JIMMY Smyth is rated by his peers and by journalists as one of the greatest hurlers to play the game. His hurling career began as a youngster in Ruan and later at St Flannan’s College. Selected at corner-forward on the Munster Millenium team in 2000, evidence of his greatness is the fact that when hurling people speak of him in the vernacular, they only have to say “Smyth” and it’s understood who they are talking about.
Smyth played 156 games for Clare at adult level. His scoring record is 149-323 in these outings. His individual record of 6-4 for the Munster Senior Championship was set at Cusack Park on June 14, 1953.
“Jimmy Smyth arouses the same terror in the minds of opposing defenders as did such great figures as Martin Kennedy, Mattie Power and Dinny Barry Murphy in others’ days.”
As quoted to Seamus O’Ceallaigh in The Sunday Independent, April 4, 1954.
“I saw him first in the 1949 All-Ireland junior final against London at Cusack Park. He was 18 then with a brilliant career in colleges and minor inter-county hurling already carved out. I still have vivid memories of his strong raw-boned frame as he coolly pointed some frees when Clare were playing into the western goal. I was behind that goal. It was the first really big match that I ever saw and I had earned the trip to Ennis by giving the day before picking potatoes on a neighbour’s farm. As a reward for services rendered, I was presented with a two shilling piece and the promise of a trip on a side car to see the big game.”
Smyth was born in Ruan on New Year’s Day 1931. He received his first schooling at Kells National School, where his mother was a teacher and hurling enthusiast. There was plenty of hurling at the school and young Smyth had, as schoolmates, Tommy Casey and Paddy McNamara, who were afterwards to bring such honour and glory to the parish of Ruan. Each evening, when coming home from school, Smyth went with a group of local lads to a field where they hurled until dusk with hazel sticks. Seldom were any of those lads seen to miss a flying ball with those make-shift camáns. One of the earliest and most abiding memories is that of being given his first real hurley at the age of 10 by Mick Hennessy of Clooney, the then county hurler and county board secretary.
After some early juvenile games with Ruan, Smyth went to St Flannan’s in September 1943 and, as he says himself, “that is where I got the basic ingredients for my later career”. At Flannan’s, he was a hurling protégé, going straight into the Dean Ryan team at 13 against Rockwell and winning his first medal when Ennis won the junior championship. In second year, he made his debut on the Harty Cup team and was on his way to one of the greatest college careers ever known, during which he was to play in five Harty Cup finals, winning three, and three All-Irelands in the Croke Cup, as well as three interprovincial colleges with the Munster selection. In all, he played in seven Harty Cup finals, including replays. With him at centre-field during many of those triumphs was John Hanly, later chairman of the county board and a respected hurling coach. Of his colleges’ days, Smyth says their trainer, Tull Considine, “imparted much valuable knowledge and skill, both through practical and the use of the blackboard for planning and leadership”.
Setting records became routine for Smyth. At 14, he was selected on the county minor team. He subsequently set up what must be an all-time record for Clare by playing at this grade for five years in-a-row. In the first of these games, Clare defeated Limerick by 4-9 to 2-8 in 1945.
Like many accomplished sports people, Smyth excelled in a number of games. His football career also began to blossom when he played at all levels for St Flannan’s, the Clare minors and in 1949, he made the Munster Colleges football side. The Ruan youth was also Munster colleges champion in the 100-yard sprint in 1947 and senior high jump champion in 1948.
Outstanding year in 1948
IN 1948, Smyth represented 15 teams. He played Canon O’Kennedy Shield and Harty Cup and junior and senior football for Flannan’s. He played minor, junior and senior hurling for Clare and minor and junior football.
On the club front, Smyth represented Ruan at minor, junior, intermediate and senior hurling levels. In that year, due to an agreement between Miko Lyons of Ruan and the Clare County Board, Ruan were allowed to play the same team in senior and intermediate ranks, the proviso being that Ruan wouldn’t lose their intermediate status. This was a brilliant move by Miko Lyons. In that unique year, Ruan won both senior and intermediate championships, though the rematch in the “long final” wasn’t decided until 1949.
At 17, Smyth made his senior debut for Clare, on a team that showed great promise, against Galway in the national league first round. The Clare team featured seasoned men in Phil Byrnes, Matt Nugent and Chris Murphy. Jimmy didn’t feature again for a while as he was back at Flannan’s. In that season’s Harty Cup semi-final against Thurles CBS, Smyth gave an exhibition of centre-field hurling in their two-point victory.
There is little doubt that Smyth and Donal O’Grady would have featured in the 1949 senior championship other than the fact that the junior team was going well and the selectors in that grade wanted them. Smyth and O’Grady were on the senior bench in 1949 at Limerick but weren’t fielded. In the 1949 junior home final, Clare defeated Kilkenny by 3-5 to 3-3 at Nenagh but were shocked by London-Irish in the final proper at Cusack Park by 3-7 to 3-6.
