St Finbarr's GAA Club 1876-1933

‌Text and images courtesy of Plunkett Carter.

St Finbarr’s GAA Club (‘The Barrs’) was active and competitive long before the founding of the Association in 1884. Sean McCarthy, a former great Cork president of the Association, writing of the year 1876, recounted how the ’Barrs had beaten Cloughroe, Ballygarvan, Aglish, Carrigaline, Shanbally, and Blackrock — all in that same year. There can be no doubt that the ’Barrs entered the GAA with a most enviable tradition behind them. Year after year, great hurlers wore their famous blue, from Willie John O’Connell of the formative days to Sean Condon and Gerald McCarthy in more recent times. 

Though the ’Barrs name doesn’t appear in the record books until 1899 they had already won an unofficial County final in 1890 under Father O’Connor’s board. There was political turmoil within the county board in 1889 and Father O’Connor, president of the board, resigned. Why? He claimed it was a ‘packed’ meeting, and with a lot of non-nationalists being elected, who were believed to be associated with individuals who had connections within Dublin Castle. The Barrs endorsed the view of its president and were supported by Blackrock, Ballygarvan, and Ballyhooley who withdrew from the County Championship. Those clubs were suspended along with five others. Aghabullogue was the only higher-ranked club to remain loyal to the county board after Greenmount proposed a motion condemning the expulsions. The disaffected clubs regrouped and formed the O’Connor Board and received support from another rival group n North Cork who set up the O’Brien Board. Father O’Connor, in 1889, presented a cup for competition which was won by the Barrs, who defeated Blackrock, the Rockies, in the final match after earlier seeing of the challenges of St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Greenmount, and Little Island. The victorious Barrs team included the following: John Canniffe, John Cronin, Dan Murphy, Philip Murphy, William Callaghan, Michael McCarthy, Dan Knowles, John Nunan, Jeremiah Sheehan, John Sheehan, Dan Sheehan, John Walsh, Denis Carey, James Conway, Thomas Horgan, Willie John O’Connell, Michael O’Keeffe, John Leahy, Tim Desmond, Dan Callaghan, and Patrick Murphy.

Twenty-two teams competed in the Cork and in the O’Brien Boards County Championship in 1890 for the O’Connor Cup, with the Barrs and Bartlemy winning the respective sections. A huge gathering converged on Mallow town for the decider after which the Barrs retained the trophy and returned to the city in triumph. Barrs (21 a side): William O’Callaghan (captain), John Leahy, Michael O’Keeffe, Dan O’Callaghan, Tim Horgan, John Walsh, James Barrett, Dan Murphy, James Keegan, Denis Carey, Michael Casserly, Willie John O’Connell, John Canniffe, Philip Murphy, James Dennehy, Denis Bradley, Michael McCarthy, Jeremiah Sheehan, Denis Halloran, Michael Sheehan, and John Noonan. 

The Barrs returned to the official county board in 1891. Unfortunately, the glory of the 1890 victories was quickly followed by fallout from the nationwide ‘Parnell Split’. The Kitty O’Shea affair had thrown the country into turmoil, and split the Irish Republican Party into two factions, William O’Brien’s and Redmondites. This split pervaded most organisations including the Barrs. At one infamous club meeting in 1891, no fewer than twelve (the Apostles) of the Blues first team — William O’Callaghan, Michael Cassidy, J Leahy, Joseph Keegan, Denis O’Mahony, Dan Knowles, Con Ahern, Denis Hegarty, Michael Sheehan, Mchael Hegarty, John Healy and John Noonan left the room to join Redmond’s. Most of the remainder affiliated with O’Brien’, resulting in the absence of the Barrs for the 1892 season. Following their departure, the Barrs turned to untried youngsters who, with the help of Willie John, Jim Young and a few Sheehans, developed into outstanding hurlers. Within a few years the Barrs were a force again, and when county champions Blackrock were selecting their team to represent Cork in the All-Ireland they called on Willie John and Jim Young. The Barrs men played outstanding roles. The two years following the split were very troublesome for the Barrs who were virtually on their knees, but it is to their credit that they came back again to become the county’s premier club. One of those inspiring the comeback was Billex Moloney, strong and fast he became one of the best defenders of all time. In his book Twenty years of the GAA, Corkonian Phil O’Neill wrote: “Billex was one of the oldest leading players of the Barrs club. He was one of the greatest and most popular players of the game and became a regular on the Cork senior team. His participation dated back to the 21-a-side games. Another distinction, though not the most enviable, is that he was probably the greatest player of his time who never won an All-Ireland medal, covering a period of over twenty years. At one time he came within a point of premier honours, in 1906, when Kilkenny (Tularoon) defeated Cork (St Finbarr’s) at Carrick-on-Suir by 1-9 to 1-8. The following year he had even worse luck as his team — which included ‘Bachus’ Leary, ‘Chateye’ Leary, ‘Dowdy’ Kelly, Christy Young, Jerry Beckett, Christy Nolan, D Linehan of the Blues — beat the champions in Tipperary in the final but the ‘Cats’ objected as the Cork keeper Sonny Jim McCarthy was a British Army Reservist. A re-fixture was ordered but Kilkenny retained their crown. When Billex laid down his camán for the last time, after a match in which three of his ribs were broken, Cork lost the noblest of hurlers. Yet, even when he could no longer line out, he trained and selected the teams.

