Can Antrim celebrate 80th anniversary of famous win over Kilkenny in style?
By John Harrington
Not many people fancy Antrim to defeat Kilkenny in Sunday’s Leinster SHC clash in Corrigan Park, but perhaps history will repeat itself.
The Saffrons were far bigger underdogs 80 years ago when the same two teams played in the same venue in the 1943 All-Ireland SHC semi-final, but pulled off one of the greatest shocks in hurling history to defeat the Cats by 3-3 to 1-6.
Antrim had already beaten Galway in the quarter-final by 7-0 to 6-2 so Kilkenny should have been forewarned of the threat they presented, but it was still a result no-one really saw coming.
The only reason Antrim were even competing in the All-Ireland SHC that year was because the junior grade was abolished, while just two years previously they had been defeated by Down in the Ulster Final.
A comfortable 6-5 to 2-0 victory over the same opposition in Antrim’s first championship match in ’43 was the first sign that something was stirring.
The team was coached by Gerry McDermott of St. Malachy’s College, and were perhaps a better drilled outfit than in previous years.
The quarter-final win over Galway courtesy of a last-minute Noel Campbell goal was a sensational result in its own right, and meant the All-Ireland semi-final in Corrigan Park captured the imagination of every Ulster hurling enthusiast.
It was more the novelty of the occasion rather than any level of expectation that saw an estimated 10,000 people cram into the Belfast grounds.
Kilkenny had won the Leinster title in some style, beating Dublin by six points in the provincial final, and were still able to call on nine of the players who had won the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ All-Ireland Final in 1939, so they were a formidable team.
But after the Antrim and Kilkenny players were piped around Corrigan Park by St. Peter’s Band and the ball was thrown in by the Bishop of Down and Connor, Daniel Mageean, it quickly became obvious that Antrim were highly motivated put it up to their illustrious visitors.
They scored a goal after just three minutes through Dan McAllister, and energised by that fast start took the game to Kilkenny thereafter.
They led by 2-2 to 1-3 at half-time, and pushed their lead out to four points (3-2 to 1-5) 20 minutes into the second-half.
Kilkenny came with a late charge, but the Saffrons held on for a dramatic victory that produced a explosion of emotion in Corrigan Park according to the Irish Times reporter at the match.
He wrote: “Ten thousand Gaels who had travelled from all parts of Ulster invaded the pitch at Corrigan Park Belfast yesterday after Antrim had defeated Kilkenny in the senior hurling championship semi-final and carried the victorious hurlers shoulder high to the pavilion. Never was such enthusiasm seen at a sporting event in Belfast.”
Not surprisingly, the unexpected result was greeted with a mixture of shock and dismay on Noreside.
According to Seamus King in his book, ‘A History of Hurling’, “Kilkenny’s followers found the defeat hard to take and when the team returned home on Monday evening – having left on the first stage of the journey on Friday evening – they were accused of being drunk during the game.”
A sloping Corrigan Park pitch that was described as “roomy but ill-formed” was put forward as another reason for Kilkenny’s sub-par performance in an Irish Press article, but the consensus was that the Cats were simply beaten by a better, more motivated Antrim team.
According to the Irish Independent’s GAA writer of the day, ‘The Recorder’, nothing should detract from what was a well-deserved victory for the Saffrons.
He wrote: “There can be no question as to Antrim having merited their victory over Kilkenny. An evenly balanced team, they excelled in speed and quick and effective striking, led all the way, and after a few determined efforts by Kilkenny to retrieve the position were attacking at the close of a trying hour.
“That Kilkenny did not once get into their stride and for the greater part were disappointing may have been due to the spirit and earnestness of the opposition who were masters in ball control while turning spoiling tactics to good account.”
80 years on from that famous All-Ireland semi-final victory, what chance lightning might strike again in Corrigan Park?