Smyth made his senior championship debut against Tipperary on July 9, 1950, when Clare came close to eliminating the All-Ireland champions by 2-13 to 3-7. From then until the autumn of 1964, he was never off the senior county team. During this era, he was one of the most admired players in the game. The number of wonderful games he played include his 1-10 haul against Tipperary in the Thomond Feis Shield in 1950 and the explosive league game against the same opposition on March 8, 1953 at Ennis. The Clare Champion described this Clare display as “one of their greatest in years”.
The Clare Champion went on to report, “Jimmy Smyth was the outstanding forward of the day and his goal and four points were a symbol of his marvellous work. He was also the closest watched man of the team but he was fully capable of coming out of the ruck frequently made by two or more Tipperary defenders.” The final score was Tipperary 4-6, Clare 3-7.
Smyth was first selected on the Munster panel in 1952. From 1953 to 1964, he was picked on the starting 15 in every game with one exception. By 1960, Smyth, John Doyle and Christy Ring were the elder statesmen on the Munster team. In the 1963 final, it was Smyth who scored the winning point against Leinster at Croke Park. Smyth, who also added a goal, was moved from corner-forward to full-forward during the course of the first half. The final score in this replayed Railway Cup final was Munster 2-8, Leinster 2-7.
In 1955, Clare had its biggest representation on the inter-provincial team for many years. The Claremen played in central roles; O’Grady was at centre-back, Smyth at centre-field, Des Dillon led the attack and Jackie Greene was on the edge of the square. Matt Nugent, a regular Clare and Munster hurler, was in the reserves. In all, Smyth won eight Railway Cup medals, a record in either code for a Clare man.
On six occasions, he was honoured by the Ireland selectors, one of the greatest accolades in the game. In his opinion, the best games that he figured in were the junior games in 1949, the Oireachtas outings against Wexford and the club game with Sixmilebridge in 1960 at Tulla. In the five junior games in 1949, Smyth scored 7-16, yet he seldom speaks of his 6-4 against Limerick in the 1953 senior championship. When pushed on this Munster championship record, Smyth’s modest reply was that the entire team combined brilliantly. Smyth considers the 1953 team to be the best he played on.
1953 Clare team
SPEAKING at his home in Clontarf in May 1995, Smyth recalled the 1953 championship.
“We had Michael Considine of Ennis Faugh’s at centre-field. I’d say he was equal to, if not better than, the best centre-field we ever had. He was a big, strong, able-bodied man and tough as they come. He never got the full credit for the greatness that was in him. Donal O’Grady was a great centre-back – one of the best. Mickie Leahy, a powerful corner-back, Pat Halpin against whom I could never cope was a tenacious and skilled hurler; (Joe) ‘Jazzer’ Meaney, a tough, unrelenting and skilful centre-field; Jackie Greene, one of the greatest forwards Clare ever produced, he was also a great backsman.
“His brother, Patrick, was a quicksilver, elusive corner-forward. Pat Greene was great to pounce on a ball. Des Carroll, Gerry Browne, Mick Hayes (Newmarket), Kevin O’Doherty, Vinnie Henchy, a darting, daring and penetrating forward, (John) ‘Jazzer’ Slattery and Dan McInerney, a born leader.
“Dan was a truly great full-back, amongst the best I’ve seen, up there with Martin O’Doherty of Cork and Brian Lohan. Matt Nugent was in a class of his own and was highly rated around the country. Mick Hayes (St Joseph’s) was as good a goalie as we ever had. Michael Lynch of Clarecastle was a superb attacking half-back and Johnny Purcell of Ruan and St Joseph’s, with whom I learned my hurling, was equally as good in the backs or the forwards. In 1953, we beat Limerick by 34 points. We lost to Cork, who later won the All-Ireland, by one goal. Our team was just as good.
“In 1955, we beat Cork and Tipperary but we were annihilated by Limerick in the Munster final. This was a new-look Limerick team. They had a lot of great players. With only two or three exceptions, our team played below par.”
The Clare Champion reporter offered no excuses for the debacle. He reported, “Clare were wiped off the field by a rampant Limerick team, which could not be matched for speed, accuracy and dash”.
Stung by the 10-8 to 1-1 defeat in June 1953, Limerick came into the 1955 Munster final playing a type of hurling that hadn’t been seen before. Vivian Cobbe, who was selected in the corner, was operating out on the half-forward line as an extra wing-forward, throwing the Clare backs into confusion.
A young Eamonn Cregan was present at the Gaelic Grounds on July 10, 1955 on that scorching day. Cregan describes the Clare team of 1953/1955 as marvellous.