When the Barrs claimed their first official county championship in 1899 it was ironic that their opponents were their arch-enemies, Redmonds, to which most of their stars had defected eight years earlier. Sadly, that darling hurler inter-county star Willie John O’Connell was absent. He was revered in the parish and had been destined for greatness. A fast, sweet hurler he was a long serving Barrs captain. He loved hurling and lived for it — but also died for it: While training with the county team in the Park, on 25 April 1897, he received an accidental but fatal blow to the head. Whatever other differences and prejudices existed, the 1899 final was worthy of the sport and the men. Both teams fought manfully in a sportsmanlike spirit to secure the laurels of victory which went to ‘the Gallant old Blues’ by the slenderest of margins. 

Senior County Hurling Champions 1899

 St Finbarr's:Senior County Hurling Champions 1899

Back: Paddy Canniffe, Dan O’Brien, Mick McCarthy. 
3rd row: Josie Kelleher, Wm 'Billex' Moloney, Jack Delea, Pat O’Sullivan, Jim Young, Jack Cantillon, Cocker Foley.
Seated: Mick Sexton, Rocket Sheehan, Tim Murphy, Paddy Conway, Faun Harrington, Christy Young.
Front: Jim Harrington, Sugar Sheehan. Missing from photo: Con O’Leary, Tim O’Keeffe. 

For three consecutive years (1904-06) they dominated the senior championship, winning three county championships in a row as confusion reigned in that period: the 1904 final was two years behind schedule; the Barrs, conquerors of All-Ireland champions Dungourney in the semi-final, gained a bloodless victory when, an eternity later, final opponents Castletownroche failed to put in an appearance. Delays continued and the 1905 competition was never  played. In the belated 1906 county renewal Barrs and Ballymartle qualified for the final and it was agreed that the championships of both 1905 and 06 would be at stake. Ballinhassig was the venue and, on a bitterly cold day in early February 1907, Barrs were victorious. 

 Senior County Hurling Champions 1904, 1905 and 1906

St Finbarr's: Senior County Hurling Champions 1904, 1905 and 1906

Back: C Young, D Sheehan, W Kelly, W Moloney, D Linehan, J Delea, J Twomey.
Centre: M McCarthy, M O’Leary, D Hurley, D McCarthy, J Young, D Harrington (capt), D O’Leary, W Sheehan, J Long,
Front: P Flannery, B Young, J Harrington, E Long, C Nolan.

 This was probably the last match Rocket Sheehan played for the Blues as he emigrated to Detroit. He carried his camán with him and was instrumental in organising a hurling team in his new home district.

