Rackard, Nicholas (‘Nicky’) (1922–76), hurler, was born 28 April 1922 in Killann, Rathnure, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, third child and eldest son among five sons and four daughters of Robert Rackard, farmer, publican, and grocer, and Anastasia Rackard (née Doran). The family had a 120-acre mixed farm with licensed retail business on the former homestead in Killann of John Kelly (qv), the storied figure of the 1798 rising, and owned land and a similar business at nearby Caim. Four of the five Rackard brothers played senior inter-county hurling, three of them with uncommon distinction. Nicky was educated at Rathnure national school and St Kieran's college, Kilkenny city, where he showed great promise on hurling teams that won provincial and all-Ireland colleges titles, and on a Leinster selection that won an all-Ireland inter-provincial colleges title (1940). Powerfully built and phenomenally strong, he won athletics competitions in the high jump and long jump, including a county youth title in the latter, and won junior and minor hurling medals with club (Rathnure) and county. While studying (from 1941) in Dublin at the Veterinary College in Ballsbridge, he won a Co. Dublin senior club hurling title with Young Irelands (1943). Qualifying as a veterinary surgeon in 1949, he practised first in Carnew, Co. Wicklow, and from 1953 in Bunclody, Co. Wexford, where he also farmed.
Beginning his senior inter-county hurling career in 1942, throughout the 1940s Rackard excelled at midfield and centre forward on generally mediocre Wexford teams, losing the one Leinster final that they contested (1944). Gifted with exceptional speed, strength, and athleticism, and displaying a range of hurling artistry, he was a skilful overhead and ground striker, and a powerful shooter. About 1950 he shifted position to full forward and changed his style of play. A heavy drinker from his teens, he was putting on weight, losing pace and declining in all-round skills, but became expert at close-range shooting, resulting in prodigious feats of scoring. Tall and burly, he fearlessly challenged defenders with his Herculean strength, and struck split-second shots of immense power and deadly accuracy. Especially renowned were his pile-driving twenty-one-yard frees aimed at goal, dubbed ‘Rackard specials’ by broadcaster Michael O'Hehir (qv).
Rackard's individual prowess and charisma inspired a revival of hurling in Wexford, motivating individuals and clubs to concentrate on the sport, and culminating in the great county teams of the 1950s, which won four provincial championships (1951, 1954–6), two oireachtas tournaments (1951, 1953), one National Hurling League title (1956), and two all-Ireland championships (1955–6) (the county's first since 1910). During the first half of the decade, as Wexford hovered on the threshold of greatness, they suffered numerous heartbreaking near misses, defeated in the finals of many competitions, often in thrilling matches. Over the last eight years of Rackard's inter-county career, Wexford contested every Leinster final (1950–57), seven consecutive oireachtas finals (1950–56), and five league finals. The teams also included Rackard's brothers Bobbie (see below) and Billy (see below), both backs. The 1951 side (captained by Nicky), which won the county's first Leinster title in thirty-three years, but lost the all-Ireland final to Tipperary, also included a fourth brother, Jimmy.
After scoring five goals and three points in the 1954 Leinster final against Dublin, Nicky scored an astonishing twenty-eight points (7–7, a championship individual record) against Antrim in the all-Ireland semi-final. In the all-Ireland final, however – one of the most celebrated ever, before a record attendance of 84,856 – he was held to only a point from play by a cagey Cork defence, as Wexford lost by the low score of 1–9 to 1–6. During the next two seasons, Wexford won thirty-three out of thirty-four consecutive inter-county matches, the lone defeat coming in the 1955 league final, when all three Rackard brothers were absent owing to their father's death one week earlier. Nicky was top scorer in the country in inter-county competition in both seasons, with 91 points in 18 matches in 1955, and 155 points (35–50) in 19 matches in 1956 (a record subsequently broken by Eddie Keher of Kilkenny in 1972). Two of his most acclaimed performances occurred in 1956, as Wexford swept all major inter-county honours. In the league final, with Wexford held to one point in the first half and trailing by fifteen to Tipperary, he rallied the side with a rousing dressing-room speech, and led a remarkable second-half comeback to a four-point victory, 5–9 to 2–14. In the all-Ireland final against Cork, he secured Wexford's victory (by 2–14 to 2–8) with a thundering last-minute goal, moments after Wexford goalkeeper Art Foley had hand-saved a point-blank shot by the legendary Christy Ring (qv). Rackard was named sports star of the year for 1956.
Picked regularly for Leinster in the inter-provincial Railway cup competition, he received his only winner's medal in 1956, having previously played on losing sides in six finals. He won three Co. Wexford senior club championships with Rathnure. Throughout his career, he scored sixty goals in thirty-five championship matches. Reputedly never booked, he was renowned for exemplary sportsmanship, a quality emulated by the Wexford teams, and contributing to their wide and enduring popularity. He retired in August 1957 after Wexford lost heavily to Kilkenny in the Leinster final. Thereafter he represented Wexford on both the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Leinster council and central council, and was a county hurling selector.
Also adept at Gaelic football, he played inter-county from 1943 to the mid-1950s. A high-scoring full forward, he won a Leinster senior title (1945, six years before his first comparable hurling title), and won county junior and senior club titles. He was the first man to represent Leinster in the Railway cup finals in both football and hurling in the same year (1950), being on the losing side in both codes. An accomplished horseman, he rode in point-to-points, and attained some success as a breeder, trainer and owner of racehorses, both over jumps and on the flat.
