The Gaelic footballers and fans who refused to fight in the Great War

As the summer football season heats up, let’s take a trip back to 1914 for the 27th All-Ireland Final

December 5th, 1914Opens in new window ]

As the summer football season heats up, let’s take a trip back to 1914 for the 27th All-Ireland Final on November 28th, a replay. Thirteen thousand attended the initial final between Kerry and Wexford (1-3 to 2-0) on November 1st, but a further 7,000 would pack Croke Park four weeks later. The day of the replay was windy, something that played a pivotal role in the match. All of Wexford’s six points were scored with the breeze at their backs in the first half. All of Kerry’s 2-3 were scored in the second half.

One piece of analysis was printed on December 5th, a week later. “Thousands of the strongest and most active of the young men of Ireland were to be seen in Dublin on Sunday,” the article began. “They came from every part of Ireland. There were special trains from Belturbet, in the North; from Galway and Sligo, in the West; from Cork, Cahirciveen, and Dingle, in the South; and from Waterford, Wexford, Enniscorthy, New Ross, and Shillelagh in the East.”

The trains pointing themselves towards Dublin were packed with young men, many of whom “were accompanied by their sisters and their sweethearts. The cramping and discomforts of a three to a six hours’ train journey, in a stifling and vitiated atmosphere, was borne with the greatest of goodwill and forbearance. There was no complaining; jokes were cracked; humorous, patriotic, and sentimental songs were sung; and there was every sort of music, from bands and violins down to the tin whistle and mouth organ.”

Dublin was buzzing, “Restaurants did a good trade, and so did the public houses in certain districts. But there was practically no drunkenness, disorderly conduct, or horseplay on the streets.”


The article depicting such a fun atmosphere then took a rather dark turn, “As I watched the game, noted the keen zest of the players, their fine stamina, and their capable, manly bearing, and listened to such casual remarks as reached my ears in the din of enthusiastic and wholehearted excitement, I could not help wondering what it was which kept these young men from joining their brothers in maintaining and enhancing the honour of Ireland in the trenches of North France and Belgium.”

‘Enthusiasm and patriotism’

At least 10,000 of the spectators, the writer mused, had “no serious home ties” (they were at a match after all), nor, given their zealous support were they “the class of men who would run away from danger”. On the contrary, these looked like chaps who would get stuck in. “Were their enthusiasm and patriotism sufficiently aroused there is nothing would delighted them more than a ‘scrap’ with the enemy,” the journalist fantasised. “They would throw them less wholeheartedly into such a fight,” the bloodlust daydream continued, “just as the Munster Fusiliers did at Mons, and as the Royal Irish Rifles did at Soissons and elsewhere, and as the Connaught Rangers did at Ypres and in other engagements.”

Particular criticism was doled out to those who would not fight in the Great War. “The hundred or so young men who scampered from the West of Ireland on the first hint of conscription are not representative of Ireland. They were cowards, skulkers, and shirkers, and the Irish nation, irrespective of creed or politics, is heartily ashamed of them, and regards them as a discredit to the Irish race.”

Disdain was also reserved for the sight of Irish nationalists who came to Croke Park to collect change from the GAA fans, “the young men who jingled tin boxes round the football gates on Sunday begging for money ‘to buy a gun’ are not representative of the true spirit of Irishmen, and more particularly of Young Ireland.”

As it happened, the referee that day was Harry Boland. A year and a half later, he was fighting in the Easter Rising. A year and a half after that, he was elected as an MP, refused to take his seat at Westminster, but sat instead in the first Dáil. Less than four years after that was dead at 35, killed in the Civil War in 1922 – during which he sided with the Anti-Treaty IRA – shot, unarmed, by an Irish Free State Army soldier at the Skerries Grand Hotel. in new window ]