The worst atrocities occurred in Kerry. In retaliation for the killing of five Free State soldiers (including two members of the Dublin Brigade) in Knocknagoshel, nine Republicans were tied around a mine and blown up at Ballyseedy on March 7, 1923.
Five others were similarly treated at Countess Bridge near Killarney the same day. In each case one of the men escaped to tell what happened. The following week five IRA prisoners were taken from Caherciveen and tied around a mine. To make sure none escaped, they were shot in each knee before they were blown up. Those responsible for the atrocities were largely from the Dublin Brigade, which lent intensity to rivalry between the two counties.
It took decades for the bitterness to disappear, but Gaelic football became a great healing force within Kerry. Hence the passion was transferred to the game.
After the fighting, Free State Army captain Con Brosnan managed to get safe passage guarantees for Republican players like John Joe Sheehy and Joe Barrett to play games, and together they used football to help overcome the bitterness. When the team got together, they parked their politics and all talk of the Troubles.
Just one year after the civil war ended, Kerry won the All-Ireland with players who had fought on both sides. Six of that team went on to win six All-Ireland championships together. This helped to bind up the wounds.
In 1930, the Austin Stacks club won the Kerry County Championship and thus the right to nominate the captain of the Kerry team going for three-in-a-row the following year. Joe Barrett, who captained Kerry to the 1929 win, was chosen.
But in a magnificent sporting gesture, he offered the captaincy to Con Brosnan who was coming to the end of a distinguished career. He was never likely to get the chance to captain Kerry, as his local team was unlikely to win the county championship.
Four other members of the Austin Stacks’ team were playing for Kerry. Not all approved of Barrett’s gesture, but they went along with it in recognition of Brosnan’s chivalry.
“Con Brosnan was the political bridge- builder of our time,” explained JJ (Purty) Landers, a lifelong republican and last survivor of the five Stacks’ players on that Kerry team. “Regardless of pressure from within his own side of the divide, or from the other side, he did what he believed had to be done to bring about peace and healing. He was the ultimate peacemaker in Kerry football after the civil war.”
Brosnan went on to lift the Sam Maguire Cup in 1931, capping a magnificent example of true sportsmanship.
After completing their first four-in-a-row in 1932, Kerry’s dream of an unprecedented five-in-a-row was shattered by Vincent McGovern’s last-minute goal for Cavan in the All-Ireland semi-final in Breffni Park, Cavan. It foreshadowed Seamus Derby’s goal for Offaly in even more dramatic circumstances 49 years later.
In view of the inter-county rivalry with Dublin, the Kingdom’s most humiliating defeat ever was in the all-Ireland semi-final of 1934. It has gone down in Kerry folklore as “Sandwich Sunday”.
What made that game so humiliating was that it was played at the Austin Stack Park, Tralee before what is still the stadium’s record attendance of 21,438.
Shops in Tralee stocked up with sandwiches. The game was level at half-time (1-2 to 0-5), but Dublin rolled over Kerry in the second half to win 3-8 to 0-6. It was as if the Dublin Brigade had come back and slaughtered Kerrymen again.
Kerry people lost their appetite, while the Dubs headed home on the train. They were eating sandwiches in Tralee for the rest of the week.
But the Dubs paid for those sandwiches over the next 30 years because they did not beat Kerry again in the championship until the final of 1976. Living down the shame of losing to Dublin that year and again in 1977, Kerry forged what is generally considered the team of the century.
A documentary, ‘Kerry: The Green and the Gold’, highlighting those years, will be shown on RTÉ 2 after tomorrow’s game.
Another great healing gesture in Kerry was only recognised by those in the know in 1953. John Joe Sheehy’s son, Paudie, was captain of the Kerry team that year, but he was dropped for the All-Ireland final, and there was no other member of his club on the team.
John Joe was instrumental in inviting Jas Murphy from another Tralee club to be captain. In one sense, he was from even further across the political divide.
Murphy was a garda based in Cork whose father had been an RIC man in Tralee. That was well known, but John Joe Sheehy also knew that Jas’s father was one of the two policemen who had brought Roger Casement from Ardfert to Tralee on the fateful Good Friday in 1916.
That 1953 final was between Kerry and Armagh — the first time a team from the Six Counties qualified for an all-Ireland senior football final. Why was John Joe Sheehy, an ardent republican, behind the selection of Jas Murphy? No doubt he remembered Joe Barrett’s gesture in giving the captaincy to Con Brosnan in 1931.
Just because Irishmen served in the crown forces did not mean they were less Irish. Micheál (Sambo) Ó Ruairc, the son of an RIC man and a Fine Gael supporter, was probably closest to John Joe Sheehy within the GAA through the years. In one sense they were inseparable, but they were poles apart politically.
Sheehy knew that Ó Ruairc’s father had been the RIC’s crimes special sergeant in Tralee. That was the equivalent to head of the local Special Branch.
Of course, he also knew that Sgt Thomas O’Rourke provided RIC codes for Michael Collins and IRA intelligence during the Black and Tan days. Sheehy had an even better reason to understand the patriotism of such people because his own older brother, Jimmy, had served in the British army and was one of the Irishmen killed at the Battle of the Somme.
Others may have denigrated the sacrifices of those men, but not John Joe Sheehy. In later life he befriended the man who joined up with his late brother.
When Jas Murphy lifted the Sam Maguire Cup on that Sunday in September 1953, it was another step in healing the divisions within Kerry.
It was fitting that another Kerryman — former GAA president Seán Kelly — was a driving force in preparing for the Garda and Army No 1 Bands to play God Save the Queen at Croke Park earlier this year.
Following the respect shown to the British national anthem, Irish rugby fans demonstrated their pride with a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann that brought tears to the eyes of many players. For those who witnessed the event, it was an unforgettable occasion. Ireland was united on that day, at least. The Irish team was inspired, and the record victory in the ensuing match against England was a fitting climax, demonstrating the healing potential of sport.
* Ryle Dyer will deliver a lecture on Michael Collins and the GAA at the GAA Museum, Croke Park, next Wednesday at 7pm.