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'Nickey Rackard sensed Wexford could win an All-Ireland and he could be the catalyst. So he quit drinking'

The remarkable story of Nickey Rackard and Wexford’s All-Ireland final victory over Galway in 1955.

GALWAY AND WEXFORD don’t have much of a hurling rivalry.

sl030_wexford The Wexford team that played Galway in the 1955 All-Ireland SHC final Source: Dublin City Library

They last met in championship in the 2010 Leinster quarter-final, and their previous meetings before that came in the All-Ireland semi-finals of 1996 and, prior to that, in the last four clash of ’76.

The only year they battled it out in an All-Ireland final way was back in ’55. The ’50s were a magical time for hurling, when legendary figures like Christy Ring, Nickey Rackard and John Doyle were in their prime.

That decade also represented the golden-era of Wexford hurling, who had the three Rackard brothers – Nickey, Bobby and Billy – in their side. Between ’54 and ’56 the county competed in three straight All-Ireland finals, winning the latter two.

This is the story of Wexford’s long battle to reign supreme during that period.

***

First attempt at a digital painting. Painstaking. Wexford's Nickey Rackard.

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By all accounts, Bobby Rackard had an epic tussle with Ring during Cork’s three-point win over Wexford in the ’54 All-Ireland decider. Wexford held a formidable Rebels attack to just 1-9, but their own forwards malfunctioned at the far end and posted a paltry 1-6.

Bobby’s older brother Nickey, who scored 5-4 in the Leinster final rout of Dublin and 7-7 in an All-Ireland semi-final demolition of Antrim, suffered a state of paralysis on the biggest day of his career.

Almost 33 and despite his extraordinary gifts, it appeared Nickey Rackard’s chance of lifting the elusive Liam MacCarthy had run out. Wexford had just one title dating back to 1910 and the county fell heavy with gloom after the defeat to Cork.

This golden generation of players looked destined never to pick up the ultimate honour. It turned out Nickey’s puzzling no-show had a more logical, if unusual, explanation.

“The Wexford forward line, so brilliant in earlier games, fell flat, and they themselves are the first to acknowledge so, Nickey in particular,” Billy Rackard wrote in his brilliant memoir ‘No Hurling at the Dairy Door’ (1996).

“Prior to the game he had never in his sporting life been so uptight. After all his years of effort, and now in the winter of a career minus that senior All-Ireland medal he was, prior to this game, subjected to pressure that was even new to him.

“At his age it looked like his last opportunity. Pressure rarely got to him, but this time it did, aided and abetted by a stupid dietary mistake. A voracious red meat eater, on the evening before one of the most important games of his illustrious career, he wrapped himself around a monstrous mixed grill and chips, which by the next day saw him still coralled into a state of nervous indigestion.

“He never knew this story would go into print, and it’s not intended as an excuse; on the contrary as a warning to players in pre-final situations. The moral is, make sure of that feather weight feeling in your tummy. Stick to digestible food, salads or such, on the eve of a big game.”

While food was to blame for Nickey’s poor showing in the ’54 final, his true enemy up to that point had been drink. It may not be well-known by the younger generation of GAA supporters, but alcoholism blighted much of Nickey Rackard’s career.

It’s impossible to recall his glory, without remembering his darkness too. George Best would follow a similar path a decade later, but unlike Best, Rackard managed to pull himself out of alcohol’s self-destructive grip for the tail-end of his career.

His problems with alcohol began when he moved to Dublin in the ’40s, where it took him over eight years to complete his studies to be a vet – due to sporting and other distractions.

“There were spells of being on the dry,” Nickey revealed in a series of revealed memoirs he wrote for The Sunday Press which were published in 1975. “There were other spells of being on the bash. There were car crashes and wild binges.

“There were blackouts, which experts know are nearly always a certain sign of alcoholism. Once I went to a ball on a Friday and came to myself on the local pub on the following Tuesday morning, still in my dress suit.”

