On Monday next, April 2nd, the under-14 hurling teams of the St Finbarrs and Blackrock will play at St Finbarrs. This will be the inaugural game of what will become an annual challenge between the clubs. A special trophy has been commissioned by St Finbarrs for the game. It is to be called the Willie John O’Connell Cup.
Most people do not know the story of the St Finbarrs hurler Willie John O’Connell. I had not heard of him until about six months ago when he grandnephew, “Billa” O’Connell asked me to help him find some information on Willie John O’Connell and his tragic death.
Willie John O’Connell was born in 1869. He played hurling with the Barrs and worked as a fitter on the Cork to Bandon Railway. By 1897 he was married to Ellen McCarthy, the couple lived on the Bandon Road and they had one son, Charles who was one year old.
St Finbarrs and Blackrock are two of the oldest clubs in the GAA. Both clubs are foundation stones upon which Cork GAA was built. While Blackrock enjoyed a very successful period in the 1890s, the same cannot be said for St Finbarrs. In 1891 the club lost a lot of players to the newly former Redmonds club and did not enter the 1892 county hurling championship. The club re-entered the championship in 1893.
Blackrock won the county championship in 1893 and 1894. At that time the county champions went on to represent Cork in the Munster and All-Ireland championships. The rules allowed the county champions to pick players from other clubs to strengthen their team for the inter-county championship. St Finbarrs’ best players were Willie John O’Connell and Jim Young. Blackrock selected both for the Cork squad in 1893 and 1894 and won both All-Ireland titles.
Willie John became captain of St Finbarrs in 1885. He was in his third year as captain in 1897. The Cork team (as organised by Blackrock) was due to play Tipperary (Tubberadora) on Sunday May 2nd 1897. Training was not as intense in those days and Cork began their preparations for the game with a trial game on the previous Sunday, April 25th. This game was fixed for the Cork Park, where Páirc Uí Chaoímh now stands.
There was nothing extraordinary about the game until two players challenged for the ball just before half time. The following report appeared the next day in the Cork Examiner.
FATAL HURLING ACCIDENT IN THE CITY
A CITY HURLER KILLED
“A fatality of a very sad and regrettable character took place yesterday afternoon in the Cork Park. A number of hurling teams were engaged in a combined practice in preparation for a challenge match to be played next Sunday at Tipperary against Tubberadora. In the course of the game two players were “drawing” on the ball when on of them – a young man named William John O’Connell – got struck behind the left ear, and immediately dropped on the field. The play was stopped at once and the injured player removed to the South Infirmary…
“A meeting of the County Board will be held this evening in reference to the matter. Mr Coroner Murphy will hold an inquest this afternoon at 2 o’clock at the South Infirmary.”
The other player involved in the incident was Denis Coughlan. He was a member of the famous Coughlan family of Blackrock. There were five brothers, all of whom hurled for Blackrock and Cork, Patrick (known as Parson), Denis (Lyonsie), Jer (Big Jer), Dan and Tom (Honest Man). He was distraught after the incident. This was 19th century Ireland and things were carried out in a different manner compared to what might happen today. On the evening of the game Denis Coughlan turned himself into the police at the Bridewell.
The Cork Examiner of Monday morning reported.
“At the Police Office yesterday before Sir Geo. Penrose, Messrs C.E.B. Mayne, B.M. and J. B. Roche, Denis Coughlan, Blackrock was charged with having caused the death of Wm. John O’Connell during the progress of a hurling match…
“During the match Denis Coughlan took a running ball on his hurley; the ball rebounded off his hurley right to his shoulder, and Coughlan “drew” on it, and while engaged in this act the deceased man who was standing about five yards behind Coughlan, rushed the ball and received a stroke from Coughlan’s hurley on the right side of the neck near the ear. He fell unconscious and bled a little. He never spoke after receiving the blow and was removed to the South Infirmary…
“Owing to the position of the ball, Coughlan could not strike it without using the hurley in the way de did. The occurrence was perfectly accidental.”
The following statement was made at coroner’s inquest Monday April 26th.
“(The) Deceased was always recognised as the ‘first man’ representing Cork, and he and Coughlan had played together for years. (The) Witness thought there were not two better players in the country than deceased and Coughlan, and both were perfect friends.”
After listening to all the evidence the Coroners Jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical testimony, adding the rider “That we exonerate Denis Coughlan from all blame.”
At the emergency County Board meeting on Monday evening, the President of the Board, Michael Deering delivered a powerful oration. He sympathised with the O’Connell and Coughlan families and their clubs. He stated that this was the first time since the GAA was founded that an accident on the field had ended with a fatality. He also announced that a benefit fund was to be set up immediately for the benefit of Willie John’s wife and son.
The funeral took place on Tuesday April 27th. The Cork Examiner reported,
“The funeral of the young man Wm. Connell … took place yesterday from his residence in Bandon Road to the Botanic Gardens (St Joseph’s Cemetery, Ballyphehane)…
“An immense concourse followed the remains to the cemetery. The route followed was Great George’s Street and Mall, where large numbers of spectators lined the way. The mourners walked four deep and some idea of the largeness of their numbers may be had when it is stated that the coffin… had entered Anglesea Street before the last of the cortege had left the Parade…
“The scene at the graveside was most pathetic, and frequent were the expressions of sympathy from those in the crowd for the sorrowing wife and mother who appeared almost inconsolable.”
On Thursday April 29th the police dropped all charges against Denis Coughlan. Over the next two months the Cork County Board engaged in some intensive fundraising for the O’Connell family. When the fund closed in July a sum of £293 (after funeral expenses) had been raised for Ellen O’Connell.
Two years later in 1899, St Finbarrs won the Cork County Championship for the first time. Naturally, this victory was the cause of great celebrations for the members and supporters of the club. The one pity was that Willie John O’Connell, one of their best players of the 1890s was missing from that famous day. His wife and their son continued to live in the Denroches Cross area for some years.
As for the other unfortunate victim of the accident, Denis Coughlan, he continued to live and work as a fisherman in Blackrock. I have checked through many of the Blackrock teams that were published in the years after the accident and I have not found any evidence that he continued to play hurling. He became ill in the summer of 1903 and died in July of that year after a short illness.
The story of Willie John O’Connell and Denis Coughlan is a tragic one. It is all the more poignant because of the impact it had on their two families, two famous clubs and, as the list of donations to the O’Connell fund shows, the entire population of Cork. Unfortunately the tale slipped from the history of Cork GAA over the decades.
Hopefully, each year from next Monday onward, the hurling careers of both Willie John O’Connell and Denis Coughlan will be remembered and celebrated for what they really were; true pioneers of the Cork’s hurling story.