Gilded Kingdom – the secret of Kerry football

'Kerry people feel they have to be on stage; and football is that stage for a lot of people in Kerry.'

Phil O'Sullivan is one of 33 Kerry men to have lifted the Sam Maguire so far. Through the phantasmagorical collage of the Kerry football tradition, there is something immediate and haunting about the extremes of fortune experienced by the Tuosist man.

He stood feted by a record crowd in Croke Park for that 1924 final – the game itself was played in April 1925. Two years later, he was touring New York with the footballers when he clapped eyes on a Tipperary girl, Kathleen O’Mahony, who had been brought to America after being orphaned. She was giving a piano recital at a function for the Kerry team on the evening that they met. O’Sullivan was a good singer and was persuaded to join her on stage. That was that.

By all accounts they were the epitome of glamour. The couple were married and remained in the metropolis and eventually became subsumed in the vastness of its promise and disappointments. O’Sullivan died too young and in reduced circumstances in a New York hospital in 1957 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

His niece, Annie Hegarty, was aged 90 when she told Weeshie Fogarty, who visited her in her home in Cloyne in 2010, that nobody had been present at his funeral. He was that alone by the end of his life.

It turned out that O’Sullivan was gone but not forgotten: years later, people from Tuosist located his grave and had a headstone erected at Calvary cemetery. The local GAA park has since been named after him.

“One of the most amazing, most sad, most beautiful, one of the most romantic stories that I have ever heard in relation to any Kerry captain,” Fogarty would say later.

Weeshie was, in his own crowded life, many things: an athlete and footballer, a raconteur, a referee, the mischievous and sonorous voice of Kerry match broadcasts and, when one considers the wealth of his radio archive, also a gifted social historian.

In a county filled with Kerry football devotees, he belonged to the first rank and stumbled across Phil O’Sullivan’s lonely postscript researching what he understood was to be a completely elusive subject: the secret of Kerry football.

Fogarty was grappling with what it was that made his wild county of breathtaking physical extremes so bewitched by Gaelic football. He quizzed everyone, from the philosopher John Moriarty, to player and trainer Jackie Lyne, who once offered him this clear-eyed perspective: "With those bastards of mountains in front of us and those hoors of lakes behind us, sure there is nothing to do but play football."

Disparate places

The rest of the country takes Kerry football for granted: grousing about their cuteness, marvelling at their capacity for reinvention on the field and trusting that they will always be there, if not one September then the next, in the green and gold, bursting with self-assurance.

But there was nothing inevitable about Kerry’s ascension or assumption of this role. It wasn’t as if Kerry people were inherently good at Gaelic football when the game was formalised in 1884.

“The Kerry history is like any history or tradition,” says the lecturer and author Richard McElligott. “It was made up. It was invented.”

When McElligott was launching his book, Forging the Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934, a terrific account of the formative decades of football in the county, he asked Jimmy Deenihan, the politician and former Kerry captain, to speak at the function. They are from the same neck of the woods in Kerry.

They were talking together informally together and Deenihan made an observation that has stayed in McElligott’s mind ever since.

“He said to me: ‘when you think about it, Kerry is not a homogeneous county. North Kerry is so different from south and west Kerry. The physical and cultural landscape. The people. Then you throw in Tralee, which has its own thing. Killarney has its own thing. I am from an area in north Kerry which is all hurling. But the football and the jersey seems to bind what are very disparate places together. Maybe is there because it has to there to give the county a sense of a united identity.”

McElligott's book lays out the forensic organisation and iron mindset of a few key figures behind the establishment of Kerry as the perpetual football county. It involved the orchestrated suppression of rugby, which had been the game of choice; the fire behind men like JP O'Sullivan, Austin Stack and Maurice Moynihan; and, crucially, the serendipitous drama of the 1903 final, which Kerry won after two replays against Kildare.

“All of these outside factors were converging then,” McElligott says. “There was an explosion of GAA coverage in newspapers, photography and action shots. The GAA was looking at England even then and seeing the success of the FA Cup with its huge crowds and Villa and Sheffield United and how the game was celebrated.

“The GAA wanted to emulate that. The Kerry players were recognisable because of their photographs. And then those games were epic. Those finals were the coming of age of the GAA. I think there was a parallel between what happened with soccer during Italia ’90 and Gaelic football in 1903. It burst on the public consciousness then that there was a national game here that could become a great sport and give brilliant occasions in its own right. Both teams had training camps even then. It just so happened that Kerry won that final. And it was then, I think, that the Kerry tradition was forged.”

