A century of the Liam MacCarthy Cup:

By Cian Murphy

Glinting and gleaming, and gripped by almost every great the game has ever known, the Liam MacCarthy Cup marks a centenary of its existence as the most coveted prize in hurling this year.

Just like the sport that it honours as champions, it is unique and beautiful and capable of stirring something in the soul.

And just like a lot of things in GAA history, there’s a bit of a yarn to it.

Presented to GAA Central Council in 1923, the wars and upheavals in Irish life had the GAA championships running two years behind time at that point, and so, the first team to receive the cup were the Bob McConkey inspired Limerick team, who beat Dublin 8-5 to to 3-2 in the 1921 final which was not played until March 4, 1923.

Dublin were the defending champions and their September 1921 Leinster final victory over Kilkenny had drawn a huge crowd to Croke Park where Michael Collins and Harry Boland were presented to the teams beforehand.

McConkey was a three-time All-Ireland winner with Limerick in a great career that spanned 16 years, starting his club hurling first with St Patrick’s and later Young Irelands. He was the star of the 1921 decider, scoring four goals and he was presented with the cup by GAA President Dan McCarthy.

Newspaper reports described the new cup as being of ‘racy and costly design.’

It was commissioned by Liam MacCarthy, a man synonymous with the GAA in London where he had been treasurer and later Chairman and President and was instrumental in the development of the GAA in Britain at a time of mass emigration across the Irish sea.

MacCarthy was also a senior IRB man, a close confidante of fellow IRB figures and GAA enthusiasts Sam Maguire and Michael Collins and as a successful and respected businessman, MacCarthy was an invaluable asset to any cause he supported.

Born in Peckham in a bustling south London district in 1853, his father was from Ballygarvan in Cork and his mother from Bruff in Limerick. It was a close-knit Irish community and Irish was the spoken language at home and throughout his life Liam was a passionate supporter of Gaeilge and involved in the Gaelic League.

It was only natural that this interest in Irish culture would extend to Gaelic games and he was immersed in the GAA in the city. A successful owner of a cardboard box company MacCarthy was hugely influential. His strong nationalist views made him an ally to those who would later be involved in the Easter Rising.

He approached the GAA in 1922 with the offer of a cup for the All-Ireland hurling champions which would replace the Great Southern Railway trophy.

Modelled on a mether, an ancient Celtic four handled friendship or communal drinking vessel, it cost £50 when commissioned by Edmond Johnson Jewellers of Dublin’s Grafton Street, a significant price for the time.

After Bob McConkey held it aloft as the 1921 winning captain it made an instant impact in the psyche of GAA supporters and the original cup was in use until 1991. For preservation reasons it was decided to commission a new replica cup and so Tipperary’s Declan Carr was the last winner of the original (which is now on display at the GAA museum at Croke Park) with the full-scale replica first awarded to Liam Fennelly after Kilkenny’s 1992 triumph.

Climbing up the steps of the Mick Hogan Stand to receive the cup has become an iconic moment in itself. Over the years we have seen memorable moments at the hand over and probably none more so than Joe Connolly’s “we love you!” speech and the late Joe McDonagh’s rendition of the West’s Awake when Galway made a long-awaited return in 1980.

But whatever the year, the sight of a captain thrusting the silver vessel skywards under a darkening Croke Park skyline is a special moment for all those fortunate to share in it.

In all, 10 different counties have been winners of the MacCarthy cup over the last 100 years with Kilkenny the most frequent with 29 recipients and Henry Shefflin the most decorated as being on a winning team 10 times. Limerick’s recent run of success now has them fourth on the overall list with nine MacCarthy Cups.

Limerick’s Declan Hannon became its most prolific winning captain last year when he was awarded the cup on behalf of Limerick for the fourth time (2018, 2020, 2021, 2022) – moving him ahead of three-time Cork winning captain Christy Ring (1946, 1953, 1954).

The 1954 final between Cork and Wexford produced the largest ever official hurling attendance figure of 84,856 at Croke Park. The first hurling final in colour was broadcast on tv in 1971 (Tipperary 5-17, Kilkenny 5-14).

Liam MacCarthy passed away after a battle with illness in 1928 – the same year that a cup in honour of his friend and contemporary Sam Maguire was presented to the All-Ireland senior football champions for the first time.