Hurling is an integral part of the Irish DNA. It is the oldest, fastest and arguably the greatest field game in the world. As a sport it is revered in Irish mythology and is associated with Celtic warriors such as Cuchulainn and Finn MacCool. The All Ireland hurling final in Croke Park is an occasion and a spectacle like no other anywhere in the world and attending the showpiece of the Irish sporting calendar is a bucket list event for Irish people and visitors alike from all over the world. It’s the hottest sports ticket in town. While Offaly has won only four All Ireland senior titles in 1981, 1985, 1994 and 1998, the county can claim the unique distinction of staging the very first All-Ireland hurling final in 1888. It was in John Farrell’s field at Railway Road in Birr that Irish sporting history was made on Easter Sunday, April 1st in 1888 when Tipperary represented by Thurles Sarsfields defeated Galway’s representatives Meelick on a scoreline of 1-1 to 0-0.
A picture of the Thurles Sarsfields team representing Tipperary who won the first All-Ireland hurling final.
It was actually the final of the 1887 championship but the decider was delayed until 1888. Indeed, only six counties contested the first All-Ireland hurling championship, Clare, Dublin, Kilkenny, Wexford, Tipperary, and Galway. There were no provincial titles on offer and county teams were represented by clubs in an open draw. Galway (Meelick) advanced to the Birr showdown following their semi-final victory over Wexford (Castlebridge) while Tipperary (Thurles Sarsfields) defeated Kilkenny (Tullaroan) in the other semi-final. Local man Patrick White had the honour of refereeing the decider which attracted an attendance in excess of 5,000 spectators. The winning captain on the day was Jim Stapleton while Patrick Larkin had the dubious honour of captaining the losing side.
Mark Rode with his sculpture commemorating the first All-Ireland final.
While the actual site of that historic game is now a Tesco supermarket, a monument now stands to commemorate the staging of the first All-Ireland hurling final. Mayo-based sculptor Mark Rode was commissioned to commemorate the historic site and his impressive 16-foot bronze statue on a sandstone plinth of a hurler of the time stands as a fitting tribute to the historic event that occurred in John Farrell’s field on that Easter Sunday in 1888. The definitive account of the first All-Ireland hurling final and the evolution of hurling to the greatest field sport in the world is told in the highly acclaimed book The Hurlers by Offaly historian Paul Rouse and published by Penguin. Paul Rouse lectures in Irish history and sports history at University College Dublin.