The Waterford team that won the 1948 All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final. Photos: Waterford County Museum www.waterfordmuseum.ie.
The last 20 years has seen Waterford competing strongly at hurling’s top table with the winning of four Munster senior titles, a National League title, two All-Ireland Final appearances and minor and U-21 All-Ireland titles. All through that period the county has striven to bridge the forty to sixty year gap since the county’s last Senior All-Ireland victory in 1959 and the tendency has been to draw comparisons between that great side of the late fifties and early sixties in terms of greatness, individually and collectively.
When Waterford beat Tipperary in 2002, to bridge a thirty nine year gap since the Munster Final victory over the same opposition in 1963, there were many still around who had witnessed both victories and a number who had been involved in the 1963 success. No surprise then that there would have been reflections and comparisons then and throughout the noughties on the relative merits of the teams of those periods.
Following the heart breaking one point All-Ireland final defeat of 1957 by Kilkenny the 1959 victory, and more so the manner of it in a replay over our Leinster neighbours was understandably considered the greatest day in the history of Waterford hurling by all whose memory encompassed both periods but at the same time the memory of Waterford’s first All-Ireland win of over a decade earlier tended to be just something consigned to the history books and the impact of what that great day in 1948 meant to a whole generation of great Waterford hurling people and great players, who had suffered their share of heartbreak down the years at the hands of the Munster giants of Cork, Tipperary and indeed Limerick, lost.
THE BIG THREE’S DOMINATION
In the 25 years since Galway’s All-Ireland win in 1923 the grip of Cork, Tipperary, Limerick and Kilkenny on the All-Ireland title had been broken only once and that by Dublin in 1938, ironically with their victory over a Waterford team that had finally broken the mould in Munster. In the run up to that Munster final win over Clare in 1938 a Waterford team, powered by the great Erins Own side of that period, had lost the Munster final of 1929 to Cork and in 1931 lost the final again to Cork in a replay at Clonmel. That was the year in which the All-Ireland final went to two replays with Cork eventually beating Kilkenny.
In 1933 Waterford lost to Limerick in the Munster final having beaten Tipperary in a semi-final replay in Davin Park, Carrick on Suir. The following year Waterford again lost the Munster final to Limerick in Cork. Having eventually come through the Munster minefield the loss of the ’38 final to Dublin with a very talented and battle hardened side was hugely disappointing and it would be ten more years before Waterford would be back again in Croke Park.
The forties were difficult times for all with the ‘War’ years intervening and players emigrating. Still there were some great games and Waterford’s outstanding performance of the period came in the final of 1943 when they came within two points of interrupting Cork’s march to four All-Irelands in a row in a closely fought Munster final in The Athletic Grounds.
Having beaten Kilkenny in the final of 1946 and lost to the Noresiders by a point in what was considered one of the great finals in the following year Cork were expected to be back in Croke Park in 1948 as, indeed, were Kilkenny but strange things were afoot in both provinces.
CLARE UP FIRST
That Waterford won the 1948 All-Ireland final is a tribute to the players involved who rose above the partisanship on the selection committee that threatened to undermine the effort. John Keane was widely acclaimed as Waterford’s greatest player of the thirties and forties and one of the all time greats of his era. He was Waterford’s on field leader and with time moving on the opportunities for a career defining All-Ireland medal were reducing. He was determined to make a big effort in 1948 but found himself cast into the role of selector on the five man committee on which he found himself ‘frozen out’. The entire background to the controversy that embroiled County Board and clubs is covered in depth in David Smith’s book ‘The Unconquerable Keane’ that saw Keane resign from the selection committee before the Munster final against Cork. Smith’s biography of Keane is a remarkable story of Waterford hurling drawn on newspaper archives and witness accounts of the times through the thirties, forties and into the fifties.
It was against this undercurrent that Waterford went into the opening round of the championship against Clare. The game saw John Keane now at centre forward and things were going very well with Waterford retaining a nine point halftime lead up to the fiftieth minute when a Clare surge breached the defence with 2-2 for the Banner cutting the Waterford lead to a single point. Keane, showing the leadership, as he always had, took it on himself to move to centre back with Mick Hayes moving to the wing and young Philly Grimes going to centre forward. The defensive breach was plugged and Waterford held the line for a 4-8 to 5-3 win.
The same day saw the emergence of an exceptional minor side with Waterford beating Clare on a score of 9-5 to 0-4 with Maurice McHugh of Dungarvan accounting for 6-1 of his side’s total. Waterford were in both Munster finals for the first time since 1929.
The selectorial controversy came to a head before the Munster Final with the resignation of Keane from the committee but the focus of the players remained firmly on the final.
MUNSTER FINAL DAY
Having seen their county play in the seven previous Munster finals Cork supporters were very confident of success but on the day they were outnumbered by the white and blue horde that assembled in the carnival atmosphere that is the Square in Thurles on Munster final day. The prospect of a double victory had brought the Deise people out in droves. They were not to be disappointed.
The minors were first up and they turned in a scintillating performance that outclassed the winners of the previous three years, Tipperary, on their home soil. Waterford were in no way flattered by their 3-6 to 0-3 win. The victory avenged the final defeat of the previous year when a fancied Waterford side, numbering six of the same team as well as Philly Grimes and Seamus Power, had gone down to a narrow defeat. There were scenes of wild delight as Mick Flannelly was carried from the field with the cup after the game.
The senior game was an enthralling contest. The Waterford line up showed three changes from the win over Clare with John Cusack, Christy Moylan and Tom Curran in the starting fifteen in place of Larry Fanning, Mick Feeney and Philly Grimes (who had emigrated to America).