“It became chaotic and extremely difficult,” Nickey’s son Bobby told RTÉ in 2006 as part of their ‘Cast a Long Shadow’ podcast series.

“There would be times at night where the guards would be called or his brothers would be called. That kind of thing went on for a long time. He drank often during the day and very much at night. Now, there would be times where he wouldn’t drink for a period and he’d be extremely remorseful.

“He’d be extremely guilty of the impact of his behaviour and the disruption he might have caused at all hours of the morning and night. My memory is that when he’d come home, my mother would be called out of the bed to make him a fry-up and he could have people with him as well.

“So the house could be full of maybe five people. It would be quite disruptive and my mother obviously wouldn’t be pleased with that. You’d end up with arguments and what not. It’s like any home that has alcoholism in it, it’s a terribly emotionally difficult time. It’s unpredictable.

“He was idolised and anywhere you’d go people would be looking to buy him drinks. To some degree they’d nearly be intimidated by him. And that was by his silent presence, he certainly wasn’t outspoken.”

The death of a priest friend of Nickey’s in ’51 prompted six years of abstinence from alcohol. It’s no coincidence that Wexford’s most successful ever period on the hurling field fit neatly into that period.

“Nickey sensed that Wexford could win an All-Ireland and realised that he could be the catalyst,” his brother Billy wrote. “So he quit drinking.

“He took that very seriously, just as he drank to excess and just as when he eventually joined AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), he took that so seriously that he was heading off in the middle of the night to counsel people up and down the country.

“It was like the close-in frees. All or nothing. Everything with Nickey was a close-in free, he couldn’t go at medium speed.”

Wexford lost to Tipperary in the ’51 All-Ireland final and to Cork three years later. They returned in the spring of ’55 with a steely determination to bring home the Liam MacCarthy for the first time since in 45 years.

The squad was made up with a single-minded group of characters, who were willing to do whatever it took to get over the line. They still believed this talented group of players, who had been on the road together for a the guts of a decade at this point, could take that final step.

“It was during this time that I first asked myself, “What are you doing for this team?” Wexford panelist Michael Codd wrote in his book ‘The Way I Saw It – Nickey Rackard leads Wexford to hurling glory’ (2005).

“I had given it five years, but Paddy Kehoe and Nickey Rackard had given it fifteen and were still prepared to give it their all. Surely I was privileged to be part of this great team and it would be wrong of me not to get myself in a fit state to reach my full potential.”

At 6’2 and 13 stone, Codd felt he was too light to compete at the top level. These were the days long before protein shakes and creatine tablets.

The Wexford team doctor had to think outside the box.

“He asked me about my appetite and how much I would eat; and there was certainly no problem there,” continued Codd. “Then he said, ‘I’ll treat you for worms.’

“For a minute I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t that kind of man, so I just felt a bit embarrassed. Twice a year I would dose the sheep and cattle for worms, but this was getting a bit personal, I thought.

“Still, I followed his instructions and took the prescribed medication. In two days the treatment proved a visible success. In the following six months, I put on over a stone in weight and felt much stronger.

“The average weight of the Wexford team was 13st 2lbs, height was 5’11 and the age was 27.5 years. Overall the players and management team would have had more than five years experience of top class hurling. There could be no excuses now: all that was needed was a small bit of luck.”

Wexford reached the league final in ’55 but bad luck struck eight days before the game with the death of Robert Rackard senior.

Tipperary defeated the Model County in the final, who were without Nickey, Bobby and Billy. Their mother requested the three boys would not play a game in the week their father was buried, and they complied with her wishes.

The loss to Tipperary, who had the great John Doyle in their ranks, was another hammer blow for Wexford. More criticism followed.

“We would never be classed as a great team until we beat these counties in the finals of major competitions,” Codd said.

“One Dublin-based journalist lamented that Wexford were past it and needed some young blood; even some of our local scribes thought the team was on a downward slide. Most teams play best when they are underdogs; and this kind of reporting is what makes underdogs.”