Old-time scribes agree that some of the Barrs legendary players were amongst the greatest exponents of the game. Bachus Leary had few equals, Christy Young was rock solid and a match for any opponent, the Harringtons were exquisite hurlers, while Christy Nolan’s stick-work was not matched until the emergence of Tipperary-great D’Arcy. Patcheen Sullivan was another master craftsman and, along with Bachus, was chosen by Blackrock for their All-Ireland conquering side in 1903. Famed hurling families, the Dooleys and Sheehans, combined to form the district’s first camogie club in 1905. Mary Agnes Sheehan (sister of Rocket) and Katie Dooley (daugher of Tom) formed Clan Eimear, based in the Gould Street area, who were trained next to the Lough by Liam Ruiséal, the well-known bookseller. However, not all were pleased with the prospect of women playing hurling and Father Fleming of the Lough Parish condemned what he termed the unfeminine activities of the camogie players. Even though their membership was never continuous they remain as one of the oldest surviving clubs in the county. When Cork beat Antrim in the 1911 All-Ireland Football final, Barrs hurlers Jack Young and Paddy O’Connell, representing Nils Gaelic football, starred on the winning team.  

1919 was a red-letter year in the history of the club. For some years the Barrs had been going through a lean period, mainly because the parish had two rival senior teams pulling against each other: Father O’Leary Total Abstinence Hall and the Barrs. Both suffered as a consequence and an amalgamation was agreed, with Connie Neenan, Denis Ring, Jack Dorney, Tom Ahern, Pat Canton, John Herlihy, and the legendary Dannix Ring all switching to the Barrs. This union was a blessing and the parish was united behind the Blues. The alliance of the two clubs brought together a first-class combination of players. The Lough Parish team set new standards and remained unbeaten for 18 months, bridging a ten-year gap when comprehensively defeating the Rockies in the county final. The ‘Magnificent Seven’ from Father O’Leary Hall were joined by Dan Coughlan, John Finn, Tim Finn, Jerry Beckett, Stocky Cronin, Jim ‘Spud’ Murphy, Brawny O’Brien, and Joe Ronayne. 

Senior County Hurling Champions 1919, 1922 and 1923

St Finbarr's: Senior County Hurling Champions 1919, 1922 and 1923

Back: D Ellis, D Cahill, M Callanan, J O’Donoghue, J Lynch. 
Third Row: Fr Barrett, T O’Brien, F Murphy, D Ring, J Bennett, P Ryan, M O’Connell, J B Murphy, P Canton, Fr Cahilane.
Seated: J Higgins, J Clarke, S Murphy, J Herlihy, M O’Brien, T Finn, D Coughlan, J Dorney, D S Ring.
Front: M Cronin, T Cronin, C Cronin.

Ten days later, on 21 September, Cork were back in the All-Ireland hurling final, wearing the red jerseys discarded by the defunct Father O’Leary Hall team. Despite their immense displays throughout the county championship campaign, the Barrs only representative on the team which defeated Dublin was Dannix Ring. Danny Coughlan, an iconic figure, was a sub. Spud Murphy who had been a regular on the county team for over a decade was denied the opportunity of gaining the coveted Celtic Cross. Spud was one of the country’s most popular players and his clashes with the great Tyler Mackey of Limerick alone were always worth the admission.

The early 1920s, when the War of Independence was followed by Civil War, were difficult for organised sports. Consequently, the 1920 county championships were not concluded until 1922 when the Barrs relinquished their title to the Rockies. The teams were due to meet again five months later in the final of the 1922 County Championship. This time Blackrock pleaded for a postponement, citing injuries sustained in their semi-final win over the Sarsfield Club. Their appeal fell on deaf ears and the title was awarded to the Barrs. This, however, was a hollow victory and the Barrs had to endure jibes and taunts from opponents, in particular Blackrock. As a result, victory in 1923 title would answer many questions. It was generally felt that Blackrock, as a result of some brilliant performances, would encounter little difficulty in regaining their crown. Barrs, keen to prove their worthiness as champions, were hungry for success. The dream final materialised as the counties leading exponents, Barr’s and Blackrock, locked horns in the decider. At the end of a fiercely fought hour’s hurling, Barrs deservedly retained custody of the Blue Riband of Cork hurling. Barrs players were: Maurice O’Brien, Pat Canton, John Dorney, John Barry Murphy, Dannix Ring, Denis Ring, Michael O’Connell, Thomas O’Brien, Tim Finn, John Clarke, John Herlihy, Pat Ryan, John Higgins, Dan Coughlan, Stephen Murphy. Blackrock bounced back and in 1924 and 1925 were convincing county champions. Dannix Ring was one of just two Cork players chosen on the Ireland International Hurling team which defeated America in the Tailteann Games. 

