The wind that shook the Farney
An Irishman’s Diary about sport and the Civil War
The Kerry All-Ireland winning team of 1929, with all the cups Kerry won that year. From Forging a Kingdom – The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934, by Richard McElligott, published by The Collins Press
RTÉ man David Davin-Power has asked me to mention an upcoming conference about the Civil War. It takes place in Athlone next month and may be a first, he suggests, in that it will consider the effect of the conflict on a particular region: in this case the Midlands, where family allegiances formed during the period are still a big factor in politics today.
I’ll come back to details of that event in a moment. But as it happens, the Civil War has been on my mind for another reason this week, because among the windfall of autumn books that have fluttered into my mail-box lately is one called Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934.
Written by UCD academic Richard McElligott, it traces the first 50 years of Kerry GAA as the formative period that established the county’s national dominance, at least in football. And of course the decade after 1916 was pivotal to this development.
The commitment of Kerry players in those difficult times is testified by the story of John Joe Sheehy’s appearance in the 1924 Munster final. Sheehy would have been an automatic starter at corner forward. But there was a slight problem on this occasion in that, as a prominent anti-treaty militant, he was still on the run.
Naturally, however, football took precedence. On the day in question, he entered the Limerick venue as a spectator and, before throw-in, emerged from the crowd, togged out, to take his place. It’s almost needless to add that Kerry won, after which Sheehy’s warm-down routine was to disappear back into the crowd and resume his fugitive status.
A year earlier, the same man had been among the first arrivals at Ballyseedy after eight of his colleagues were massacred in the single most notorious incident of the war. So not the least impressive thing about the Limerick appearance was that it was facilitated by his team captain, Con Brosnan, a Free State Army officer who arranged safe passage.
But the part of McElligott’s book that most fascinates me, for personal reasons, concerns a game six years later: the All-Ireland Final of 1930 (by which time, incidentally, the now off-the-run Sheehy had become Kerry captain).
This was the first and still, sad to say, only senior (men’s) All-Ireland final involving my own county, Monaghan. And although there can’t be many supporters left alive who witnessed it, the trauma has since passed into folk memory, where it continues to be painful.
Whatever divisions lingered within Kerry football after 1923 had clearly resolved themselves by then. A uniting factor may have been the death, on the eve of the match, of Dick Fitzgerald: a giant of Kerry GAA. Indeed, his bereaved county men at first wanted the final called off, and when it went ahead anyway, they probably needed no extra motivation.
But, as the book suggests, they had some. Kerry were also by then perceived to be a predominantly republican outfit. The Monaghan team, by contrast, “contained several officers in the Free State Army”. The northerners may also have been tainted by association with Gen Eoin O’Duffy, then Garda commissioner and future Blueshirt.
Either way, Mc Elligott writes, “the match would enter GAA folklore as the last battle of the Civil War”. The result on the scoreboard was bad enough – an 18-point win for Kerry: 3-11 to 0-2. But the beating handed out by Sheehy and his men was not limited to goals and points.
Afterwards, Monaghan lodged an official complaint, both about Kerry’s “brutality” and the apparent bias of the referee, who was said to have waved play on at one stage when the losing team had three players down injured. At a central council meeting, the Ulster team’s representative likened the match to a “Spanish bull-fight”.
To this day, a vague but collective memory in Monaghan has it that, during the second half, an unnamed substitute refused to play when asked, having become a conscientious objector. Despite which, the complaint was thrown out.
That Kingdom side went on to complete a four-in-a-row, although there was some retrospective corroboration of the complaints against them when, before the 1932 final against Mayo, the referee was moved to enter the Kerry dressing room beforehand and harangue them about their persistent “blackguarding” (McElligott’s word) of opposition players.
Monaghan, as I say, have not been back in a senior final since. Maybe this is one potential area of closure that should be discussed at the aforementioned Civil War conference in Athlone. In any case, the day-long event will take place on November 23rd at Custume Barracks. Booking and other details from midlandconference@