‘Champions of the World’: Unbeaten Kerry’s first golden years

The Kingdom’s incredible winning streak over 90 years ago was all the more remarkable given the political tensions with the squad, writes Richard McElligott.

The Kerry team of 1929 who won the National League and All-Ireland titles in the same year.
The Kerry team of 1929 who won the National League and All-Ireland titles in the same year.

”FEARLESS and dashing, their footballers are almost invincible” — such words would serve as a worthy epitaph for Jim Gavin’s Dublin as they travel to Tralee looking to record 34 straight games without defeat in League and Championship football.

However those sentiments, expressed in the Irish Independent in September 1932, actually relate to the Kerry side whose historic record Dublin now seek to emulate.

On September 25, 1932, Kerry secured a fourth All-Ireland win in a row over Mayo. It was the zenith of one of the most unprecedented eras of dominance in the history of Irish sport. In its aftermath, The Daily Express lamented that the “superiority of Kerry as a football power is now a serious problem for Gaelic administrators”.

From their two-goal victory over Waterford at the beginning of the 1928/29 National League on October 14, 1928, through to their defeat at the hands of the eventual 1932/33 League champions Meath on March 19, 1933, Kerry went unbeaten in 34 League and Championship games. Their winning run could have been even greater but for the fact no League was held in 1930/31. In all, between 1924 and 1933, this Kerry side secured six All-Irelands, 10 Munster championships and four National Leagues. In addition, an all-Kerry 15 captured two Railway Cups for Munster in 1927 and 1931. Kerry also conducted three hugely successful tours of America in 1927, 1931 and 1933, playing to tens of thousands in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago.

A contemporary article entitled The Future of Gaelic Games argued that Kerry’s dominance was such that the Munster championship no longer offered them any meaningful competition and now called for an open draw to replace the provincial structure of the All-Ireland.

Kerry’s success was all the more remarkable considering the political context in which this team appeared.

Nowhere had the Civil War been more bitterly fought than in Kerry, and the county team which emerged in its aftermath featured prominent figures from both sides.

Their star forward, John Joe Sheehy, was a leading figure in the Kerry IRA. He had been on the run and hiding near Ballyseedy Wood outside Tralee on the day of the massacre of nine Republican prisoners by Free State forces. Investigating the scene, Sheehy found the lone survivor, Stephen Fuller, hiding in a ditch and rescued him.

Despite witnessing the atrocities which were carried out on his colleagues, Sheehy was still prepared to share a dressing room with prominent local Free State officers such as Con Brosnan.

This was worthy testament to the crucial role the GAA played in trying to heal the deep wounds inflicted by the conflict in Kerry.

Brosnan himself did all in his power to reach out to his Republican teammates. In the run up to the 1924 Munster Final in Limerick, Sheehy was still on the run from the Government. Brosnan arranged safe passage for Sheehy to enter the ground as a spectator. Just before throw in, he emerged from the crowd in his jersey and boots and took his place in the forward line. Once the match was won Sheehy disappeared into the throng of spectators on the pitch and was smuggled out of the city.

Joe Barrett was another prominent republican player who sought to reach across the political divide. In 1930, he was nominated as Kerry’s captain but turned the captaincy over to his ideological rival Brosnan. Though he came under intense pressure from IRA elements within the Kerry GAA, Barrett held firm to his decision before resuming the captaincy in 1932.

THAT is not to claim that football alone could have eradicated the acrimonious rift prevalent in the Kerry team.

John Joe (Purty) Landers described the political friction between the two factions as “most uncomfortable”. He also recalled how those who supported the Free State often came to games already togged out to avoid sharing the dressing room. Another player, Tim O’Donnell, spoke about the deep tensions inherent in the group though he insisted this disappeared once the team stepped onto the pitch. Yet the semantics of Brosnan and Barrett’s gestures would prove highly symbolic for a county reeling from the effects of the Civil War.

The success achieved by a group willing to put aside their political divisions for a unified purpose, became a powerful emblem of unity for a nation racked with bitter division. Kerry’s rise to dominance also came during a time of extraordinary growth for the GAA. The last years of the 1920s saw it cement its place as the largest sporting body on the island. Nearly 500 new clubs affiliated between 1924 and 1929 and Kerry’s defeat of Kildare in that year’s All-Ireland final was the first sporting event in Irish history to officially break the 40,000 attendance mark.

The growing popularity of Gaelic games was also facilitated by the introduction of a range of national competitions and Kerry’s status was reinforced by their success in each. In 1925, the GAA established the National Leagues. In its inaugural year the competition had been a failure, characterised by poor attendances. However, it was resurrected in 1927 and in April 1928 Kerry won their first title, beating Kildare in the final.

