The big chill of 1947: how Derry and Clare came in from the cold

Some counties didn’t get to play a single football league match in the 1946-47 season

Parnell Park covered with a blanket of snow Picture: Dublin GAA Twitter

Parnell Park covered with a blanket of snow Picture: Dublin GAA Twitter

 

If so minded, the GAA could take some consolation when surveying the fixtures wreckage this weekend by reflecting that at least it isn’t as bad as 1947. One of the outstanding reference points for Arctic weather attacks in Ireland, the winter and spring blizzards of that National Football League season were so severe that the league was effectively abandoned.

It led to an abbreviated competition, which culminated in a novel final between Derry and Clare, giving the Ulster county their first league title.

When one of the major events of the sustained freeze, the worst blizzard in a quarter of a century, broke 71 years ago this week, Pat’O (the pen name of PD Mehigan) wrote in The Irish Times about the ongoing implications for Gaelic games under the headline “Weather is still GAA’s nightmare”.

“The weather continues to be nightmare for GAA Councils. Another heavy programme is laid out for next weekend [1st and 2nd March, 1947] – three Railway Cup semi-finals, three Fitzgibbon games at Cork, some vital League (football) games and college ties at Ennis, Portlaoise, Croke Park and Carlow.”

Of these, just the Fitzgibbon matches were played.

The impact of the long-running extreme cold was that some counties didn’t get to play a single match in the National Football League.

In those years the competition was run on the basis of regional rather than hierarchical divisions – typically (they changed from time to time) Ulster, north midlands, south and west.

As so few fixtures had taken place, the GAA decided to allow the counties leading the four divisions to contest the league semi-finals: Derry, Longford, Wicklow and Clare.

Pádraig Mac Mathúna is a local GAA historian in Clare. He remembers the season quite well. “The weather was so bad. I’ve clear memories of the autumn of 1946 and being out in the meadows in west Clare trying to save the hay. The All-Ireland final that year was postponed by a fortnight.

Poor summer

The delayed Kerry-Roscommon final, which went to replay not completed until the end of October, had been held back to facilitate that year’s “Save the Harvest” drive in the aftermath of a poor summer. Worse was to come.

“I remember the snowfall starting just after Christmas that year,” says Mac Mathúna. “It was followed by a severe frost. Very few games were played in the new year. I looked up the Clare Champion and Clare actually played just one – they beat Galway, which turned out to be enough. The GAA decided that the team with the best points in the four divisions would all go to the semi-finals.”

Played in Ennis and Derry on March 31st, 1947, the semi-finals sent Clare and Derry to the final, which was scheduled for the following week, unusually on Easter Monday.

When Clare won the Munster football championship in 1992, at the media night held in advance of the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, two veterans in attendance attracted attention. PJ O’Dea, still with us in his 90s, was back from Chicago where he was known as “The Man from Clare” and reminding people that he had in 1949 captained the previous Clare team to defeat Kerry in championship.

Another, EJ Carroll, who played in the 1947 final, actually had a Munster medal that his father Eddie had won with the 1917 team, the only other from Clare to win a provincial title.

“Clare were pretty good at that time,” says Mac Mathúna about the 1947 team. “Pretty competitive. They beat Kerry two years later in Munster but lost the final to Cork.”

Bizarre quartet

For Derry the run to that year’s final was more significant. As Eoghan Corry pointed out in Oakboys, his history of Derry football, the simple narrative that the season’s weather had thrown up a bizarre quartet of league semi-finalists was misleading.

“The story is unfair on Derry, who in fact had completed their Lagan Cup [the trophy awarded to winners of the Ulster section of the league] programme at the time and had some notable victories under their belt.”

Most notably, they had beaten then Ulster champions Antrim. Within 10 years the county would have won their first senior provincial championship, beaten Kerry and reached an All-Ireland final against Dublin.

In the 1947 league final, despite trailing at half-time, Derry – inspired by the pace and combination play of their forwards, especially Francie Niblock, Pat Keenan and Larry Higgins, ran out 2-9 to 2-5 winners.

It was the start of the county’s emergence and also featured the first showing of the white jersey with red band, which have remained Derry’s colours. 

According to Pádraig Mac Mathúna, the 1947 league final “is very seldom remembered in Clare”. A clue can perhaps be seen in this newspaper’s brief report on Derry’s win over Longford in the “semi-final of the Substitute National Football League”.

There was no comparable disruption to the National Hurling League, which was held over until the autumn, with the Kilkenny-Limerick final drawn in November and not replayed until March 1948.

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