On the Field of Fontenoy
As the 'St David' steamed out of Rosslare Harbour on the night of 26th August, 1910, there were cheers and good wishes from those on shore and the singing of the 'Boys of Wexford' and 'Gallant Tipperary' was taken up simultaneously with two teams of hurlers on board.
It was the start of an historic journey to Brussels by hurling teams from Cork and Tipperary, who were scheduled to give exhibition games in the Belgian capital in connection with the Brussels International Exhibition.
The novel idea was the brainchild of J. J. Walsh, then chairman of the Cork County Board of the G.A.A. A session of the pan-Celtic Congress was being held in Brussels in conjunction with the exhibition and the Gaels of Europe were there to voice their asperations. Walsh's idea was to send two renowned hurling teams, Cork and Tipperary, to Brussels 'not because of any desire to advertise or popularise the game of hurling on the continent, but merely to show the assembled Gaels of the world what Irishmen could do in the realm of sport.'
To finance the trip, an exhibition match was arranged between a Dungourney selection and a Thurles selection in Cork on the 14th August but had to be abandoned because of inclement weather. The Munster Council voted £100 towards the cost. The Patron of the G.A.A., Dr. Fennelly, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, gave £5. Archdeacon Ryan, P.P., Fethard subscribed £2, and there were smaller contributions. Central Council declined to give any support.
The two selections set out from Cork and Thurles respectively on 26th August and joined up in Waterford. Each party consisted of seventeen players. The Cork party included Tom Irwin (Redmonds), who was later to be secretary of the county board and a referee, James Walsh (Sarsfields), Willie O'Neill (Sarsfields), Jamesy Kelleher (Dungourney) captain, Maurice O'Shea (Dungourney), who was tragically drowned a short while later, Tom Cronin (St. Finbarr's), Tim Garde (Dungourney), Martin Collins (Dungourney), James Ronayne (Dungourney), Bill Hennessy (Dungourney), Willie Williams (Midleton) Eamonn O'Neill (Sarsfields), Tim P. Forde (St,. Finbarr's), Michael Cotter (Shamrocks), Steve and Tom O'Riordan (Blackrock), Billy Mackesey (Blackrock).
The following was the Tipperary contingent:- Tom Semple (captain), Jack Mooney, Paddy Burke, Martin O'Brien, Anthony Carew, Tom Kerwick, Paddy Brolan, Jack Mockler, Tim (Thady) Dwyer, Joe McLoughney, William Butler, Joe McCormack, James M. Kennedy (Thurles), Michael O'Dwyer (Holycross), Tim Gleeson (Drombane), Bob Mockler (Horse and Jockey), Jack (John) and Pat Fitzgerald (New Birmingham), Jimmy Bourke (Clonakenny), Jack Ryan-Lanigan, William Carroll, Eddy Finn (Borrisoleigh), R.M. (Dick) O'Hanrahan (Fethard), who wrote the account of the tour for the 'Tipperary's Annual' and Pat McGrath (Munster Council Secretary.)
Early Arrival at Brussels
The St. David arrived at Fishguard at about 5 am the following morning and the party continued to London by train.The day was spent sightseeing and at 9 pm there was a train to Dover. From there the Princess Clementine transported the party to Ostend where they arrived at 3.25 on Sunday morning. The journey to Brussels was continued by train and was reached at 6 am. Having arrived at their hotel the party had some linguistic difficulties to overcome before they could make their needs known but then 'steaming pots of teas with plates of bacon and eggs were brought to the diningroom table to everybody's delight.'
The first match was played at Malines (Meechelen), a large town north of Brussels on the road to Antwerp. After breakfast and Mass the party travelled out to this town. Four representatives of the group joned over 100 delegates to the pan-Celtic Congress, who were being received by His Eminence, Cardinal Mercier. The delegates were accommpanied by the O'Neill Pipers Band from Armagh, which F. J. Biggan, MRIA, had brought over at his own expense.
After the reception the teams mustered in the large square in front of the railway station. They were in playing costume and with hurleys on shoulders they marched two deep through the town, headed by the O'Neil Pipers band with their banner showing the red hand of Ulster. A green flag with a harp was also borne in the procession.
The venue for the contest was the grounds of Racing Club de Malines. When the teams arrived a soccer match was in progress, watched by about 20,000 spectators. Some of them remained to watch the hurling match.
