Féile 'one of the great things the GAA came up with'

At the official launch of the Féile hurling and camogie competitions at Nemo Rangers were Kate Richardson, Bishopstown, Sadie Hoare, Ballincollig, Susan O’Donovan, Ballygarvan, Saskia Purcell, Nemo Rangers. The Féile will take place in Cork and Kerry this weekend. More than 256 teams from all around the country will be taking part, with games across both counties over the three days. Picture: Jim Coughlan

Back in 2011, when the economy was mired in a tailspin and Irish society was in the grip of a crisis so profound that its very foundations appeared to be crumbling, Peter Keogh sat down in his home in Kiltegan in Co. Wicklow and gave an interview to Regina Fitzpatrick, a researcher with the GAA’s Oral History Project.

That project, unique in scale and content across the global world of sport, is now held at the GAA Museum and is available online. It comprises some 1,300 recorded interviews, 4,000 questionnaires, and more than 70,000 letters, documents, and photographs relating to the GAA.

At the time of his interview, Peter was into his 80s and gave a passionate and brilliant account of the history of the GAA in Kiltegan, and in the surrounding areas of West Wicklow, as well as his own life story in the Association.

No such history could have been given without locating the story within the general history of Kiltegan. And Peter’s memories stretched back into the Economic War of the 1930s and into the ‘Emergency’, the title that the Irish put on their experience of World War II.

That his father was a blacksmith and that he, himself, was a lorry driver (and a local journalist) was an elegant expression of how his own family history stretched from the 19th century into a new millennium. The mechanisation of modern life happened across these years.

In terms of sport — and the history of the local club, St Tegan’s — he recalled seminal events, ones that seem vastly removed from a 21st century life. For example, he spoke of getting the first football in Kiltegan.

This first football arrived in the 1930s. There was then no club in the village and no interest in the game of football among teachers in the local national school.

But Peter Keogh wanted to play football and to use something other than the pig’s bladder or the ragbag ball which was all they then had. He noticed Fry’s Cocoa had a catalogue where you could get a range of items if you collected enough coupons – one of those items was a football.

Peter got a group of friends together to collect the coupons, including ones from the rubbish of locals. And so it was that a mail-order football arrived in Kiltegan. He also remembered one of the first matches he heard on the radio.

There is a mistaken understanding in Irish history which imagines that the arrival of radio into Ireland in 1926 saw the medium extend almost immediately across the nation. But limited transmitters ensured that only pockets of the country initially had radio reception and even then the number of households who could afford radios remained low for several decades.

And there was no radio in Peter’s home when he made his way in 1944 to listen to the unprecedented meeting between Carlow and Kerry in the All-Ireland football semi-final. Carlow had just won its first Leinster SFC title and a record crowd of more than 40,000 people attended the semi-final against the Munster champions.

What ensued was an extraordinary game which held the crowd in its thrall — this was true, also, for people around the country who gathered around radios. Despite the fact that Kiltegan sits just above the border with Carlow and support for the neighbours might have been expected, the man who owned the radio was a devotee of Kerry football.

And when Kerry scored a crucial goal with the game reaching a crescendo, the radio owner banged the table in excitement, with the unfortunate side-effect of disconnecting a radio. It was a loss of reception that Peter never forgot.

In general in his interview, Peter gave a vivid account of a lifelong love of Gaelic games — of playing and watching and writing and talking about and organising the sports that he loved.

He ranged across a whole series of topics such as the challenges presented by emigration, transport, fundraising, objections, the centenary year, what the GAA meant to him, and his hopes for Wicklow football and hurling.

Then, in the middle of the interview, he considered the extraordinary phenomenon that is the Féile na nGael. He talked about how the establishment of Féile na nGael was driven by Séamus Ó Riain from Moneygall in the early 1970s.

The ambition of the initiative — hosted in the first instance in Tipperary —– was to foster hurling across Ireland. Teams of under 14 hurlers (camogie teams were later added) would compete in their home counties and the winners would travel to national finals in a host county for a huge annual celebration of the game.

Peter Keogh describes Ó Riain as a great president of the GAA and noted that Féile was a ”marvellous initiative” for the game of hurling. It became an integral part of the GAA calendar from its inception and lent great impetus to underage development of hurling.

According to Keogh, it was vital to the hurling story of his own club in Kiltegan, particularly in the last years of the 1970s. In 1978, Kilkenny was chosen to host Féile and the man in charge of running Féile na nGael in Kilkenny in 1978 was Fr Liam Dunne, originally from Wicklow and then acting as chairman of Bord na nÓg in Kilkenny.

Down in Kilkenny in 1977 they staged a mock Féile as preparation for running the real thing. Kiltegan got an invitation from Fr Liam Dunne and they headed to to Kilkenny and had a great weekend.

Peter remembered that they were making a huge effort to develop hurling in Kiltegan, which had previously been a football area. Peter, himself, had only seen his first hurling match when he went to the 1947 All-Ireland final, by which stage he was 18.

In the hurling history of Kiltegan, Féile proved to be the great catalyst for change: “Féile was a wonderful experience and it was how we won the hearts of boys and took them away from football because you had this extra carrot to dangle before their eyes: ‘Lads, we’re going to Kilkenny and you’ll be staying out the night and the weekend and having a great time.’ And then they’d come back from Kilkenny telling all their friends all about it and that gave us a foothold.”

Having enjoyed the mock-Féile in 1977, they got to experience the real thing the following year: “We came back then and won the Féile in Wicklow the following year — 1978, I think. So we got there on our own right and we didn’t need our friend Fr Liam Dunne or anybody else. That year (1978) we stayed in Tom Walsh’s club in Tullaroan and we had a great time again.”

There was more: “We went a third time. We had actually been beaten in our own Féile in Wicklow so we had no right to get there. But a strange thing had happened in Kilkenny. You needed a minimum number of teams to run Féile.

“They had four or five teams more than they required so what they did was they put on a mini-Féile and we got invited to that. So that was how we got three runs at Féile — and we didn’t really look back after that.”

In fact, Kiltegan went on to win eight Wicklow senior hurling championships — 1987, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 — in the years that followed.

The timeline of those successes emphasises the role that Féile played in the development of the club. It’s hard to disagree with the verdict of Peter Keogh: “It’s one of the really great things that the GAA came up with.”

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD.

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