Premier Rewind: The ‘Premier’ Tipp hurlers in America

Tipperary hurlers on board the SS Bremen, 1926 (c) Tipp FM

By Stephen Gleeson

One of the many gems to be found in the Lár na Páirce GAA museum in Thurles is a unique hand-written account of the Tipperary hurlers’ trip to America in 1926.

Tipperary were after winning their 10th All-Ireland hurling title in 1925 and to mark the achievement, this team became the first group of hurlers or athletes to go to America since 1888. The All-Ireland winning Tipperary team of 1925, captained by Johnny Leahy, were the first county team to cross the Atlantic and the pencil-written manuscript offers a glimpse into a world beyond our reach now in 2020.

Lár na Páirce historian, Séamus King explained, “They set out by boat in the summer, and then travelled on by train to San Francisco. The group played seven games. A party of twenty with three officials made the trip. They were highly organised as one of them went along as a very well-known trainer of the team. His name was Tim Crowe and he was a legendary figure at the time. He was a famous long distance runner and was also known as a cyclist. There are stories that he cycled from Dundrum to All-Ireland finals in Dublin, which was a hundred miles or so.”

When the Tipp hurlers flew across the Atlantic last year, after hammering Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, they did so with a planned itinerary. They could ‘Google’ where they were going in the USA and Mexico ahead of the event, right down to the hotel rooms they would sleep in. They had some amount of fundraising to do for the trip, but it was fundraising of the fun sort. Tipp stars Mikey Breen and Jerome Cahill and a few more took part in the Tipperary Supporters Club-organised “Stars in their Eyes” competition in the Dome in Thurles last November to raise funds for the trip, while the old tried and trusted fundraising ideas such as selling framed pictures of the winning team got as much mileage as ever.

It was a different story in 1926 when the hurlers set off for a trip of a lifetime to what was then ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave’. Cars, planes and funds were scarce but the glamour and draw of the Tipperary hurlers was as strong as it has ever been. Séamus King says the trip was financed from afar: “As far as we know it was initiated by Paddy Cahill who was originally from Holycross and was a prominent Barrister in Chicago at the time. He put up some of the funds in America because the county board wouldn’t have been capable of funding it. The county board would have paid for the trip from Cobh to New York. The players also got money from the county board for the trip. One player travelling was Tom Duffy from Rathcabbin in the parish of Lorrha. He was a farmer and, according to reports, he insisted that the county board pay for a man to farm the land while he was away because the trip lasted eleven or twelve weeks.”

Post ‘World War One’ and pre ‘Wall Street Crash’ the lure of the trip must have been strong for the twenty-something year olds. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ were in full swing and in a freshly post-War of Independence and Civil War world, the new and free Irish state must have been slowly recovering from the ravages of battle. All the privilege and style associated with the Tipp hurlers meant the dollars were at the ready for the travelling party of 23 that left Tipperary. The hustle and bustle of New York City was more powerful than it is today in our much smaller world. No doubt it was the trip of a life time.

Séamus explains that not all the county hurlers got to go on the much-sought-after adventure: “Three didn’t go and two of them were Darcys. One worked in education and the other in the Department of Agriculture. They looked for a leave of absence to go on the trip but De Valera, who was in charge at the time, wouldn’t allow it and he refused to grant them permission to travel. They would probably have lost their jobs if they went.”

An eleven week trip began in Cobh as they sailed on a German liner called ‘Bremen’ with New York City the first port of call. The successful hurlers made their way by train to matches that were organised for them to play in, from New York to Chicago and San Francisco. The team were a box office draw. An estimated 100,000 people went to see the Tipperary stars play. Newspapers reported on the successful trip and the Tipperary globetrotters won wherever they went.

SS Bremen
SS Bremen

Lár na Páirce in Thurles holds a first-hand account of this trip. A rare and probably priceless manuscript was gifted on loan to the museum in Thurles recently. Portroe native Tom Kenny was one of the travelling band of ’26 and kept an account of the trip, focusing on the social side of it.

Tom Kenny’s account proves the excursion was a massive success. The craic was mighty. In one piece Tom writes of the exchange between Lorrha’s Tom Duffy and Jack Power of Boherlahan. Duffy says, “A crock of a country…sure we haven’t seen a tram of hay, a ditch, nor a hedge since leaving the old country, but it is a fine country in other ways, Jack- they do everything the big way.”

According to Séamus King, the Lorrha native Tom Duffy was a real character: “There’s no doubt about it. Farmers then wore nail boots and the story goes that Tom Duffy wore his nail boots all the way from Rathcabbin to San Francisco! There are about twenty references to him in the manuscript. In one, the players plan to take over the ship on the way to America and Duffy was going to be the new captain!”

There’s plenty of chat too about the ‘hooch’ that replaced the porter back home. There’s a story about Paddy Leahy singing the last verse of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at a Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. Paddy, later in life, went on to become Tipperary’s greatest ever hurling manager, guiding Tipp to four All-Irelands in five years.

When the hurlers returned home in 1926 there was a party held for them in Moycarkey. Séamus once again takes up the story: “They arrived back into Cobh and travelled for a reception that night. There was a meal and a dance in the school in Moycarkey. When the meal was over they had a dance, and danced until 7 o’clock in the morning. That’s how they celebrated the return from this great trip in 1926.”

An avid historian, Séamus says the trip was an experiment in ways: “The purpose of the trip, leaving aside the fact that Paddy Cahill had organised it, was relating to the popularisation of Gaelic games in the U.S. and to find out the attitude of the Irish Americans to the games and whether or not it might be possible to find an international championship from it. There was an idea there that hurling could become an international game.”

Back in Western Europe, the GAA saw the success of the trip as being something that could be built on for the future. From there, the idea grew as time went by. Successful Tipp teams, and successful teams from other counties too, headed around the world as champions and a new tradition was formed. Big games were played in America. Those of Irish backgrounds exiled abroad loved to see them coming. And still do. It brings a taste of their home country to the exiles. The cycle continues to this day. Last winter the Tipp team of 2019 simply followed in the footsteps of the county’s ancestral giants of the game.

The account of the journey in 1926 includes all aspects of the road trip from state to state and city to city. Tom Kenny’s unique work was published by George Roberts in London in 1928, two years after the team returned from the eleven week experience of a lifetime. Copies of the book entitled “Tour of the Tipperary Hurling team in America 1926” are extremely rare. It’s a collector’s item now, nearly a century on.

Tom’s grandniece, Lois Tierney who now lives in New York City, found the pencil-written notebook in a drawer at her late uncle Bill’s place in London. The manuscript offers a glimpse into a world of the Tipperary hurlers from times gone by. On behalf of the Kenny family she presented it on loan to Lár na Páirce where, once these Covid restrictions are lifted, it can be accessed by the people of Tipperary once again. Séamus King says, “It’s great that the actual manuscript is saved and that it was recognised for what it is rather than being dumped as could so easily have happened. It’s the actual manuscript from the trip and we were delighted that it was presented it to us in Lár na Páirce.”

Those hurlers, the 1925 All-Ireland champions, were the 10th Tipperary team to win the All-Ireland title. While they have all passed on now, the hand-written account of their adventures survived the test of time and the paper notebook that travelled from San Francisco via London to Thurles proves it. The bunch, led by Johnny Leahy, were the ‘premier’ Tipp team to lift the Liam MacCarthy cup. The cup was shiny and new back then, resting in Tipperary hands, just as it does today.