The interest in the game, and the match provided by these great rivals, ensured that all doubts about the future of the competition were dispelled.

In December 1929, Kerry retained their League title, again defeating Kildare in what was regarded as one of the greatest games of the era. Kerry continued its domination of the League, winning the next two titles against Cavan and Cork.

Another important development was the inauguration of a new inter-provincial competition which would be held annually on St Patrick’s Day.

The Great Southern Railways Company donated two large trophies for the inaugural competitions in 1926. Thus the Railway Cup was born and Kerry’s distinction of singlehandedly winning the competition twice was another forceful reminder of their supremacy. At an official reception to honour their return from their American tour in 1931, the GAA’s president, Sean Ryan, declared they had “won every honour in football conceivable and might be termed champions of the world”. Yet Kerry’s dominance could not last and, in August 1933, they fell to Cavan in the All-Ireland semi-final.

It had been more than five years since their last defeat in Championship football.

The Anglo-Celt declared the result: “An event of international importance.”

Eighty-four years on, their successors in the Green and Gold will hope to preserve that proud record from an all-conquering Dublin side.

  • Dr Richard McElligott lectures in modern Irish history in UCD and is the author of Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry, 1884-1934. (2013).

Record markers: Kerry’s unbeaten run

1928-29 NFL

October 14, 1928:

Kerry 2-3 Waterford 0-3, Tralee.

November 11, 1928:

Kerry 3-6 Tipperary 1-4, Thurles.

November 18, 1928:

Kerry 4-8 Limerick 2-5, Tralee.

March 10, 1929:

Kerry 5-6 Clare 2-4, Listowel.

April 21, 1929:

Kerry 3-7 Cork 2-4, Cork.

1929 Championship

May 26:

Kerry 1-7 Cork 1-3, Cork.

July 14: Munster final:

Kerry 1-14 Clare 1-2, Killarney.

August 18: All-Ireland semi-final:

Kerry 3-8 Mayo 1-1, Roscommon.

September 22: All-Ireland final:

Kerry 1-8 Kildare 1-5, Croke Park.

1928-29 NFL (resumed)

November 17: Semi-final:

Kerry 2-5 Sligo 1-2, Tralee.

December 1: Final:

Kerry 1-7 Kildare 2-3, Croke Park.

1930-31 NFL

March 23, 1930:

Kerry 3-8 Laois 2-0, Tralee

1930 Championship

August 10: Munster final:

Kerry 3-4 Tipperary 1-2, Tipperary Town.

August 24: All-Ireland semi-final:

Kerry 1-9 Mayo 0-4, Roscommon.

September 28:

Kerry 3-11 Monaghan 0-2, Croke Park.

1930-31 NFL (resumed)

November 16, 1930:

Kerry walkover v Wexford.

November 16, 1930:

Kerry 0-2 Kildare 0-2 (Game played instead of Kerry v Wexford), Naas.

December 7, 1930:

Kerry 0-8 Dublin 0-3, Croke Park.

Feb 15, 1931:

Semi-final: Kerry 2-5 Galway 1-1, Tuam.

March 1, 1931: Final:

Kerry 1-3 Cavan 1-2, Croke Park.

1931-32 NFL

March 8, 1931:

Kerry 2-4 Laois 1-2, Portlaoise.

April 26, 1931:

Kerry 2-9 Kildare 1-2, Tralee.

1931 Championship

August 9: Munster final:

Kerry 5-8 Tipp 0-2, Tralee.

August 30: All-Ireland semi-final:

Kerry 1-6 Mayo 1-4, Tuam.

September 27: All-Ireland final:

Kerry 1-11 Kildare 0-8, Croke Park.

1931-32 NFL (resumed)

November 15, 1931:

Kerry 1-10 Dublin 3-2, Listowel.

March 6, 1932:

Kerry 2-5 Mayo 1-6, semi-final Killarney.

1932 Championship

May 22:

Kerry 1-11 Limerick 1-3, Newcastle West.

August 7: Munster final:

Kerry 3-10 Tipp 1-4, Carrick-on-Suir.

August 21: All-Ireland semi-final:

Kerry 1-3 Dublin 1-1, Croke Park.

September 25: All-Ireland final:

Kerry 2-7 Mayo 2-4, Croke Park.

1932-33 NFL

October 30:

Kerry 3-3 Laois 1-3, Portlaoise.

November 13:

Kerry 0-9 Dublin 0-7, Tralee.

1931-32 NFL (resumed)

February 5, 1933, 31/32 final:

Kerry 5-2 Cork 3-3, Killarney.


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