With the Rackards back in their side, Wexford began the championship campaign by seeing off Westmeath and Kilkenny, after a replay, to lift the provincial crown. But they had their sights set on a far bigger prize.

By that stage Wexford were training collectively twice a week, although to cut down travel time members of the squad trained separately in New Ross, Enniscorthy and Wexford.

Collective county training was still a relatively new concept in the ’50s as most inter-county players trained with their clubs before linking up with the county team for matches. Wexford were among the first sides to adopt a more professional approach.

“Training would consist of two or three laps of the field and six or eight sprints,” continued Codd. “The remainder of the evening would be spent hurling. I’m not sure what the other lads did, but I spent the other evenings hurling in Rathnure. Most of our training was done with the club.”

Wexford enjoyed a comfortable 2-12 to 2-3 win over a speedy young Limerick side, who were known as ‘Mick Mackey’s greyhounds.’

With the three dominant teams of that time – Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny – all out of the championship, Wexford advanced to face the Tribesmen in a novel All-Ireland final pairing. The Yellowbellies had a distinct advantage over the Galway, who received a bye right up until the final and hadn’t yet played a championship game that year.

But Wexford had bad memories of playing Galway, They lost to them in the league final of ’51, and in the Oireachtas finals of ’50 and ’53. The support of the country was split down the middle, as many felt Galway deserved their All-Ireland medals too.

“It was while training for this final that I first heard the word ‘tactics’ mentioned,” wrote Codd. ”Often two or three players would have a chat about some plan that might improve their game, but never a ‘game plan’ made by the players and management collectively.”

Wexford were a forward-thinking bunch and one such discussion took place after a training session the week before the final. Hearing it, Nickey stood up in front of the group in the dressing room.

“Get the ball up in front of the goal as quick as you can we’ll take it from there,” he told his teammates.

Wexford left no stone unturned in the build-up to their second successive All-Ireland final. John Randall was their hurley maker who skilfully crafted personalised hurleys for each player by hand to suit their requirements.

Wexford had changed their jerseys three times in the previous five years before they finally settled on material of suitable quality. The same went for their shorts and socks, but concerns lingered over the quality of footwear available.

In the mid-fifties the boots all players wore were still heavy and uncomfortable. Billy used his business contacts to organise special, lightweight boots with good quality leather fitted into the soles for the panel.

He pitched the idea of bringing in a respected cobbler to a county board official. It would require significant financial backing.

“You must be joking,” came the reply from the official.

“No, I’m not joking,” retorted Billy. “I am deadly serious. He is far more essential than most people there.”

Billy raised the issue with Liam Murphy, a Corkman who was the Wexford county secretary. Murphy gave him the go-ahead.

“Prior to the All-Ireland final of 1955, I measured every player’s feet!” said Billy. “The boots arrived on schedule. I recommended they be kept specifically for match day. The result was sheer bliss and great speed.”

Codd concurred: “The boots were very light. It was unbelievable the difference these boots made.”

1955-Hurling Source: Croke Park

For much of the team, it was their third All-Ireland final in five years. They named an unchanged team to the one that had beaten Limerick in the last four. It went as follows:

1. Art Foley

2. Bobby Rackard
3. Nick O’Donnell
4. Mick O’Hanlon

5. Jim English
6. Billy Rackard
7. Mick Morrissey

8. Jim Morrissey
9. Seamus Hearne

10. Paddy Kehoe
11. Ned Wheeler
12. Padge Kehoe

13. Tom Ryan
14. Nickey Rackard
15. Tim Flood

Their travel arrangements remained the same as they had been for the two previous finals, with five cars carrying the squad from various corners of the county. They left at 9.30 and arrived at their hotel near Phoenix Park at 12.30. Their pre-match routine never changed.

