On Gardiner Street, an advertisement from the Evening Herald on the railway bridge reads simply: “SAM, MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME”. There’s a certain cockiness to it, and of course the time will come when the Sam Maguire cup moves on from the capital.
The 18-D-SAM novelty registration plates were printed long before the ball was thrown in on that Sunday in September, and the expectation of victory was in the air for many.
Long gone are the years of drought for supporters of Dublin’s Gaelic footballers; legendary sports writer Con Houlihan once noted that “Dublin’s hardcore have become accustomed to losing but they live in hope. What’s another year…?”
Amidst the glory of another Gaelic football triumph, an anniversary quietly passed in Dublin, as 2018 marked the 80th anniversary of Dublin winning the Liam MacCarthy cup, the hurling equivalent of the Sam Maguire.
That Dublin have gone eight decades without lifting the cup is remarkable in itself, but so too is the fact only one native Dubliner, Jim Byrne of the 1938 side, has ever won an All-Ireland hurling medal.
Twenty years ago this year, one writer joked that if you “mention Dublin hurling, the barstool pontificators think it’s an oxymoronic joke like Jamaican bobsleighers”. How could it be that the Irish capital, with its population advantage over the rest of the island, has failed to challenge at the top level of hurling in the same manner that it has come to dominate Gaelic football?
The divide between hurling and Gaelic football in the Irish capital is a curious thing. There was a prevailing opinion in Dublin that there was little metropolitan about hurling, which was considered instead a game of countrymen. Hurling was deeply ingrained into the traditions of parts of rural Ireland, and wrapped up also in folklore and mythology.
By the early twentieth century, hurling in Dublin was synonymous with men from rural Ireland, in particular those working in the bar trade and the civil service. Living in Dublin, these men would “line-out” for Dublin competitively, to such an extent that when Dublin took to the field of play in the 1927 All-Ireland hurling final, there wasn’t a single native Dubliner on the team.
The countrymen who donned blue jerseys in the early decades of the last century were often the crème de la crème of the sport; in his statement to the Bureau of Military History, Waterford republican Michael O’Donoghue remembered making his way to Croke Park in 1922 to see “Bob Meckler of Horse-and-Jockey, Tipperary, my hurling hero of that age, who was playing midfield for Dublin, having left Tipperary to settle in the capital in 1915”.
Dublin’s hurling mediocrity is surprising given the importance of the city to the development of the game. As historian Paul Rouse notes, it was on the grass of the Phoenix Park that “Michael Cusack had launched the revival of hurling even before he founded the GAA”.
Dubliners in their thousands had travelled to Elm Park for the first ever match in the Dublin hurling championship in March 1887, cheering on the wonderfully named Metropolitans and Faugh-a-Ballaghs.
Illustrations of men playing hurling in Dublin appeared in the pages of British publications like the London-based Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, no doubt somewhat baffled by the game that English writer Arthur Young had famously described as “the cricket of savages”.
For Dubliners, the battle for loyalty in the early twentieth century was primarily between soccer and Gaelic football. The GAA’s Rule 27, introduced in 1905, prohibited GAA players from playing or even attending “foreign games” as spectators, a source of considerable discontent in Dublin.
Famous soccer players like Manchester United’s Jackie Carey and Aston Villa’s Con Martin had been committed Gaelic footballers in their youth, but were then forced to choose a path.
Soccer, the most egalitarian of sports, requiring only four jumpers and a ball, was particularly popular in working-class districts. Athletes who showed great promise in soccer could often translate that skill onto the Gaelic football pitch and vice versa.
Officially, 37,129 were in Croke Park to witness the 1938 All-Ireland hurling final, though newsreel footage suggests plenty more found their way into the ground. The Irish Press reported that “Liffey men, Lagan men, Suirsiders, Leesiders, country folk and city dwellers … encircled Croke Park’s playing pitch yesterday and saw Dublin win the nation’s premier athletic trophy.”
The action on the pitch gave the paper less to write about, as “the actual match was not outstanding – spectators found it a ding-dong terrior-like game – but the unique atmosphere of an All-Ireland Hurling Final was present. It was more than a game, it was a national occasion”. Dublin came away victorious, defeating Waterford 2-5 to 1-6.
Subsequent decades brought great hardship for the sport in Dublin, and when the capital began to thrive at Gaelic football in the 1970s – the reign of legendary manager Kevin Heffernan – Hill 16 was jammed with young faces and home-painted banners.
Suddenly Gaelic football had it all, from intense rivalry with Kerry to the terrace passion that followed the team across the island. Heffernan himself remembered that “I said to myself, it’s great to be coming now. The economy has slumped. There was no soccer team going well. The rugby team were struggling. We were arriving. There was a space for us to make a difference.”
With investment and the hard work of the game’s disciples in Dublin, hurling has witnessed something of a renaissance in the capital in recent years. In 2011, an unnamed Dublin hurler told the Sunday Independent that “we had it bad for long enough. I heard stories of hurley makers keeping aside their rough cuts and shite wood to send their worst sticks up to Dublin because no one would ever challenge them. Those days are over.”
Some of the leading hurling clubs in the country are found in Dublin today, perhaps training a young generation that will emulate the heroes of 1938.