireland Final to renew their rivalry with Kilkenny.
The 1905 All-Ireland Final took place in Tipperary town in April 1907, in front of a crowd of over 5,000. The Rebel contingent prevailed after a pulsating encounter, on a scoreline of 5-10 to 3-13. But the drama certainly didn’t end there. Later that month, it emerged that the secretary of the Erin’s Own H.C (Kilkenny’s representatives in the final) had lodged an objection to the result, alleging that Cork’s goalkeeper Daniel McCarthy was “in the service of the British government by the fact of his present drawing the pay of reservist”. The objection was grounded on Rule 6 of the GAA, introduced ten years previously to allay fears that RIC members were joining clubs to spy on members’ political activities. The rule stated that “police, soldiers, sailors of the Royal Navy, militiamen, or pensioners of the constabulary, army or navy, shall not be allowed to play hurling or football”.
The following week, the Central Council met in Dublin, where the Cork representative, Tom Dooley of St. Finbarr’s, argued that the rule in question did not mention reservists and as such, the playing of Mr. McCarthy wasn’t in breach. The Kilkenny representative, one Mr. J. McCarthy, claimed that the St. Finbarr’s club had in fact set the precedent in a club game, using the rule in their favour to object to the playing of four Redmond’s players before a tournament in Carrigaline on the basis that they too were militia men. Mr. McCarthy also revealed that a member of the Kilkenny team had travelled to Cork the week before, where an RIC official took him to the home of Daniel McCarthy on Rochford’s Lane (an old alleyway off Bandon Road). There, he said, evidence was produced in the form of a War Office document which proved that the accused had been paid for his services in the militia. This information, he said, had been given to him by a Cork Gael. When asked to reveal the identity of his source, Mr. McCarthy refused, stating that the man in question would lose his job if his identity was revealed. After much deliberation, a replay was agreed between the delegations.
At a meeting of the County Board the following week, this information was relayed to the other board members. “He [Mr. McCarthy] knew more about Cork that we did”, opined Dooley, while admonishing the Kilkenny representative for his collaboration with Crown forces. The St. Finbarr’s man claimed that he was unaware of Daniel McCarthy’s involvement with the British Army, stating that the ‘Barr’s “always made it a point that any man whom there was any suspicion about was never put on a team.” President, Matt O’Riordan of Redmond’s, admitted that such was the accuracy of the information given to the Kilkenny men, that the informant must be a member of the Board and a “ dangerous character in their midst”. The President continued to state that “no matter what the differences between themselves in Cork may be”, for a Cork Gael to adopt “such low, mean tactics, it might be better for him that his name would not be known”.
But what differences were the President alluding to? Could it be that internal wrangling within the County Board, owing to old parochial rivalry, could have induced the sabotage of Cork’s All-Ireland aspirations? Is it plausible to attribute the “low, mean, tactics” adopted by the this mysterious knave to a personal grievance or perceived sense of injustice? While the informant has never been exposed, it is worth revisiting the tense undercurrent of enmity that existed between two of Cork’s most prestigious clubs 115 years ago.
These tensions stemmed from the uncertainty regarding Cork’s rightful representatives in that year’s championship, the ambiguity owing to the fact that the 1905 Cork Senior Hurling Championship was never played. St. Finbarr’s had won the 1904 edition in typically acrimonious circumstances, their opponents, Castletownroche refusing to play in the final, arguing that the choice of venue, the Cork Athletic Grounds, wasn’t neutral. When the 1905 Munster Championship finally commenced in May 1906, Blackrock were the last Cork club to have won a county final on the field of play, when they defeated the ‘Barr’s in the 1903 final (played in 1904, naturally!). They were also by far the most successful club in the county to date. Thus, Blackrock acted as Cork’s representatives in three championship games that year, both the All-Ireland semi-final and final of the 1904 championship and indeed the 1905 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. By the time it came to play the Munster Final against Tipperary however, the Rockies had been comprehensively beaten by the ‘Barr’s in the club championship. As a result, a St. Finbarr’s representation took to the field on behalf of Cork.
A week before the Munster Final against Limerick, St. Finbarr’s won the 1906 Cork Senior Hurling Championship, defeating Ballymartle in the final. While this victory should have cemented their status as the best hurling team in Cork, this wasn’t an opinion that was uniformly accepted. That January, the Cork Examiner published an article entitled “Blackrock and the 1905 Championship”, in which the writer claimed that “at present Blackrock is the best hurling combination in Ireland”, before further declaring matter-of-factly that they were “the best team Ireland ever saw”. The Rockies’ humbling at the hands of the ‘Barr’s a few months before was conveniently unacknowledged. Before the All-Ireland final, a deputation on behalf of Blackrock appealed to the Munster Council against the decision to allow St. Finbarr’s compete as Cork’s representatives. Unsurprisingly, their plea fell on deaf ears.
A week before the final, in a meeting of the County Board, Walter Parfrey spoke on behalf of the Rockies, declaring that “though Blackrock did uphold their appeal, they hoped that St. Finbarr’s would win the Championship for the honour of Cork”. Parfrey had won an All-Ireland with Cork in 1902. He also scored two points in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Galway a few months previously. When St. Finbarr’s announced their team for the final, although they included two Blackrock players (at this time, while one club represented the county, they were also permitted to select the best players from other clubs to aid them), Parfrey’s name was conspicuously absent. One must wonder how the Blackrock man dealt with his omission.
In the aftermath of the final, the hostility between the two clubs clearly hadn’t abated. A week after the All-Ireland final, Blackrock and St. Finbarr’s took part in a challenge game in aid of the Mercy Hospital. The match was abandoned after fifty minutes following an “extraordinary exhibition of rowdyism” involving both sets of players and supporters. The President of the County Board later questioned the decision to allow the game to go ahead “under the present condition of affairs”. Soon after the ‘challenge’ game, Kilkenny’s objection came to light.
Kilkenny won the replay convincingly that June. In Tim Horgan’s book, Cork’s Hurling Story, the author wrote that “Kilkenny won the second game fairly easily, possibly because the Cork men could not muster enough enthusiasm to fight again for a title they had won on the playing field and lost in the council room”. Perhaps, although it is also probable that the team which lined out to play Kilkenny in the replay, comprising eight ‘Barr’s players and three from Blackrock, may not have been the most congenial of outfits.
Either way, the record books show Kilkenny atop hurling’s roll of honour with 36 All-Ireland titles. Cork, with 30, lie in second. If it weren’t for a mole in the camp, that chasm wouldn’t look nearly as bad.