“I thought it would be a good thing to follow John Redmond’s words. I thought for my mother’s sake, her gentle soul, for the sake of my own children, I might go out and fight for to save Europe so that we might have the Home Rule in Ireland in the upshot. I came out to fight for a country that doesn’t exist, and now, Willie, mark my words, it never will.”
-‘A Long, Long Way, Sebastian Barry.
Apart from a few tweeted photographs, a veil of secrecy hangs over the Dublin senior footballers’ visit to north France last May. Carol Walker, director of the Somme Association in Belfast, politely declined to speak this week as there was an agreement in place with Dublin that nothing but the photographs of the panel visiting the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Wood about the visit would be discussed.
On the surface, the need for privacy seems slightly peculiar. If their visit was allowed to be publicised, it couldn’t have much to do with any associated sensitivities. One hundred years since the end of World War I, the GAA has had enough time for mature reflection and to appreciate the ultimate sacrifices made by Irishmen for what they believed was the greater good.
Before Dublin, Tyrone were doing their part to remember Ireland’s involvement in the great war. Two years ago, a talk about the Battle of the Somme was held in the county’s GAA centre in Garvaghey. Martin Brennan of the Friends of the Somme Mid Ulster Branch gave the talk, the second time they were invited to the centre after a “Tyrone Volunteers” address in 2014.
If there was any awkwardness surrounding the two-day trip it was to do with the suggestion it doubled up as a training camp for Dublin, which would breach a GAA rule and see them lose home advantage for their opening Division 1 game in 2019. That was publicly denied by Ciarán Kilkenny but Croke Park investigated.
What we do know about the break is that Brendan O’Shea, the Education Officer of the Western Front Association, acted as the group’s guide over that weekend. O’Shea has written extensively about Ireland’s contribution to the allied powers and he informed them of the Irish soldiers who had played Gaelic football and hurling.
Kilkenny spoke about the privilege associated with the visit. “It was a humbling experience. You see a lot of the people involved, a part of history that would have been forgotten, maybe. Just going over to pay our respects there. One of Dublin GAA’s past chairpersons, Andy Kettle, his grand-uncle Tom Kettle would have fought and died over there as well. I think there were over 200,000 Irish people involved in World War I, whether it was Ulster or Irish Volunteers or people for different reasons. It was fascinating to see that part of history.”
The story of Dublin-born Kettle, an Irish Catholic MP for East Tyrone, is one that is told evocatively by O’Shea. Five days before his death, he wrote a sonnet to his daughter Betty about the ravages of the war:
“So here, while the mad guns curse overhead, And tired men sigh, with mud for couch and floor, Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead, Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed, And for the secret Scripture of the poor’.”
Historians like Donal McAnallen, brother of the late Tyrone captain Cormac, and former Dublin dual player Ross O’Carroll, brother of Rory, have helped to document the heroic efforts of several GAA members in The Great War. Newmarket’s John Fox who was wing-back on Clare’s 1914 All-Ireland winning senior hurling side before joining the Munster Fusiliers in the Somme. Jimmy Rossiter, a member of the Wexford football teams that faced Kerry in back-to-back All-Ireland finals in 1913 and ’14, died on the Western Front in ’15. Tralee native Charlie Duggan, a member of Kerry’s first All-Ireland SFC winning side, was wounded in the Battle of Mons. Before enlisting in 1915, Captain Laurence Roche was chairman of the Limerick GAA.
Lance Sergeant William died in France in 1918, six years having featured for Antrim in an All-Ireland SFC final. Belfast club St Peter’s had 20 players who headed to France. A former secretary of the Tyrone County Board, Patrick Holland, signed up for the Royal Flying Corps.
Given his military backgrounds, it was hardly surprising that Jim Gavin would be so aware of a past many, particularly in the GAA, would be conflicted by. But it couldn’t have been more thought-provoking for a group and inspiration for some players chasing a fourth All-Ireland title.
“It’s only right that people try different things because lads get caught up and fall into the same circles so it’s good to bring some fresh ideas in every aspect on and off the field. Some lads might use it for motivation but I think it was more of an educational piece to bring us more together and take us away and show us something unique that we never would have seen in any other kind of walk of life.”