Saving Sam Maguire's homestead


During the summer months when the All-Ireland GAA Football Championship is in full swing, the name Sam Maguire is on everyone's lips, yet his life's work is barely acknowledged and his birthplace has been allowed to fall into ruin, writes Sorcha Crowley

On a warm Sunday afternoon last September, more than 70,000 fans converged on Croke Park in what was the single largest sporting event in the world that day. In homes, pubs and clubs around the country and across the globe, millions tuned in to watch the All-Ireland Football Final with one question on their lips: who will take the Sam Maguire Cup home? Since 1928, "Sam", as the cup is popularly known, has been the Holy Grail of GAA football supporters as they pursue their dream of their county becoming All-Ireland championships. Players don't become All-Ireland champions until they've lifted the Sam Maguire, the ultimate symbol of victory and glory in modern Irish sport.

And yet tomorrow in the west Cork town of Dunmanway, there will be no special ceremony to mark the 76 years since the death of Sam Maguire, or the 100th year since he captained London Hibernians in their third All-Ireland final. Although, one of the best-known names in Irish sporting circles, even among GAA supporters little is known about the man himself.

Born in Dunmanway in 1879, Sam was one of seven children of a Protestant west Cork family. In 1897 he moved to London where he began work in the post office. He joined London Hibernians football club and went on to captain the team in three All-Ireland finals: 1900, 1901 and 1903, but were defeated on all three occasions by home teams. He was president of the London County Board in 1907 and 1911, a regular delegate to the annual congress of the GAA and finally a trustee of Croke Park.

Maguire became a tremendous force on and off the pitch among the Irish immigrant community. His job in the post office - a hotbed of Irish republican activism - provided ample opportunities for intelligence gathering. In 1909 he was responsible for a very significant event in Irish history, the swearing in of a young post office worker from Clonakilty into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), one Michael Collins.

Collins and Maguire were close friends and Sam became one of his chief intelligence officers, rising to the rank of lieutenant-general of the IRB and becoming overall director of intelligence in Britain. Maguire regularly intercepted official state documents on British military and political intentions in Ireland, often taking the boat across to Dublin at weekends with intelligence that was too important to commit to paper.

Throughout his time in London he spared no effort in recruiting emigrants, picking out Irish people working in the post office, swearing them into the IRB and setting them to work.

As the main agent in London for Michael Collins's intelligence network, Maguire was also involved in arms smuggling to Ireland, for which he was eventually arrested and jailed. On his release, Maguire returned to Ireland and got a job in the newly established Irish Civil Service. Failing health and disenchantment led him home to Mallabraca in Dunmanway where he died of TB in relative obscurity on February 6th, 1927, at the age of 48.

A year after his death, a group of his friends raised funds for a permanent commemoration of his name and the Sam Maguire Cup was born. Since then, the Cup goes from strength to strength, but the man behind it has been somewhat forgotten and his memory neglected.

Sam Maguire's old homestead now lies in ruins in Dunmanway. Only a shell of the ivy-clad stone house remains. A boulder has been taken from the front yard of the house and placed near the entrance of the laneway with a plaque announcing the birthplace of Sam Maguire. It is now owned by Pat Spillane, a local teacher, who calls its neglect by the GAA and various organisations a "national scandal. After all, going to the place where Sam was born and reared is the most significant thing of all. It's a national issue really."

The Department of Sport and Tourism says it has nothing to do with them, while the Department of the Environment says it issues funding through Duchas to each County Council and it is up to them how they see fit to spend it.

So who then is responsible for the restoration and preservation of the Sam Maguire heritage?

Unlike Liam MacCarthy, after whom the hurling championship cup is named, Maguire has no known relative alive to honour him. "My ideal would be to have the old homestead restored," says Spillane. "Micheal Collins has his homeplace done up. Maguire was a figure of the same calibre as Collins. It's a pity to see something of that significance lying in ruins."

Spillane reckons that what remains of the house will be gone in a few years if nothing is done about it soon. He has hopes to build summer cottages around the ruins, restore them to their former glory and build a visitor centre "suitable for school trips and tourists alike", but it all depends on funding. Spillane says his requests to the GAA over the years have met with little success.

Dunmanway native, Charlie Crowley, submitted video footage of the ruins to GAA secretary general Liam Mulvihill in 1999 with a request for action. The written reply he got spoke volumes about the GAA's lack of enthusiasm on the matter: "Unfortunately our members haven't shown any interest in retaining properties associated with our founders," replied Mulvihill, who said that he didn't watch the footage himself. "I got a member of staff to view it for me," he said.

In the town of Dunmanway, the local GAA team is called the Sam Maguires and their pitch too is named after him.

Last September, Cork County Council refurbished Dunmanway town square and unveiled a statue of Sam Maguire at a cost of €25,000. However, the council's role remains a reactive one. Jerome Sullivan of the Council says it was actually a group of schoolchildren who approached them about building a commemorative statue to their local hero.

When asked by The Irish Times if the council was going to do something about the ruins of Sam Maguire's birthplace, Sullivan said it has "no brief on it. It's not in our plans, no. It would take some initiative by a local committee." One by local schoolchildren, perhaps?

Declan Hurley is a member of the local Sam Maguire Commemorative Committee. It has hopes to build a Sam Maguire interpretative centre in Dunmanway, but again, the plans don't include the renovation of the homestead.

"Because it's on private land, we can't just go in and take over, but since the unveiling of the statue, Sam has become more of a priority. People passing through are starting to ask questions about his birthplace. When people come to see it they expect to see something, not just some ruins. The GAA will only get involved if they see something down on paper that guarantees success."

This week the GAA was unavailable for comment on the issue. In the GAA museum at Croke Park, the only mention of Sam Maguire is in a brief paragraph underneath the original cup which was replaced by a replica in 1988. Hardly a fitting tribute to the man who gave his life to the growth of GAA in London.

Peadar Kearney, composer of the national anthem Amhran na bhFiann, wrote of Maguire: "Your kindly generous smile / Gave strength to all / Who grasped your hand / In that great brotherhood / Waiting throughout the years for Eire's call."

Sam Maguire didn't hesitate to answer that call. Perhaps it's time for the GAA or the State to mark his contribution to Irish sporting and political life by restoring his old homestead.