Footballl brilliance

McElligott’s first big Kerry day out was a fateful one. His father brought him to the Munster final in 1992, when they were supposed to beat John Maughan’s Clare.

“I can still see the looks of disgust on my father and uncle’s face. This was when it was still perfectly acceptable to stop into every pub on the way home. I remember we stopped off to watch the Sunday game and we took the coast road home and I remember looking across the Shannon and seeing the bonfires. And I remember thinking: I don’t understand what Dad is saying about Kerry football. It was only when we won in 1997 that I saw the full meaning of it. It was like ... Carnaval, or something. That was the moment that I understood how serious it was. It was madness.”

It is easy to understand the confusion for any Kerry child born into a county already saturated in Gaelic football references and iconography and, of course, real flesh and blood heroes walking about the town and in the fields. They all have to make sense of this inheritance.

Dara Ó Cinnéide was born in 1975 and has fragmented memories of Kerry’s All-Ireland wins of 1979 and 1980. He was of a generation who came into the world when the county was intoxicated on its football brilliance and in a time when stories and photographs of Con Brosnan’s crowd were competing with Blondie and Adam and the Ants for head space. In recent years, he has often found himself talking with friends, including Kerry team-mates about this why it matters so much to them all.

"It's strange: five year ago when Kerry had their victory banquet and Eamonn Fitzmaurice was asked to say a few words and what he actually did was quote verbatim Garry McMahon's poem Duchas- 'you say tradition counts for naught when two teams take the field'… Yeah, it romanticises the thing in a way and it would be arrogant of us in Kerry to say it matters more. I always say to people that Tinryland in Carlow was the most intense relationship with the GAA that I have encountered.

“But it does go back to that early success and, definitely, to the Civil War. We all knew about that as kids. Now, you can talk to a lot of my peers and you’d swear that Kerry football started with the Golden Years video. But for me, everything stems from that Civil war time. You can do a Grá Mo Chroí on it but it’s not that.

"When Páidí took over, he spoke about the spirituality in Kerry football. Those stories and yarns were really important to him. It is that unbelievable story of Con Brosnan allowing John Joe Sheehy to play in the Market fields, to run out of the crowd, tog out, play and go back into the crowd again when he was one of the most wanted me by the Free State army. If it is bigger than that, it is surely something."

Fr Anthony Gaughan has his ticket for Croke Park on Sunday. He is 87-years-old and has seen countless Kerry games and played on the All-Ireland minor winning side of 1950. He's fascinating in talking about the on-field magic and his three favourite players: Maurice Fitzgerald, Mick O'Connell – "whom I met in Cahirciveen just a few days ago. He was like a ballet dancer when he went up for the ball. The way his whole body was aligned was superb" – and Eddie Dowling.

But he speaks for longest about Dowling from Ballylongford who, through a series of injuries and misfortunes missed out on ever receiving an All-Ireland medal. One of his most significant injuries occurred in the Polo Grounds in 1947.

"The Gunner Brady upended him when he went up for a high ball and he came down head first and hit the surface. It wasn't the real ground. He was unconscious for about 10 days."

Huge hands

Before he became a seminarian, Gaughan came up against Dowling at midfield several times in the north Kerry league.

“He had these huge hands. It was about three times the normal hands.”

It was common practice at the time for competing midfielders to join hands for the throw in.

“I remember he caught my hand and squeezed it so hard that I could hardly used it afterwards,” he laughs. “Talk about a psychological wound.”

It is this sense of totemic figures brushing against one another that connects Kerry football’s past with its now. Fr Gaughan used to say Mass for Kerry teams on the night before finals in Dublin for about 12 years until about five years ago.

“I always told them that I have done a lot of interesting things in my life but the thing I treasure above all is that I have had the privilege of wearing the Kerry jersey. It is a fact, I suppose.”

Once or twice, he locked the back door of the hotel room they using as a chapel because Páidí Ó Sé was late, forcing the manager to make a sheepish entrance through the front door. “I was hugely fond of him, he laughs.”

Another time, he began saying Mass only to be confronted with the Kerry squad seized by a fit of giggles.

