THE day after Jack Lynch died in October 1999, I received a phone call from Dr Frank Steele, the then principal of St Aidan’s Community College, Dublin Hill. He asked me if I would address the following morning’s school assembly on the life and career of Jack Lynch.
Dr Steele explained that as a member of the college’s Board of Management and of Glen Rovers, it would be more appropriate that the address would come from me, rather than from himself or any of the staff.
Having agreed to do the job, I set about preparing a few notes. In doing so, it dawned on me that Jack Lynch had resigned as Taoiseach almost 20 years before his death and the 500 students who stood in front of me that Friday, October 22nd morning had not even been born when Jack Lynch had resigned and retired from public life.
Very few of us, whether we are nine or 90 years old, have any real concept of what life was like before we were born. To the students at the assembly that morning, Jack Lynch was, at best, a character from history; the time before they were born. To them, he could have been Cúchulainn or Daniel O’Connell. To several generations of Cork people, and especially to the people of Blackpool and the hurling public of Cork, Jack appeared to be a mixture of both.
To begin to appreciate the role Jack Lynch played in the development of his constituencies, (the North Parish, Cork City, the county of Cork, and the GAA in Cork and across Ireland) you have to begin by looking at the social environment of his youth.
In 1922, Jack Lynch was only slightly older than the new Irish state. He grew up in a country that was only learning to govern itself and that had very few economic resources. The Shandon Street area of his youth could not hide its economic poverty.
Children however, do not understand poverty well. The world of their environs is their oyster and they accept their situation because it is all they know. While material wealth may have been in short supply in Jack Lynch’s environs, the real basis of a community: sharing, compassion and protection were present in abundance and the children, even in this economically deprived environment, were free to develop their personalities.
There can be little doubt that Jack Lynch’s family circumstance; a regular wage earning father, older siblings and a passionate, loving mother contributed greatly to developing him into the personality he would become.
In a boy’s world of the 1920s, be it Shandon Street or anywhere in the world, money was not the main currency; athletic ability was. The boy who could run the fastest, climb the highest or puck the sliotar furthest, was king.
Jack Lynch could do all of these. His prowess was partly due to his natural athletic ability, partly due to the regular meals – which a regular wage provides, partly due to his home environment and partly due to the education provided by the nuns of St Vincents and the Christian Brothers of the North Monastery.
The keenest eye for athletic talent, especially football and hurling talent, in Cork at that time was Paddy O’Connell of Glen Rovers. He was a visionary in terms of the GAA. He was an advocate of underage teams and competitions long before the GAA understood their importance.
O’Connell, even then, was a legendary figure, especially among young boys. His recruiting policy, coaching and his famous ‘raza’ (cordial fruit drink) parties after training meant that the majority of the Glen Rovers players were introduced to the club and its ethos through him. Over time he became known as ‘the Father of the Glen’. In effect there were only two active clubs in the North Parish area at this time; St Anne’s and Glen Rovers/St Nicholas. Lynch was bound to end up playing for one of them. O’Connell lamped on to Jack Lynch’s talent even before the future Taoiseach had made his Confirmation. By the time Lynch was 10 years old he was playing football and hurling in Blackpool.
There was very little organised underage hurling competition during the years Jack Lynch grew up in. To overcome this, Paddy O’Connell worked in tandem with the local schools, especially the North Monastery. Given Lynch’s family background he was always bound for a second level education. Other boys, who lived nearby may not have been so lucky if it were not for the Christian Brothers of the North Mon.
The 1936 Census shows there were 1,088 boys aged 14 or over in education in Cork. Unlike today, secondary education was limited to those who could afford to pay the fees. The North Mon was the only school in Cork City that was prepared to waive the fees and offer a second level education to academically talented boys who otherwise could not afford to attend.
The North Mon Brothers also levered the promise of a secondary education to boys who were exceptionally talented in Gaelic games. Jack Lynch flourished athletically and academically in this environment and garnered three Harty Cup medals and two Munster Colleges Football medals during his final three years in secondary school. During that time he was a dual Cork minor player for three years.
By the time Lynch left secondary school in 1936 he was on his way to collecting his third senior county hurling winners’ medal and had played Munster senior hurling championship for Cork; his status as a future GAA legend was securely set.
Jack Lynch’s prowess at Gaelic games and in his professional career continued over the next decade. Even when he moved to live in Dublin in the early 1940s, his sublimity on the field of play in his All-Ireland winning achievements, ensured that he remained a firm favourite within the Cork GAA community.