Rackard married (1952) Ailish Pierce of Tinahely, Co. Wicklow; they had one son and two daughters. Convivial, big-hearted and expansive, elegant in dress, and generous to a fault, he had a reckless, roguish edge to his nature. In the early 1950s, in his single-minded pursuit of all-Ireland honours, he joined the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, and successfully renounced alcohol for several years. On retiring from sport, he resumed drinking heavily, to the serious detriment of his health, and personal and professional lives. Hospitalised on several occasions, his career and finances in ruins, he eventually attained sobriety about 1970 through membership of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He spoke publicly about his alcoholism, and became an energetic AA activist, personally assisting many people throughout the country to cope with alcoholism. Ill for two years with cancer, he died 10 April 1976 in St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, and was buried in Bunclody.
The premier hurling full forward of his era, and one of the several greatest ever, he was chosen on the hurling team of the century in 1984, to mark the centenary of the GAA. His omission from the team of the millennium, selected in 1999, was controversial. The Nicky Rackard cup was launched by the GAA in 2005 as an annual competition for Division Three teams.
Robert (‘Bobbie’) Rackard (1927–96), hurler, was born 6 January 1927 in Killann, the fifth child and third son of Robert and Anastasia Rackard. He was educated at Rathnure national school and Enniscorthy technical school. Resident all his life in Killann, he worked in the family's farming, shopkeeping, and haulage businesses, which eventually he inherited and expanded. He played inter-county hurling for Wexford for thirteen seasons (1945–57). Initially a centre back, during the 1955 provincial championships he moved to right corner back, switching positions with brother Billy. Tall, raw-boned, and rangy, he lacked great speed, but was deceptively nimble for a man of his size, with terrific reflexes. A non-drinker and non-smoker, he was a fitness fanatic, who as a young man practised bodybuilding exercises to develop remarkable strength in the arms and shoulders. Customarily playing in a trademark peaked cap, he was skilled at cleanly dispossessing opponents with the stick, creating room with powerful shoulder and hip charges, and lashing monstrous clearances upfield with minimal space.
Though less charismatic than Nicky, and playing in less glamorous positions, he is rated by many as Nicky's equal, if not superior, in commanding the skills requisite to his position. Appearing on most of Wexford's successful teams of the 1950s, he won four provincial championships, two all-Ireland medals, one league title, and one oireachtas title. He played on four Leinster sides that lost Railway cup finals, and on the 1956 winning side, and won four county senior club championships with Rathnure. He missed a year's competition (1953–4) recuperating from surgery for a blood clot after suffering a blow to the nose in the 1953 Railway cup final. His performance in the 1954 all-Ireland defeat to Cork is widely regarded as the greatest ever by a defender in a MacCarthy cup final. Moved to full back early in the second half to replace the injured Nick O'Donnell, he continually hurtled back Cork's relentless attacks by winning balls and making long clearances under intense pressure. Two years later, at the final whistle of the thrilling 1956 all-Ireland victory over Cork, Bobbie and Nick O'Donnell famously hoisted Christy Ring shoulder high and carried him off the pitch in tribute.
Bobbie Rackard retired from inter-county hurling in 1957 after suffering a severe ankle injury in a farm accident with a mowing bar, but returned to play club football, appearing at full forward on Rathnure's county club championship side of 1961. Described as ‘the Christy Ring of defenders’ (People, 23 Oct. 1996), he was named at right corner back to the hurling team of the century (1984), sharing with Nicky a unique family double honour. He was the only one of the Rackard brothers named to the team of the millennium (1999). A quiet, modest man, he shared the family love of horses, but preferred the chase to racing, riding with Bree Hounds. He married (1954) Betty Ronan, from New Ross, Co. Wexford; they had three sons and four daughters. He died 19 October 1996 at the Blackrock Clinic, Co. Dublin, from double pulmonary infections incurred after major heart surgery, and was buried in Rathnure.
William (‘Billy’) Rackard (1930–2009), the seventh child and youngest son of Robert and Anastasia Rackard, overcame a sickly childhood and youth (which interrupted his schooling) to play senior inter-county hurling for Wexford (1950–64), lining out successively at wing back, corner back, and centre back. Lacking his brothers’ legendary strength, he relied on speed to beat opponents, and perfected the practice (characteristic of the Wexford teams) of hand catching the dropping ball. Surpassing his brothers in inter-county and inter-provincial honours, he won six Leinster championships, a second league title (1958), and a third all-Ireland medal (1960). He captained the Wexford side that lost the 1962 all-Ireland final (in which he continued playing after suffering a broken hand), and won four Railway cup medals with Leinster (1954, 1956, 1962, 1964). He was named sports star of the year in 1955. After apprenticing as a draper in Enniscorthy, and working in Clery's department store, Dublin, he opened a gentleman's outfitters business in Wexford town in 1952, and later a furniture shop. He wrote an engaging personal and family memoir, No hurling at the dairy door (1996).
The fourth hurling brother, James (‘Jimmy’) Rackard, was regarded in youth as the most highly skilled hurler of the family, but lacked determination and physique. He played centre forward and goal for Rathnure and Wexford at senior level, selected at the former position in the 1951 provincial final, and as a substitute in that year's all-Ireland final.