For some of us, “the Monaghan footballers” are always a matter of intense debate around this time of year, most recently via a family WhatsApp group, still processing a painful defeat in Clones last Sunday. But thanks to an event in that same town 100 years ago today (February 11th), the topic also once featured in spring proceedings at the British House of Commons.
Ronan McGreevy (Irishman's Diary, February 8th) has already explained the political background and consequences of the "Clones Affray", as it became known: a gun battle at Clones railway station on February 11th, 1922, that left four B-Specials and an IRA man dead, exacerbating already strained relations between the new Free State and Northern Ireland.
A lesser but also notable effect of the incident, meanwhile, was the first and only appearance of the phrase “the Monaghan footballers” in Hansard, the UK’s parliamentary record. That occurred on March 22nd, 1922, during committee stage of the Irish Free State Agreement Bill, when the Marquess of Londonderry saw fit to educate fellow peers on one of the events, from the previous January, that had led to the affray.
"It may interest your lordships to know who the Monaghan footballers were, and how it was that they came to be detained in Northern Ireland," he began. "These men were arrested in the New Year at Dromore in County Tyrone while on their way, as they alleged, to take part in a football match in Derry City. "
It so happened, he continued, that also in Derry City then, three IRA men were facing execution on murder charges. The Ulster Special Constabulary (aka B-specials) had been warned there would be a rescue attempt, and when they stopped the team from Monaghan, found them to be carrying "arms and bombs".
As the Marquess added, with delicate sarcasm: “I feel that even the Colonial Secretary, with his usual optimistic nature, will realise that this is not quite the equipment one would expect to be carried by individuals who were proposing to engage in a football match.”
The players were duly arrested, to which the IRA retaliated by kidnapping 60 known unionists from north of the Border as hostages. All involved were released eventually, but not before the flashpoint incident at Clones, which in turn led to a vicious upsurge in anti-nationalist violence in Belfast.
The most heinous of the latter attacks was a bomb thrown among children at Weaver Street on February 13th, which killed four young girls, aged between 11 and 15, along with two adult women. Winston Churchill though it the worst single incident of the Troubles.
As Ronan McGreevy explained, however, the real threat of Civil War in the North then was soon overshadowed by the actual Civil War, the worst of which was confined to the deep South. That Monaghan was relatively quiet in the latter conflict is in part a tribute to the man who was also responsible for the football team incident, Eoin O’Duffy.
Before he became the much-ridiculed founder of the Blueshirts, O'Duffy was a brilliant organiser in both IRA and GAA and had no qualms about mixing the two. The football team he sent to Derry included Dan Hogan – future chief of staff of the Irish Defence Forces – and several of his other most senior men. In what was either stupidity or, more likely, arrogance, some were even in uniform.
But O’Duffy’s influence also ensured that during and after the Civil War, most of Monaghan supported the Treaty. Greeting the results of the of 1925 local elections, the then unionist Northern Standard was able to congratulate the county on rejecting the “wild men” (I don’t know if my namesake grandfather was a wild man, but he had returned from the Wild West – Montana – to be a one-term anti-Treaty councillor, losing his seat in 1925, before helping found Fianna Fáil).
This was reflected in the county GAA team too. As well as being military officer material, the Tipperary-born Hogan was a good football player, like his brother Michael, killed in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday and now immortalised by the stand. It was partly thanks to such O’Duffy-organised imports, and suspiciously high numbers of Free State Army officers, that Monaghan were quite successful in those years, winning five Ulster titles and reaching the All-Ireland Final for the first time.
Alas, the association with O’Duffy had a downside too, most notably in that 1930 final. In a game of great violence, Monaghan were hammered on both pitch and scoreboard by Kerry. The Kerry team was considered predominantly republican, while Monaghan was seen as the pro-Treaty side. As one commentator summed up the match, it was “the last battle of the Civil War”.