To the air of 'God Save Ireland', Cork and Tipperary took the field . The preliminaries were quickly got through and Mr. Quinlan of the Limerick County Board was in charge of proceedings. The length of the field militated against a proper contest. Another factor to be consiered was that the players had had no sleep the previous night. The teams confined themselves almost completely to ground play and, when they warmed to their task they exerted themselves to effect, particularly the forwards who pressed hard whenever they were in possession. About thirteen hurleys were smashed whilst the game was in progress and to the spectators it seemed as if a battle-royal was in progress.
At half-time the teams were level at two goals each but in the second-half Tipperary scored three more to one for Cork and consequently won by five goals to three.
The attendance included Charles Page Bryan, the American Ambassador, Shane Leslie and Joseph Biggar. On Tuesday, 30th August, the teams renewed rivalry on the famous battlefield of Fontenoy. The greasy and sloping nature of the ground didn't admit of anything but a mere exhibition of the game but it highly pleased the spectators present. The teams received a glorious reception in the village. The progress of the players and their friends through the streets was a triumphal one. Perhaps the most impressive and inspiring feature of the reception was the singing of the school children of the Irish anthem, 'God save Ireland'.
Although the match was no more than an exhibition, the respective captains, James Kelleher of Cork and Tom Semple of Tipperary, were loudly applauded and the game was as spirited and dashing as could be expected. The Corkmen retrieved their fame and, after a keenly contested struggle, came out winners by 2-4 to 2-3. During the game Billy O'Neill of Cork got injured and, as the wound was being dressed, made the remark – 'I'm not the first Irishman to shed blood on this plain.'
The players had visited the exhibition on Monday and went there again on Wednesday, the last day of the tour. They also played their final game. It was supposed to begin at 3 pm but, due to objections by the Irishmen over the flying of the British flag in the playing ground, did not get underway until three hours later. Programmes printed in Irish, English and French were on sale and visitors to the exhibition were thrilled as they viewed the game, which was won by Tipperary.
The players arrived back in Ireland on Friday to a heroes' welcome. At the railway station at Thurles they were greeted by a large crowd and the Confraternity Band playing 'See the Conquering Heroes Come'. In Cork they were greeted by the Lord Mayor at the Municipal Buildings.
The trip had been a financial disaster, however, and, in an effort to wipe out the debt, Joseph Biggar, who had attended the pan-Celtic Congress in Brussels, was invited to deliver a lecture in Cork. He did so and summed up the tour with the apt phrase: 'Ireland was on the parade ground of Europe and failed to march past.'
According to Padraig Puirseal 'a fine opportunity for introducing the games to the continent was lost, mainly because of inadequate pre-publicity and poor organisation at the Belgian end . . . This was the first display of hurling in Europe since the days of the Irish Brigade; a chance to publicise Ireland's case for self-rule was missed and financially the tour was a failure.'
It does appear that the games received little in the way of publicity or organisation from the local pan-Celtic Festival Conmittee in Brussels. One gets the feeling, however, that there was a failure in communication between theorganisers in Ireland and the Festival Committee. It would appear that the brainchild of J. J. Walsh wasn't well thought out nor was sufficicient time given for preparations to be made. The idea seems to have come at the last moment and to have been discussed for the first time not much more than a month before departure date.
We must also keep in mind that Walsh, in his own words, had no intention of advertising or popularising the game of hurling on the continent but merely to show the assembled Gaels of the world what Irishmen could do in the realm of sport. However, to do this he needed to advertise and publicise the tour so that as many as possible would attend. He didn't succeed in attracting many to any of the three exhibitions so, ultimately, we must regard the trip as a failure from that point of view.
In the course of a speech on his return from Brussela, Walsh explained to his listeners why they had gone. 'For centuries Ireland had been denied a voice in the council of nations. They saw a golden opportunity of displaying the grand physique of which Irishmen always boasted. . . They saw the golden opportunity of showing to the world and telling the peoples of Europe that notwithstanding the persecutions which had followed their track, they were still a factor in the constitution of the human race. . . (It) was the beginning of a big international movement – a movement for the placing of the Celtic race on a proper footing, and placing it on a stand and position which would be regarded as a factor by the nations of the world. . .'
The Tipperary Star, December 31, 1994