County Senior Hurling Champions 1926

St Finbarr's: County Senior Hurling Champions 1926

Long Life to the Gallant Old Blues – Back: J Lynch, J Canton, L Kenneally, Dr J Kearney, J O’Keeffe, S Murphy, J B Murphy, D Ellis,  J Harrington.
Third row:  C Callanan, T Finn, J Clarke, E Keating, T Lee, M O’Brien, M O’Connell, E Lynch, E O’Mahony, J Donnery.
Second row: C Harrington, D Callanan, A O’Regan, D Coughlan (capt),  Fr P Cahalnane CC, T O’Brien, Dan Ring, Denis Ring, C O’Donovan.
Front: T Cronin, C Cronin, M Cronin, E O’Halloran.

Remarkably, at the 1926 AGM, it was suggested by several members that the club should drop down to Intermediate grade. Common sense prevailed and they continued as a senior club. Before that historic year was over those doubters were made look foolish. Barrs again qualified for a crack off Blackrock when they defeated Shamrock’s at Turner’s Cross, a ground they hated and requested never to be fixed to play in.

Blackrock, containing ten of the side (Barrs had just Dr Joe Kearney with Mick O’Connell Sub) that had hammered Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, were deemed unstoppable which suited underdogs St Finbarr’s. After one of the toughest contests witnessed for years, Barrs tore the form book to shreds and astounded the immense crowd when outplaying the All-Ireland Champions. That great victory was recorded for posterity by the bard Callanan who penned Long Life To the Gallant Old Blues:

Now the Famous Blackrock are defeated

It certainly was a surprise

And if anyone here contradicts you

Just tell them to stop telling lies

Sure it was not the first time we beat them

We can make them look pale when we choose

When we meet them again we’ll defeat them

Long life to the Gallant Old Blues

“When we meet them again we’ll defeat them” wasn’t sung as lustily the following year as the Blues were eliminated by the Rockies in the first round.

The county team entered a very successful period and annexed All-Ireland titles in 1928, ’29 and ’31 with Barrs star Micky O’Connell picking up three Celtic Crosses. Bill Stanton and Johnny Kenneally earned medals as subs. In 1929 Johnny played minor and senior. While star of the county minor team, he was withdrawn by the senior selectors from the side which defeated Dublin as the delayed 1928 final was eventually played as a curtain raiser to the 1929 McCarthy Cup final. Disappointed not to have won his minor medal on the field of play he showed his class by helping Cork defeat Galway in a 4-9 to 1-3 score in the senior final.

Barrs appeared in the list of teams participating in Gaelic football for the first time in 1928. They were defeated by Eire Óg in the 1928 hurling semi-final and went a step further in ’29 when they lost to great rivals Blackrock. 1930 proved to be disappointing as the Barrs were sent packing by unrated Mallow in the early stages of the championship. However, it was a significant year, marking the club’s first football success as the Intermediate team won the County by defeating Dromtarriffe. Blackrock edged further ahead in the hurling-championship roll of honour when, after seeing off the challenge of the Blues in the penultimate stage, they defeated Eire Óg in the decider. Barrs gained revenge in 1932 when they lowered the colours of their ancient rivals in the semi-final and then completed the job when seeing off the brave challenge of Carrigtwohill in the final. Carrigtwohill, the pride of East Cork, binned the ‘flash in the pan’ tag when, a year later, they qualified for another crack off the Barrs, who needed a replay before retaining their title. 

Senior Hurling County Champions 1932 and 1933
St Finbarr's: Senior Hurling County Champions 1932 and 1933
Back: M Corcoran, J Murphy, E O’Callaghan, J Lehane, Miah Kenneally, P Corcoran, D O’Mahony, J Murphy, T Ahern.
Centre: J Twomey, M O’Connor, P O’Donoghue, E Kingston, D O’Halloran, M Murphy, D Crowley, P Archer, M O’Mahony, M O’Connell, D Cahill.
Front: J Buttimer, D Stanton, W Stanton, M Callanan, Fr Cahalane, John Kenneally (Capt), C Cronin, J O’Riordan

Continued: St Finbarr's GAA Club 1934 - 1965‌

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