“In 1955, they had beaten Cork and Tipperary in the championship. Now anyone who beats those two in the same season deserves an All-Ireland but it was not to be. I was standing at the Clare end and Vivian Cobbe and Ralph Prendergast were like hares, creating space and passes and Gerry Fitzgerald was a thorn creating problems for the Clare full-back line. Limerick put their game together and they were Munster champions for the first time since 1940 and it signalled the end of a renaissance in Clare. I believe that this Clare team of Smyth, Des Dillon, Donal O’Grady, Mick Hayes, Dan McInerney and many others, was the only team capable of beating Wexford at their best.”
Smyth has great regard for all the Clare clubs that he played against but he regards the 1960 encounter with Sixmilebridge as special. A member of that Sixmilebridge team, Dick Barron was a legend in hurling lore.
In The Clare Champion of that year, the sports correspondent wrote, “The ’Bridge centre-field players of Mick Frost and Michael Deasy held an edge against Éire Óg in the quarter-final.”
The ’Bridge pair were again expected to win at centre-field against Ruan but Tony Meaney and Tommy Barrett held a slight edge for Ruan in this sector. Played at Tulla on August 14, 1960, The Clare Champion describes this clash “as furious a game as played in recent years and producing magnificent and manly exchanges.
Man of the match in this pulsating contest was Jimmy Smyth, figuring at centre-forward but was often seen roving out to centre-field, where he broke through the ’Bridge defence on many occasions for picture and all-important scores.”
The final score in this match was Ruan 5-6, Sixmilebridge 4-6.
Ruan Hurling Club was strong during the years from 1948 to1962 and within this time had two periods of dominance in club hurling. Smyth played in all of Ruan’s five senior championship wins during this time. While Ruan hurling followers acknowledge the club’s debt to Smyth, he is quick to point out his debt to Ruan.
“I lasted 12 years on the Munster team but, without Ruan, I wouldn’t have survived for that length. The club is important. We had a very good side in Ruan and we trained hard. But if I had my time over again, I would train twice as hard. We had quite a few who played for the county but we didn’t have a big representation but they were all hitting up against the inter-county standard.”
In 1959, Smyth married Veronica Gleeson from Coore, Mullagh, and they came to live in Ennis. In 1964, Smyth was appointed to an executive position in Croke Park and he and his family moved to Dublin.
In late 1964, he dropped out of the Clare team. This was surprising as he was just as prolific as ever, scoring 16-27 for Clare in seven outings in 1963. His retirement from the inter-county scene at this stage was premature but he returned to play intermediate in 1966 and senior championship in 1967.
Smyth regards the Wexford team of 1953 to 1960 and the Tipperary team of 1961 to 1965 as the best inter-county teams he saw in his playing days. He also holds the Newmarket hurling team of the 1960s in the highest regard and refers to them as “great sticksmen”.
One of my [Ollie Byrnes] fondest memories of Clare hurling takes me back to Ruan on June 6, 1971. Christy Ring arrived with an All-Star team featuring great names from the past, men I had only read about. Likewise, Smyth led an All-Star Clare selection. Smyth scored 3-6.
I had gone to the match with my parents and Des McCullagh, the latter having been a wonderful mentor with Ennis juvenile hurling. I, being too shy to approach the players after the game, was introduced by Des to John Doyle, Smyth, Tony Reddin, Mick Mackey, Dermot Sheedy, Naoise Jordan, Milo Keane and many others for their autographs.
My collaborator on this article, Joe Keane, also starred on the Clare full-back line on that most memorable day. While this was a tournament match featuring stars of the past, the game was played with all the intensity of a championship match and what I remember best are the goal-mouth tussles between Paddy Russell and Christy Ring.
Smyth’s brothers, Gerard, Michael and Kevin, all hurled at St Flannan’s. Michael, a member of the 1953 college team, starred when defeating the Limerick county minor side by 3-8 to 2-2 at Cusack Park. Kevin, a member of a powerful and unstoppable Flannan’s force in 1958, held Eddie Keher without a score in the Croke Cup final.
ANOTHER facet of Smyth’s talent is that he is a tremendous man of letters, contributing enormously to the lore of the GAA. He is a prolific letter writer. He has published a number of volumes, including Ballads of the Banner in 1998 and In Praise of Heroes in 2007, two excellent publications of songs, prose and recitations of the native games and those who made them special.
He edited Pa Howard’s collection of Clare Teams 1949-2001, a unique publication and an essential guide for all students of Clare hurling. He is also a poet and through this medium, has penned warm tributes to many hurlers, including some of his greatest opponents, such as John Doyle of Tipperary.
An adequate description of the remarkable career of Smyth, a player of outstanding pace, skill, strength and, above all, sportsmanship could fill a book. In this article, we have merely scratched the surface.
However, if it revives great memories for those who were lucky enough to have seen him play in his prime or helps to provide inspiration for the young generation, it will have more than fulfilled its purpose. Jimmy Smyth is truly a mighty man of the Banner.