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The Leahy’s: From Tubberadora To Croke Park And Back

Published 1 month ago 24th December 2022 by Big John

If St. Brigid ever appears in front of you, do not ask her about her trip to Tubberadora. She may well break down and cry. But that’s a story for another day.

In my report on the U19 County Football final, I mentioned that the ancestors of Clonmel Commercials player Ruairi Leahy had helped secure the lands for the GAA fields in Tipperary. It was a throw-away comment but a number of people have asked about it since.

I was of course referring to former Tipperary hurler, county chairman and county secretary, Johnny Leahy from Tubberadora. Johnny secured lands for almost every club in Tipperary by doing a deal with Sean Collins (brother of Michael) who worked with The Land Commission at the time. It was a remarkable piece of business because, as you will see later on in this peace, the Leahy’s and the Collins’ were on opposite sides of the debate during the civil war but despite this Johnny and Sean remained lifelong friends. An example of Johnny’s dealings with the Land Commission would be the GAA field in Clonmore, part of my own parish of Templemore. In 1927, Johnny secured 5 acres for the Clonmore hurling club (now part of J.K. Brackens) at a rent of £13 an acre. There can be no doubt about it, without Johnny’s foresight, Tipperary GAA, both club and county, would not be in the position it is today.

As an aside, Johnny Leahy was also the man who coined the phrase that nearly all Tipperary people use today to describe a good summer. While on holidays in Tramore, Johnny was spotted by a reporter from Cork who asked him how a farmer could be on holiday in Tramore at that time of the year. “I have my work done” says Johnny “The hay is saved and Cork are bet!”

The story of the Leahy’s of Tubberadora is a fascinating one. To my knowledge, they remain the only family in Tipperary and possibly one of only two families in Ireland to have four brothers with All-Ireland senior hurling medals (the Fennelly’s of Kilkenny being the other). So, as Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music, “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

Their father Mick Leahy won a Munster Final with Moycarkey in 1886. Back then Tubberadora was in the parish of Moycarkey. It did not become part of the parish of Boherlahan until 1903. That Moycarkey team may well have went on to win an All-Ireland but the All-Ireland Hurling Championship only came into existence the following year, which Tipperary won when represented by Thurles.

Nine years later in the Year of our Lord, 1895, the good people of Tubberadora decided to form their own senior hurling club. Thomas Leahy (brother of Mick) was elected as their first president. Mick was a committee member. From the start Tubberadora did things differently. These days we are used to seeing players being awarded “caps” for representing their country. However the idea of a “cap” was first introduced in 1839 by the Rugby School team in England who wore a cap as part of their playing gear. In 1888, G.A.A. president, Maurice Davin, ran with the idea of a “cap” when sending the best of Ireland’s hurlers on a tour of America. Then in 1895, Tubberadora decided they too should wear a cap. They wore navy blue caps with the letters T.H.C. (Tubberadora Hurling Club) embroidered in gold on the front. The caps were presented to them by the Tipperary Grocers’ Assistants, in Dublin. The blue and gold colours wore by Tubberadora is the reason Tipperary county teams wear blue and gold as their official colours today.

The club went on to win the All-Irelands of 1895 & 1896. In 1897, Tubberdorra withdrew from the county championship when one of their players, John Maher, broke his leg in training. They reformed in 1898 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion (there had after all been a battle in Tubberadora in 1798 between about 300 supporters of the United Irishmen and crown forces). With the minimum of fuss the Tubberadora boys won their third All- Ireland in four years by beating Kilkenny 7:13 to 3.10 in the final. Undefeated, the club disbanded in 1899 because, like Alexander the Great, they had no more worlds left to conquer.

(Tubberadora team 1898)

Mick Leahy had five sons and three daughters. The five sons were Johnny, Paddy, Mick, Jimmy and Tommy. They started their education in Boherlahan National School but later switched to Gaile National School which was then in Moycarkey but these days is part of the parish of Holycross (in later years Tipperary hurling greats, John Doyle and John Flanagan would also attend Gaile School). For the Leahy boys this meant a two mile walk through the fields to get to school. They “shortened the journey” by hurling along the way.