“We would have a cup of tear and ham sandwiches and then go for a bit of a stroll before we went to Croke Park,” said Codd. “That was our routine for years and we never saw a reason to change it. We thought it best to sleep in our own beds on the night before a game.”

78,000 supporters packed Croke Park as an early goal from Nickey gave Wexford the perfect start. But 18-year-old Paddy Egan bagged a brace of three-pointers for the Tribesmen before Ned Wheeler hit Wexford’s second goal to leave them trailing by two at half-time.

The Model posted the first five points after the restart and Tim Flood raised the green flag to leave them in control. Galway scored just once from play in the second-half as Wexford ran out 3-13 to 2-6 winners. The final whistle signalled the end of the drought and an outpouring of emotion ensued.

“You will never know what you will do at a time like this until it happens,” explained Codd. “It affects different people in different ways. Young people shout and laugh, while old people cry and thank God that they have lived to see this day.

“I saw people running that day, scarcely knowing what they were doing, and others just standing where they were, crying. From the subs bench we raced onto the pitch to congratulate the men who had made it all happen, but we just got lost in the crowd.

“More than anything else now, I wanted to see Nickey Rackard.”

Source: hurlingtime/YouTube

Codd’s search on the crowded field for Nickey proved futile and he left for the sanctity of the dressing room. There, to his surprise, he saw the iconic figure sitting alone on the floor. His elbows were resting on his knees and his head was in his hands. “Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” he kept repeating to himself.

“Nickey was a big man in every sense of the word and had an unquenchable zest for life. He wanted to live life to the full and this brought him to the brink at times. He liked all kinds of sport, but his love and passion for hurling ruled above everything else.

“All his life he had dreamed of winning an All-Ireland medal and twice his dream had been shattered in Croke Park on final day. He had played in 15 championships, most of the time when the team were “no hopers,” but he followed his dream and now it had just come true. He was in total shock and could not believe the long wait was over.”

Bonfires were lit all across Wexford, while the team held a joyous reception at the International Hotel in Bray that night. By 11pm the doors of the hotel were locked as another soul couldn’t possibly fit inside. The revelry went on through the night.

Fittingly, Nickey kept his pledge and refused to take a drink on the greatest night of his career.

“My brother Nickey had a drink problem since his teens,” said Billy. “His displays for years were reliant mainly on his strength and determination. Minus that drink problem plus proper adherence to training, what he would have been like is a thought that has crossed many minds.

“For those few golden Wexford years, which he always predicted would happen, he gave up the drink. Naturally he wanted to be part of such success, but for that to happen, he knew that it was imperative to change.

“With a lifetime’s intention, he became a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. On that night in Bray it must have been difficult for him. He kept his pledge and for a long time to come.

“I observed my brother Nickey as he remained sober throughout it all.”

In the early hours of the following morning, a group of tired and thirsty Wexford fans had congregated outside the hotel but were unable to get inside.

To their surprise the iconic figure of Nickey Rackard draped down from the dining room window and handed them out a tray containing two large bottles of whiskey and a host of uncapped Guinness bottles.

One supporter stuck his hand in his pocket to offer him money for payment.

“Have that on me,” grinned the Wexford legend as he pulled the window shut.

***

After their breakthrough All-Ireland win in ’55, Billy said that Wexford “not alone began to feel invincible but also began to prove it.” They retained the All-Ireland the following September with a defeat of Ring and Cork, while the Leinster Railway Cup winning side was backboned with almost two thirds Wexford players.

Tragically, after his retirement, Nickey Rackard returned to his former ways for many years. ”As we always know,” said Billy, “the last fall is always the worst.” Eventually he got his life back on track and gave up drink for good, working in his veterinary practice and on his farm successfully. Sadly, he died of cancer at just 53-years-old.

“The calm dignity and courage with which he faced the inevitable, and his uncomplaining nature which won the admiration of all who nursed him, surpassed any feat of valour he ever achieved on the hurling field. You could say it was his finest hour.”

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