WITH just over a couple of days to go to the Senior Hurling Championship final it is pretty safe to assume that barring some set of extremely unlikely circumstances, St Mullins and Bagenalstown Gaels will run out at Netwatch Cullen Park to play the decider on Sunday.
However, things weren’t simple as that in this month in the year of 1970.
By 1970, St Mullins and Erin’s Own, the hurling club in Bagenalstown until the formation of Bagenalstown Gaels in 2019, were the best two hurling teams in the county and had just qualified play against each other in the final for the third time in four years.
St Mullins were the undoubted top dogs having dominated Carlow hurling through the 1950s and early 60s. Between 1949 and 1966 they won 13 county titles before running into Erin’s Own in 1967.
Erin’s Own were no slouches themselves, having won their first county title in 1964 by comprehensively beating Cournellan in the final. Perhaps the rivalry between Erin’s Own and St Mullins was born that year when Erin’s Own won a particularly feisty Championship encounter between the teams on their path to the final where were a number of players were sent off and more again were removed from the field due to injury. The Nationalist report at the time described the game as a ‘war of attrition’ and it set the tone for future battles later in the decade.
The 1967 final was a much anticipated one. St Mullins had won a 1966 title riddled with objections and counter-objections but were fancied to show their worth on the pitch against Erin’s Own. Their experience was expected to get them through on the day but there was also the recognition that Erin’s Own had a conveyor belt of exciting young talent at the time and they were particularly successful at Under 21 level.
The game was slow to get going during the first half and Erin’s Own led 2-3 to 1-2 at half time but the game exploded into life in the second half, particularly after St Mullins introduced Liam Walsh into the game at half time.
Walsh led the charge for St Mullins in the second half and they led going into the latter stages but a goal by Dickie Hickey swung the game in Erin’s Own’s favour and a goal by substitute Michael Geoghegan shortly after helped seal a 5-4 to 2-8 win.
12 months later when the teams again met in the final, St Mullins got their revenge when they won a close encounter, but only after conceding the first 1-4 of the game. Walsh again was superb in helping haul his team back into and his goal, along with two from Eamon Lennon, secured a 3-9 to 3-6 win.
Erin’s Own lost the 1969 final as well, to St Fintan’s, but there was great excitement in 1970 when they won through to face St Mullins once more in the final.
However, that was only the start of the story of Carlow’s most controversial ever county final.
Erin’s Own cruised into the final with a comfortable 2-13 to 3-6 win over Naomh Eoin but the trouble started with St Mullins’ being pushed all the way in the semi-final by reigning champions St Finan’s before winning 1-18 to 4-8.
County star Moling Morrissey played in that game with an injured knee and wrist and it was injuries like that which were at the heart of St Mullins’ objection to the final being played two weeks after the semi-finals.
The Nationalist quoted a statement from the secretary of St Mullins, Luke Morrissey, in the edition of 14 August 1970 saying :
“On behalf of the players of St Mullins and myself and on behalf of the followers of St Mullins, I wish to state that St Mullins are unable to play in next Sunday’s SHC game because five of our players are unavailable, four of them through injury. The club was refused a postponement at a meeting on Tuesday night attended by members of the Co. Board and Erin’s Own.”
With the fixture date for the final set in stone, Bagenalstown were unable to accommodate pushing the final back by a week or two as they would have had players unavailable on those dates.
While the club was divided, with many of Erin’s Own players deeply unhappy at the prospect of winning a county title in the boardroom, there was also the suspicion that St Mullins were also trying to pull a fast one due to an injury to star player, John Walsh.
An unnamed Erin’s Own spokesman was quoted in the The Nationalist of 21 August 1970 as saying:
“The fact seems to be that St Mullins were not prepared to play without John Walsh. We do not think that they had any other injuries,” although Erin’s Own Pat Ryan questioned at a later county board meeting whether that statement had come from an official source within the club.
A decision was made by the county board that the final would not be postponed and a new date would not be fixed. A decision that did not go down well in St Mullins, to put it lightly.
“I wish to state on behalf of the players and myself, and for the convenience of our followers, that we are unable to field for the final as five our of players – Liam Walsh, Moling Morrissey, Tim Kealty and Eamon Lennon were injured,” Luke Morrissey was quoted as saying, before suggesting the decision could ‘kill’ hurling in the small parish.
However, despite that, it was eventually decided that Erin’s Own would be crowned champions without pucking a ball.
In the The Nationalist edition of 28 August 1970 then county chairman Andy Jordan was quoted at a meeting of delegates saying that the final could not be played on any other date other than the one originally scheduled.
“Under no circumstances can I accept a proposition. Fixtures made are binding.”
After Leinster Council delegate Luke Hickey made a plea to the two clubs to not deny the public a county final, Jordan said:
“The date for the final was well known in advance. It was known before the semi-finals were played. These dates – very good dates – were allotted to hurling by the fixtures committee.”
Jordan stated that he believed that St Mullins’ injury problems were real but without Erin’s Own’s consent he could not fix the final for a new date, and accepted that Erin’s Own would have their own issues with player availability if the final was played on a later date.
Many delegates from around the county aired their views at that meeting, the general consensus being that it was an awful pity that an acceptable solution for both clubs couldn’t be found, something both clubs probably felt themselves.
The strange thing about the scenario was the impact it had on Erin’s Own. Being crowned champions in this manner was deeply unpalatable to many in the club. To this day, a Bagenalstown team hasn’t won a senior championship since. Erin’s Own went from reaching four successive finals, with a young team and seemingly the capability to reach more, to not reaching a final again until 2009 and 2012.
Bagenalstown Gaels have the chance to end that drought on Sunday and we’ll all at least get the pleasure of witnessing an exciting final before a winner is decided.