“Like school children. They couldn’t stop. So I said right, from this time on we are standing right through the whole of the Mass. They were usually a bit nervous and subdued before finals.”

The maddest statistic about Kerry is not that they’ve won 37 All-Ireland finals,it’s that they’ve lost a further 22. This weekend will be the 60th time that Kerry – team, followers, ghost of the ghost train, gripes and superstitions – will make the journey up to Dublin.

Ó Cinnéide remembers his father arriving back from an All-Ireland final one year with a sod from the pitch. His father told him that Mikey Sheehy had kicked a free and that a bit of scraw had landed where he sat.

“And it was up on the top of our press for about 15 years. I was a grown man and it was still there. He had this yarn which obviously wasn’t true but it took me years to figure it out. Obviously, he went out onto the field. Now, it would be a bit pat to say – ‘oh, this inspired you to play for Kerry’ when you saw this sod. You don’t. You aspire to win your next game with your under-12 team. But you do get the sense of everything that has come before you and a sense that – this is important.”

In 2004,when Ó Cinnéide lifted the Sam Maguire, he made his speech in his lilting native tongue. Not long afterwards, he received a letter from John Moriarty. The Kerry native was by then a druidic figure: a brilliant mind and visionary who had walked away from academia to commune with the landscape and earth and to feel the wildness within his birth county. He was a mystic and lived beyond the usual confinements. But he was as loopy about the football team as the rest of them.

On stage

In the letter to Ó Cinnéide , he rhapsodised about the first goal Colm Cooper scored against Mayo.

“He couldn’t get over the thought process that Gooch had. There was a sixth sense at work here, or so he thought. It was a beautiful letter.”

There's a clip online of Moriarty holding court with Tommy Tiernan where he's talking about cultivating the physical wildness of the surroundings around Mangerton mountain.

“I don’t just think about those mountains and those hills. I think with them. You can sense it sitting among them and you are thinking with them and dreaming with them and I don’t think it’s fantasy. You are in some kind of dream time with them. So in that sense place is hugely important to me.”

In a more romantic way, he was saying the exact same thing as Jackie Lyne.

“Yeah, there is a connection between the landscape and the people in Kerry and personalities,” says Ó Cinnéide.

"John B Keane would have had this and Gabriel Fitzmaurice, the poet, would have had it in his writing. Kerry people feel they have to be on stage; no matter what they are saying to you, they are on stage. And football is that stage for a lot of people in Kerry."

A few years ago, Ó Cinnéide sat in a kitchen in Chicago doing hours and hours of recordings with John Hunt, the Limerick man who died earlier this year aged 98. He kept hitting his guest with one-liners that almost made him fall out of his chair.

"Purty Landers saved my life," he announced and then told the story of how the Kerry man had pulled him from the fire on the night they burned down the Curragh when they were interned. John Joe Landers grew up on Rock Street and won five All-Ireland medals with Kerry, including the four-in-a-row team from 1929-32.

Hunt had lived in America for 70 years but even as a young man, he was already aware of the potency and separateness of Kerry football. The dream factory was up and running well before the Irish State.

“This idea of: was there something special about Kerry and football,” Richard McElligott says. “Was there something in the water?”

All of this will be running through Kerry veins on this, an All-Ireland weekend which will sharply challenge many of the old convictions and certainties and that fabulous past. The fatalistic story of how Gaelic football’s first five-in-a-row was lost, with Séamus Darby popping up as a kind of poltergeist in their dreams, has become part of the folklore. Now, the reverse scenario presents itself: only a Kerry team can stop Dublin from claiming this piece of history.

It’s a perilous hour. Rarely have they left the Kingdom as such stark outsiders for an All-Ireland final. Rarely have they needed so many stars to align in order to win.

“Constantly, Kerry come back,” warns McElligott.

Of course, it is what happens on the field that matters. It has always been about the next game for Kerry: the flint of winning. But it’s no small comfort to their supporters and to Sunday’s team to have this vital life-force behind them: to have the Kerry myths and their grand parade of All-Ireland winners – including Phil O’Sullivan, in his hospital bed – at their backs.

If it is bigger than that, it is surely something.

Dara Ó Cinneide will be present at an All-Ireland programme live in Pipers Corner on Marlborough Street on Saturday at 6.30 pm. All welcome.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times