Although there was a number of junior teams in the Boherlahan parish at the time, there was no senior hurling team. Johnny played senior with The Racecourse team in Cashel, winning a county final with them in 1910. As was common practice back then, an objection was lodged and Toomevara were awarded the title. Meanwhile, Paddy was hurling with The Rapparees, a junior hurling team in the Ballydine area of the parish. Then in 1912, the sensible decision was made to amalgamate all the clubs in the parish of Boherlahan. Johnny Leahy was appointed captain and in 1913 Boherlahan won the Mid Tipperary Senior Hurling title. They would go on to win six divisional titles in a row (they played in and won the South Tipperary Division in 1915). That same year, Paddy was the first of the Leahy clan to win an All-Ireland medal when he was a member of the Tipperary team that won the All-Ireland junior final. That was a great night in the Leahy household. The tea went around twice.

Although 1913 is not commemorated like other years in Irish history, it is a hugely important year on the Irish political landscape. The Home Rule Bill was once again passed in The House of Commons. It was the year of the Dublin Lockout, when the lines where clearly drawn between the haves and the have nots and it was also the year that the Irish Volunteers were formed. Johnny and Paddy Leahy joined their local branch in Boherlahan. A year later Mick and Jimmy joined up in Thurles. It was a decision which would have a big effect on Jimmy’s life and cut short his hurling career (he lost the sight in one eye during an attack on the RIC barracks in Borrisoleigh).

According to no less an authority than Tom Semple, Jimmy was the toughest of all the Leahy’s on the hurling field. During the Easter Rising of 1916, Jimmy was one of a group of volunteers who gathered in Meagher‘s house near Inch, primed and ready to answer the call should it come from Dublin. While Jimmy was getting ready to fight for his country, Johnny, Paddy and Mick were battling away on the hurling fields. A county final win over arch-rivals Toomevara gave Boherlahan the selection of the county senior hurling team. Johnny was made captain and victories over Kerry, Limerick, Cork, Galway and Kilkenny saw Tipperary win the All-Ireland of 1916 and Johnny, Paddy and Mick win their first Senior All-Ireland medals. In a nod to past, the Tipperary team wore the Tubberadora caps in every game that year. With all the excitement after the game, Captain Johnny forgot to go up to collect the cup. It was also after this game that Kilkenny captain Sim Walton said to Johnny, “we were the better hurlers” to which Johnny replied “but we were the better men”.

(Tipperary hurling team 1916)

Boherlahan played Thurles in the 1917 Mid-final with Paddy and Johnny part of the Boherlahan team and Mick playing for Thurles where he now worked. Brotherly love was put aside for the hour and in one clash Johnny broke Mick’s collarbone. Boherlahan won that game and went on to beat Toomevara in the county semi-final (Anhran Na Bhfiann was played in Thurles for the first time before that game). They retained their title with a win over Emly in the final. At inter-county level, Tipperary, with Johnny, Paddy and Mick as part of the team, were surprisingly beaten by Dublin in the All-Ireland Final. After the game, news reached the boys of their brother Jimmy’s arrest in Thurles.

A few weeks earlier, Jimmy, in full volunteer uniform, had attended the funeral of Thomas Ashe who had been “tortured” to death while on hunger strike in Mountjoy prison. On his return to Thurles, Jimmy, again in full military uniform, attended a local parade protesting the manner of Ashe’s death. The following week he was arrested and charged with wearing a military uniform on two occasions. He was sentenced to six months in Cork prison but shortly after was transferred to Mountjoy. Upon reaching Mountjoy, Jimmy and a number of others went on hunger strike. A week later, the authorities, possibly fearing another Thomas Ashe incident, released them all under what was known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”, which meant they could be re-arrested at any time to complete their sentence.

Tensions over conscription were at their height in 1918 and the Volunteer numbers were growing rapidly throughout the country. The British authorities’ response was to re-arrest the “prisoners” who they been released under the Cat and Mouse Act. Their first attempt to re-arrest Jimmy in Thurles failed when he escaped by jumping off the Suir Bridge and wading through the river until he got to safety (there is a plaque on the bridge today commemorating Jimmy’s escape). After that incident he was left with no choice but to go “on the run” but on the night of the 1918 General Election, the RIC eventually did catch up with him and he was sent to Belfast Prison to complete his sentence. After his release Jimmy would play his first and only game for Tipperary when he took part in a National Aid game against Dublin. He arrived at that match in a side car accompanied by Michael Collins.