When he returned to Glen Rovers in 1946 the vast majority of the team with which he had won eight county titles between 1934 and 1941, had retired. Economically, the Emergency was over, and even though rationing was still a feature of everyday life, there was an improvement in the day-to-day life of most people. There was a new generation of players now wearing the colours of Glen Rovers and St Nicholas. These were young players who grew up seeing nothing but success in Blackpool. Among these players were Joe Hartnett, Jimmy Lynam, John Lyons and Seán O’Brien; all future All-Ireland winners.
My late father Donie O’Donovan also played with Jack Lynch on those club teams. He once told me what it was like to play alongside Jack.
“We were all very young and didn’t really know him because he had been away in Dublin. He was a fierce calming influence in the dressing room, unlike (Christy) Ring who would be all worked up about a game. Nothing seemed to upset him, on or off the field. But if someone blackguarded him, he’d settle the score, even if he had to wait for the next time they met.”
My father used to quote the 1948 County Final between Glen Rovers and Blackrock as Jack Lynch’s finest moment in his second term with Glen Rovers. “Blackrock had a very good team, and public sentiment was with them. Everyone wanted to see Johnny Quirke win an- other county medal before he retired. Quirke, a hero of the 1941 to 1944 All-Ireland winning teams, previously won a county medal with Blackrock in 1931.
Ring was sent off in the second half and we were in trouble. Lynch was overweight and playing at full forward. He switched himself to midfield and instructed everyone else on what they were to do. Then himself and (Dr) Jim Young (team captain and a great friend of Jack Lynch) ran the game between them. The rest of us could nearly have sat on the side line and cheered them on.”
It should also be noted that in 1948 Jack Lynch was a practising barrister, a member of Cork Corporation, a TD in the Dáil and secretary of the Fianna Fáil party. It was his work off the field that would turn him from a sporting hero into a national figure. It was his decision to stand for Fianna Fáil in the General Election of 1948 which changed the vista for Jack Lynch and everyone within Glen Rovers and Cork in general.
Less than 25 years earlier the Shandon Street/Blackpool area was just another working class area suffering the entire compass of social and economic problems that existed in the emerging Irish State. Thanks to Glen Rovers and St Nicholas’ successes on the field, their 12 senior county championships, two Glen men lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup (Connie Buckley and Jack Lynch), and many others who won All-Ireland medals at senior and other grades, Blackpool no longer felt like a ghetto; indeed on most Septembers and Octobers it felt like the centre of the universe.
The expectation and confidence of the people had never been higher. Once Jack Lynch, one of their own, got elected to Dáil Éireann the boundaries of expectation were raised again.
Within a year of Lynch’s election, Glen Rovers had decided that the club needed a new headquarters. The tiny premises at Birds Quay, which had served them well, did not now reflect the new status of their members and their club.
By 1953 the new building, the Glen Hall, had been built and opened. It cost £8,000. It was one of the largest volunteer-led and financed projects in the history of the state at that time. When it was opened the finance committee, of which Jack Lynch was a member, handed over almost £300 in excess funds for its construction. Indeed the story goes that when Jack Lynch went to the Munster and Leinster Bank to negotiate a bridging loan he was asked what collateral he could raise. Lynch replied, “Haven’t I the good name of the people of Blackpool, what more do you need?”
I was present in Thomas Davis Street, Blackpool in November 1966 when he returned home as Taoiseach of Ireland for the first time. As a seven-year-old, I was as impressed by the fireworks as I was by the Taoiseach, but I have a vivid memory of my uncle Dinio O’Sullivan impressing upon me that I would have to ‘remember this night as one of the greatest we have ever had in Blackpool’.
Throughout his time as Taoiseach, and well into his retirement from public life, Jack Lynch would continue to make visits to the club.
He was content in the company of veterans he played with, like ‘Fox’ Collins, ‘Cooper’ Moylan or FF Cumann friends Seamus O’Brien, Tadhg Daly, Gerry Sheehan and Mickey O’Sullivan.
He regularly attended club AGMs and took an active part in debates, but never once lectured anybody from the lofty pedestal on which the members had proudly placed him.
As with all heroes, Jack Lynch had his bad times as well as his good times, both in his public and private life. Whatever his impact and legacy of those times on the national stage, on the banks of the Lee, the legacy of John Mary Lynch 100 years after his birth cannot be measured by the building of tunnels or political achievement. The measure of his legacy must be in the manner by which he lived his life. To paraphrase Kipling, he could ‘talk with crowds and keep his virtue, and walk with kings without losing the common touch’.
The 500 students who assembled in the hall of St Aidan’s Community College in 1999 and the many thousands who have attended secondary school since, may never have seen Jack Lynch dominate the sporting field or face down a rebellious political party, but their social environment in our city, and their lives within it have been greatly influenced, not just by his deeds or actions, but by the manner in which he raised the horizons and expectations of generations of Cork people.