Dick Fitzgerald – one of the architects of modern Gaelic football

One hundred years ago this month the famous Kerryman launched ‘How To Play Gaelic Football’ – the first GAA coaching manual

In mid-April 1943, PD Mehigan writing as Pat ’O, this newspaper’s first GAA correspondent, conducted a whistle-stop survey of the evolution of Gaelic football. With authoritative understatement he mentioned in passing that his “intimate association with the game covers a good half-century”, meaning that he could judge trends starting just a few years after the first All-Irelands.

“Wrestling and tripping were allowed in the early years. Even when these were prohibited the game was of a rough-and-tumble variety. Groups of powerful men rushed up field and swept the ball at their feet. Their opponents clustered round to halt them and counter- charge marked the exciting struggle.

“Next came Young Irelands of Dublin who introduced into the game the art of safe catching and long, accurate kicking. Their new methods were a revelation and won four titles before provincial sides adopted the new vogue.

"Kerry's stalwart teams of the early century brought the 'catch and kick' game to a fine art and Dick Fitzgerald led a lot of forwards who shot points with rare accuracy."


It was Tony O'Keeffe, currently chair of the GAA's CCCC and then Kerry county secretary, who made the point that the county was usually there for the big occasions. This was 14 years ago and he was talking about the county's likely participation in the millennium All-Ireland final.

Kerry pop up

This was true: Kerry pop up all over the place in football history: GAA Centenary, 75th anniversary, opening of the old Cusack Stand, first 15-a-side All-Ireland and even within the strands of 37 championship wins there are other symmetries.

In 1990 Cork were the first county to mark the centenary of an All-Ireland win with another. This has been achieved on only three other occasions so far, by Kerry in 2004, 2009 and this year.

Arguably though, this year marks a more important centenary. It was 100 years ago this month that the above mentioned Dick Fitzgerald launched How To Play Gaelic Football, the first GAA coaching manual.

It marks the beginning of modern football not because previous analyses of the game were crude but because the game that Fitzgerald analysed was football with the outside posts removed, a goal worth three points and 15 players on each side, a reduction introduced the previous year in 1913. Yet that’s only a glimpse of what Fitzgerald achieved within the GAA during its most turbulent years before his sad and premature demise in 1930.

The book is still fascinating with its breakdown of the duties of various positions as well as illustrative photographs. It also includes his thoughts on the applicability of his insights to hurling and an early advocacy of the 13-man game with the centre back and centre forward positioned as the sole players at the heart of the defence.

Dick Fitzgerald: King in a Kingdom of Kings by Tom Looney is the most comprehensive account of his life and includes the full text of How to Play Gaelic Football, published in 2008. There are sill copies available on Amazon.

Such was Fitzgerald’s standing in the wider community and within the Kerry GAA that the stadium in Killarney was named after him, a project specifically to honour his memory taken in hand just after his death by his lifelong friend Jer O’Leary and Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, the legendary Kerry trainer.

The above remarks by Pat’O reinforce the technical virtuosity of Fitzgerald and the Kerry forwards in the county’s first five All-Irelands, most famously the “screw kick” that enabled him to kick points from out in the corner, a feat he could repeat in coaching demonstrations.

Other projects in which Fitzgerald involved himself included fund-raising for the Parnell Monument in Dublin, the Croke Cup, which helped finance the acquisition of Croke Park, membership of the GAA's Central Council and refereeing.

Frongoch camp in Wales

Yet the GAA was only part of an expression of commitment to the national identity and community development. As a volunteer in the 1916 Rising, he was interned in the Frongoch camp in Wales. There he helped organise football tournaments amongst the internees, as detailed in

Frongoch – University of Revolution

by Seán O’Mahony. Fitzgerald was heavily involved in the struggle for independence.

On his release from Frongoch, he was elected a member of the Killarney UDC.

Margaret O’Leary, daughter of Jer, says that Fitzgerald was also interested in the wider social picture. In O’Mahony’s book he is quoted as expressing his admiration for the Irish Citizen Army – “men for whom I have a great regard” – who would have been among the most politically radical of the internees.

He died after a fall from the roof of the courthouse in Killarney on September 25th, 1930, ironically the weekend of the All-Ireland final in which Kerry faced Monaghan. His later years had been troubled by the death of his young wife shortly after their marriage and a descent into problem drinking.

Prof David Hassan of the University of Ulster Jordanstown in his paper delivered to last year's Sports History Ireland conference, Dick Fitzgerald – Sporting and Political Revolutionary, summarises well the impact of the publication and why a century later it still carries both resonance and relevance.

E-mail: smoran@irishtimes.com