In the official photograph of the 1930 All-Ireland senior hurling champions, Jim Lanigan and Jack T McKenna are kneeling side by side on the right of the middle row. They are the only remaining survivors of the victorious Tipperary team that included such stalwarts as Phil Cahill, Tommy Treacy, John Maher, captain Joby Callanan, Martin Kennedy and Mick Cronin. The manager was Johnny Leahy and there was a second McKenna on the panel, Paul, who was to die in New York in 1956.
Jim Lanigan was to go on and win a second senior medal in Killarney in 1937 but 1930 was the high point of Jack KcKenna's hurling career. The medals he won that year were cherished possessions for nearly sixty years until they were stolen in 1988. His daughter, Jean, was the proud wearer of his All-Ireland medal until it was taken in a house robbery at her hone in Kill, Co. Klldare in October 1988. A month later Jack's remaining two medals from that year, a Munster and a Thomond Shield, were stolen in a break-in at his residence at Hillside, Birr. So, in the course of a month and at two different locations the malevolent hands of thieves took from him some of his cherished possessions.
The McKennas are a great Borrisokane family. The father of them all, Michael, originally from Ardcroney, ran a pub in the town and was married to a Ryan from nearby. The couple reared seven boys and four girls. The oldest of them, Michael, was born in 1881 and was Clerk of the Union in the town. Mary Anne came next and in the course of time married and became the mother of Dinny Doorley. Malachy followed and became the father of Mackey and Tony of hurling fame, and Ger of greyhound greatness. Joe was on the Toomevara selection defeated by Kilkenny in the 1913 All-Ireland. Three girls, Kit, Gret and Bride, followed and then came the remaining four boys, Tim, who played hurling for Borrisokane, Jack and Paul who won All-Irelands in 1930 and Frank, the youngest, who became the father of Joe of Offaly and and Limerick fame.
Jack started hurling with Shinrone, which requires some explanation. In 1912 the father handed over the pub to Malachy and bought Hazelfort farm in Knockshegowna . Because there was no team there at the time the lads decided to play with Shinrone, which was the other half of the parish and situated in Co. Offaly. This injection of talent was enough to enable Shinrone to win the Offaly junior hurling championship in 1923, beating Tullamore in the final. The following year saw Jack play senior hurling with Offaly in the Leinster championship.
However, the Offaly sojourn did not last long. In 1925 Jack. Paul, Tim and Frank transferred to Borrisokane and were to give sterling service to that club for the next decade. The highlight of this involvement came, undoubtedly, in 1933 when the club won two North hurling titles on the same day, October 22. The senior hurlers defeated nighty Toomevara, who had won 17 divisional titles since 1910, and the junior hurlers from Bawnmore made it an historic day by beating Kilruane. Toomevara had a sizable lead, 2-2 to O-3, at half time. Borrisokane made a couple of switches, including bringing .Frank McKenna to partner Jack at centrefield and this proved a winning combination. They provided a good supply of the ball to their forwards and when the final whistle sounded Borrisokane were ahead by 2-7 to 2-2.
Jack's memories of playing in those days are happy ones although conditions would be regarded as primitive by today's standards. Hurling was the main leisure activity. There was nothing else to do and nowhere to go. 'Hurling was our life,' according to Jack. "We had no money, could afford nothing else.' They trained an awful lot, perhaps much too much. A typical day was to farm from eight in the morning to six in the evening have a light tea, get into the togs and go to the training field where three or four hours hurling would not be exceptional. There could be fifteen to twenty in the field on the evening and, perhaps, twice that number on Sundays when they hurled the whole day. After a session they would lie down in their sweat to rest, cool down and have a chat. 'Do you have any arthritis from these days?' 'None,' he replies.