(IRA members guard the “bleeding statues” in Templemore)

In 1920, with IRA activity intensifying in Tipperary during the War of Independence (by the end of the year, the county would be placed under martial law) no hurling championship was played for two years. By now, Mick Leahy had moved to Cork where he worked as a bar man in Wren’s Hotel. In December of that year, on the night of the burning of Cork city, Mick was shot and wounded during a raid on the hotel by the Black and Tans. He survived and over the next 11 years, Mick would win 7 Cork county finals with Blackrock and two All-Ireland medals with Cork.

Meanwhile, back in Tubberadora, the Leahy homestead was now a safe-house for IRA members “on the run”. Dan Breen and Sean Treacy stayed there after Solohead Beg. Pierce McCann and Ernie O’Malley were no strangers and on one occasion, a horse and trap driven by Sim Walton, the Kilkenny captain of 1916, arrived into Johnny Leahy’s yard carrying a group of men who had escaped from Kilkenny jail. Sim knew that his old friend wouldn’t let him down. He was right.

By now Jimmy was Commandant of the Mid Tipperary brigade. He organised and took part in frequent attacks on RIC officers and stations. Such was his success rate that he was top of the list of 12 prominent people who had been identified for shooting by the Thurles Police “Murder Gang”.

While all this was going on, Jimmy was also involved in getting to the bottom of the Templemore Miracles. A local named Jimmy Walsh claimed he had seen an apparition of The Virgin Mary and that the statues of Our Lady in his home had started bleeding. With huge crowds descending on the town from all over world, Leahy and his brigade appointed themselves in charge of “crowd control”. From early on they suspected the apparitions and bleeding statues were fake. Their suspicions were confirmed when they interviewed Walsh. He told them that he had spoken to Our Lady and she was 100% behind their efforts in the war! For weeks after the crowds flocked to Templemore to see the bleeding statures and depending on who you listen to, the IRA “charged people” to enter the town or the people “tipped the IRA” in an effort to gain access to the town. Either way, £1,500 was collected for “the cause” (the equivalent of €100,000 today).

Jimmy would later save the barracks in Templemore (now the Garda Training Centre) from being burned as he reckoned the burning of the barracks would have a detrimental effect on the town. While local IRA men were determined to carry out the attack, Jimmy stuck his neck out and travelled to Waterford to meet De Valera to explain his concerns to him. Dev agreed with Jimmy and the attack was called off. Following the truce between the British Government and the Irish Provisional Government, the barracks in Templemore was handed over to Jimmy in November 2021 as he was the head of the Mid Tipperary Brigade at the time. When An Garda Siochana was formed in February 1922, Eoin O’Duffy offered Jimmy £1,000 and the position of Assistant Garda Commissioner if he joined the Treaty side but Jimmy Leahy’s principals were not for sale.

The Tipperary hurling championship resumed in 1922 with Johnny once again captaining Boherlahan to county honours. Paddy Leahy, who was in charge of the Boherlahan volunteers during the War of Independence would miss the club and inter-county championship that year as he was still “on the run”. Tipperary again reached the All-Ireland final but lost out to Kilkenny.

1925 was another extraordinary year for the Leahy’s. Johnny was now Chairman of the County Board and also captain of Boherlahan who were once again crowned county champions. This time younger brother Tommy joined Johnny and Paddy on the team. At county level, Kerry, Cork, Waterford and Antrim were beaten to set up an All-Ireland Final date with Galway. (Mick Leahy had lined out for Cork in their first round game against Limerick and scored two goals but he refused to line out for them against his native county). This was also the year that Tipperary wore the blue jersey with the gold hoop for the first time. A 5:06 to 1:05 win brought two more All-Ireland medals into the Leahy house for Captain Johnny and Paddy. There surely can’t be another instance in GAA history where a sitting County Chairman captained his county to an All-Ireland title.