Newspaper reports suggested that the foundation for Waterford’s victory was laid in midfield where Eddie Carew and the youthful Johnny O’Connor had the better of Christy Ring and Bernie Murphy while the brilliance of Jim Ware in goal, Vin Baston in defence and John Keane in attack kept the pressure on Cork throughout. Still, it was a nervous finish to a great game for the winners as they watched a last ditch effort for an equalising point by Ring drop just wide of the post.
The celebrations were wild and long as the Waterford bandwagon moved on to semi final games against Galway both of which were negotiated comfortably to see minors and seniors in the All-Ireland finals on the same day.
Untested on their way to the final the minors would now face their sternest opposition in Kilkenny. On the senior front however, Leinster had experienced huge upsets. Kilkenny were confidently expected to emerge again but they were ambushed by an upcoming Laois team that in turn were caught by a strong Dublin side in the Leinster final thus setting up a second All-Ireland meeting between Waterford and Dublin.
It is hard to imagine now but back in 1948 John Keane played in the Munster Junior Football final win over Limerick a week before the All-Ireland hurling semi-final win over Galway and the week after the Galway game he, Christy Moylan and Tom Curran all played in the All-Ireland Junior Football defeat by Dublin.
The Waterford team that won the 1948 All-Ireland senior hurling title in Croke Park.
A DAY OF DAYS
On then to what was to be a marvellous day in Dublin for the All-Ireland Finals. The minor game turned out to be a classic with Waterford looking set for an easy victory as they led by 2-7 to 0-1 at halftime. The second half however saw a great rally by Kilkenny but in the end Waterford would not be denied and dug deep to secure a 3-8 to 4-2 victory. The Waterford team on the day included as captain Mick Flannelly as well as fellow future All-Ireland winning colleagues Tom Cunningham, Mickey O’Connor and Donal Whelan. An amazing feature of the team was that the players were all drawn from just three clubs, Mount Sion, Dungarvan and Cappoquin.
There was a great atmosphere in Croke Park for the final with the Waterford support greatly outnumbering the opposition. Dublin had a fine side with some great players in goalkeeper Kevin Matthews, Tony Herbert, Mick Hassett, Sean Og O’Ceallachain, Frank Cummins and former Tipperary star Jimmy Kennedy. Waterford sprung a surprise on the day with the recall to action after a three year absence of Portlaw’s Mick Hickey, who had captained the 1938 team against Dublin.
A KEANE MASTERCLASS
On the day Dublin were no match for a stronger and fitter Waterford side that was not going to be denied. It was a day when the veterans in the Waterford side reaped their just reward. Jim Ware had made his Waterford debut in 1928 and played every Waterford championship game up to 1938 when Mick Curley of Tallow took over in goal on the championship side. Ware returned to the side throughout the forties, playing each year other than in ’42 and ’46. He was brilliant throughout the championship with captaining Waterford in the final the pinnacle of a great career. He retired after the championship in 1949 but was on board as a selector for Waterford’s All-Ireland win in 1959.
Christy Moylan was always regarded as one of the finest hurlers of his day winning Railway Cups with Munster and he too played an outstanding part in the great victory. For the captain of 1938 co0llecting his All-Ireland medal ten years later was a dream come through for the ‘Iron Man’ of Portlaw, Mick Hickey, who fully justified his recall with a great display in the final. There is no doubt however, but that the performance of John Keane stood out in that 1948 final. There was almost universal joy for Waterford’s victory after years of endeavour but more so for the fact that John Keane, so long held up as one of the greats of hurling had at last achieved the ultimate reward.
The Irish Independent reported, “This was a talented Waterford team and while one and all played their part in securing victory none was more brilliant than John Keane, whose artistry on the 40 yard mark left Dublin’s J. Butler in a state of bewilderment.” John Keane’s three goals and two points had played a huge part in the 6-7 to 4-2 victory.
The celebrations that followed in Croke Park, in Dublin itself and on the return of the teams the following day to Waterford were never to be forgotten by anyone who witnessed them. It would be over eleven years before such would be seen again and we all await a third time.
The first time will forever be preserved in history as’ The Greatest Day in Waterford Hurling’ for without the first we would not have had aa second. The heroes of that great year were.
MINOR: J. Flynn (Cappoquin), Martin Morrissey (Mount Sion), Sean Hayden (Mount Sion), Michael Hogan (Dungarvan), Tom Cunningham (Dungarvan), Mick Kelliher (Cappoquin), V. Walsh (Cappoquin), Tom Gallagher (Mount Sion), Joe Conlon (Mount Sion), Michael O’Connor (Cappoquin), Mick Flannelly Capt. (Mount Sion), W. Conway (Cappoquin), Maurice McHugh (Dungarvan), Paidi O’Connor (Dungarvan), M. Browne (Cappoquin). Subs – B. Foley (Ferrybank), Joe Flannelly (Mount Sion), Donal Whelan (Dungarvan), M. J. Ryan (Dungarvan), Michael Shalloe (Dungarvan), John Boyle (Dungarvan), Tom Dee (Dungarvan).
SENIOR – Jim Ware Capt. (Erins Own), Andy Fleming (Mount Sion), John Cusack (Mount Sion), Jackie Goode (Dungarvan), Mick Hickey (Portlaw), Vin Baston (Army), Mick Hayes (Butlertown), Johnny O’Connor (U.C.D.), Eddie Carew (Erins Own), Kevin O’Connor (Erins Own), John Keane (Mount Sion), Christy Moylan (Dungarvan), Willie Galvin (Clonea), Ned Daly (U.C.D.), Tom Curran (Dungarvan). Subs – Paddy Waters (Mount Sion), Davy Power (Mount Sion), Larry Fanning (Mount Sion), Mick Healy (Mount Sion), P. Neville (Dungarvan), John Kiely (Dungarvan), Jimmy Allen (Dunhill), Josie Murphy (Erins Own) and Mick Feeney (U.C.D.).