When he was on the county team he travelled to Thurles to train. Jack played junior hurling with Tipperary in 1928 and 1929 and graduated to senior ranks in 1930. Centrefield was his position where he occasionally partnered Tommy Treacy. The road to the All-Ireland began at Dungarvan, where there was an easy victory over Waterford. Clare, who surprised Cork in the other semi-final, were their opponents in the final played at Cork. Tipperary won by eight points. The All-Ireland semi-final was played at Birr and there was a comprehensive victory over Galway. In the final against Dublin Tipperary were ahead by a point at the interval but went on to win comfortably by double scores. The same year the minors and juniors won All-Irelands so 1930 came to be known as the 'Triple Crown' year. Later in the year at a gala day at Thurles Sportsfield, Archbishop Harty distributed no fewer than 130 gold medals to the winners and an historic photograph of the three teams was taken.
County chairman, Rev. J. J. Meagher offered a prize of £5 for the best poem to commemorate the year and the prize-winning effort came from the pen of Tom Keating, N.T. , Cloneen. One verse was as follows:
Fling the news on the breeze, let it ring o'er the seas,
On the moorland and wild mountain blue,
That the boys on the field forces all rivals to yield,
With the crv: 'Tiobraid Arann Abu'.
The fame of the county was carried 'o'er the seas' the following year when a great tour of the U.S. was undertaken in September. The man mostly responsible for this undertaken was the redoubtable Dan Breen, then running a liquor business in New York at a time when the sale of alcohol was prohibited. He was responsible for the 'surging mass of admirers' that welcomed the visitors on their arrival in New York and their drive to the City Hall in decorated automobiles, headed by a motor cycle escort of police. Mayor McKee was there to receive and welcome them. Games were played in New York, twice, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco. In the latter place the game was played under floodlights in the presence of 10,000 spectators. Thirty thousand attended the first game at the Polo Grounds in New York.
Jack McKenna recalls getting £10 before departure to outfit himself for the journey. After that the players got ten dollars a week from Dan Breen, 'who ran the whole thing'. It was during the depression and the party saw many signs of destitution and poverty. In contrast they were treated very well, staying always in the best of hotels. As far as he can recall Breen paid for it out of the gates taken at the six matches. He could have made money or lost a fortune. Since there were no official pubs, because of prohibition, the players went at night to the "speakeasies' and returned to the hotel later with drink in jam jars! Jack didn't take a drink at the time and neither did Tommy O'Meara. It was a memorable trip and the party didn't return to Ireland until the end of November.
Jack's hurling career with the county came to an end in 1931. He continued to play with Borrisokane for a number of years winning his highest club honour with the North championship success in 1933. He finished his hurling days with Knockshegowna , where a junior club had been formed, and thus returned to the parish where he had started over a decade previously.
Jack must be the last of the old I.R.A. to win an All-Ireland senior hurling medal. His first real initiation to the movement came during an argument between his brother, Joe, and a neighbour, Tommy Culligan, over the executions that followed the 1916 Rising. One statement from that argument that kept ringing in his ears was: 'What could you expect to get from England?' He was later involved in the burning of the barracks in Borrisokane. When an ambush was planned in Ballingarry on a despatch truck that travelled daily from Birr to Nenagh the local I.R.A. column stayed in a loft at Hazelfort the night before. In the morning Jack led the group by a hidden route to where the ambush was to be launched. For some unknown reason the lorry never travelled that day and the plan was in vain. After the Modereeny ambush the Tans burned a number of houses nearly in Knocknaree. They came to Hazelfort to do the same thing, but were prevented from doing so by a friendly R.I.C. man from Borrisokane, named John Dinan. On the same day Jack's sister, was getting married and the wedding was being held in the house. At the time of the Truce there were about 20 in the column but many joined between then and the Treaty. When the column voted on the Treaty these new recruits swung the vote in its favour, much to Jack's regret.
Jack fell in love with in 1942 and moved to Birr, where he has resided since. He has been involved in the cattle business all his life and experienced the changeover from the old style fair, when hundreds of cattle used to be shipped out from Birr station, and the modern cattle mart. His family, four girls and a boy, are all done for and he resides at Hillside with his wife. When he steps out his front door he can see Knockshegovna hill before him and the sight keeps the memories of the early days alive. Jack will be 90 on May 8 and he's still amazingly healthy for a man of his years, driving the car downtown every morning and going out for the odd drink during the week. May he long continue to enjoy life so.
The Nenagh Guardian, January 26, 1991