In 1926, Tommy won his own All-Ireland medal when he was part of the successful Tipperary junior team. This was also the year that the 1925 All-Ireland winning team went on a tour of America. Although trips abroad are now commonplace for All Ireland champions, this tour was the first of its kind for an All-Ireland winning team, proving yet again that Thomas Davis was right in 1840 when he wrote in the Nation Newspaper “where Tipperary leads Ireland follows”. Johnny, Paddy and Mick (who had re-joined Tipperary for the 1926 season) were all part of that tour. It lasted 11 weeks and they played games in New York, Chicago and San Francisco with over 100,000 people turning out to see them play.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Johnny together with Paddy and Tommy would go on to win three more County Finals in 1927, 1928 and 1930. After the ‘28 final Johnny stepped down as captain and was replaced by his brother Tommy. In 1930, with Tommy as captain, Johnny, now 40, would win his tenth county final and Paddy, now 39, won his ninth when Boherlahan beat Toomevara in the decider. That was also the year Tommy finally got his hands on an All-Ireland senior hurling medal when he lined out at wing forward in a 5:06 to 3:06 win over Dublin in the final.

Johnny Leahy was appointed County Secretary in 1927 and served until his death in 1949. Unlike today, there was no salary or expenses for doing the job. In fact it was a job that would cost you money. I have often thought that if Tipperary GAA were ever to repay men like Johnny Leahy, who gave their life to the organisation and asked for nothing in return, then they would have to run a second County Board draw just to cover money owed to these men.

Paddy Leahy served as a selector with Tipperary for 16 years (1949 to 1965). During that time, Tipperary won 11 National League titles and 8 senior hurling All-Irelands. He is rightly regarded as one of the shrewdest judges of hurling the county has ever known. He was taken to his eternal reward in 1966. Tipperary surprisingly lost All-Ireland finals in ‘67 & ‘68 and I’ve heard it said on more than one occasion that we would not have lost those finals if Paddy was still on the line. He was also known for his man-management skills long before man-management was a concept in the GAA. There’s a good story told about a night before an All-Ireland final when one of the selectors was worried that a player had a girl in the hotel room. He expressed his concerns to Paddy but Paddy didn’t bat an eyelid and calmed the situation by telling the selector “we’ll say a rosary for him and hope for the best”.

The story of Jimmy Leahy’s life would make a good film even if the youngsters today might think it was far-fetched. His many visits to Meagher’s in Inch were often eventful and none more so than when he met his wife, Josie Meagher. They settled in Nenagh and Jimmy worked for the county council for years after. During World War 11, Jimmy helped out in the “Turf Camps” in Edenderry. He died in March 1971 and along with Johnny, Paddy and Tommy he is buried in Holycross Abbey.

Mick Leahy remained in Cork up until his death in 1950. He worked in hotel management for a number of years before he purchased The Courthouse Tavern in Cork city centre which was well known as a great GAA pub. He won his first All Ireland with Tipperary in 1916 and his last with Cork in 1931. Mick is buried in St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.

Tommy Leahy won his senior All Ireland medal in 1930 and his fourth county medal with Boherlahan in 1941. He farmed for a few years in Tubberadora before later buying a farm in New Inn beside Rockwell College where incidentally his nephew Seamus (Jimmy’s son) taught for many years. He remained interested in hurling right up until his death in 1981.

Will we ever see the likes of the Leahy brothers again? To paraphrase the great bard, they have done the state some service and we know it. Not only do we know it but we are eternally grateful for it.
FOGRA: Many thanks to Martin Bourke (JK Brackens) for his help with this article. I would not be surprised if I heard that Martin had tasted from the Salmon of Knowledge. You think you know a bit about history until you talk to him. It is only then you realise that what you actually know was an awful lot about feck all.
AGUS FOGRA EILE: I have never met Seamus Leahy (Jimmy’s son) but I did listen to his Oral History programme which is available on the GAA website.

Amongst the many fascinating insights in this programme was the fact that Seamus has personally known a member of every Tipperary winning hurling team since 1895. For anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of Gaelic games I would highly recommend you listen to that programme. Seamus is a wonderful story-teller.

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