PAUL ROUSE: Like Hegarty, Collins was never afraid to speak truth as he saw it

Michael Collins throwing in the ball to start a hurling match at Croke Park, Dublin.

As a GAA journalist, PS O’Hegarty had a gift for being willing to say the hard thing, writes Paul Rouse.

On Sunday, March 15, 1908 he took the train out to a park in Finchley, on the high ground the far side of Charing Cross train station in the northwest of London, to report on a match between the Geraldines Gaelic Athletic Club and the Raparees.

It wasn’t much of a match and O’Hegarty made sure his readers in the newspaper, Inis Fáil, were well aware of that fact.

He wrote that, out in Finchley, the ‘hurling was poor’.

And more than merely being poor, it was in fact “dangerous into the bargain, and accidents were averted rather by good luck than by skill.”

It was the first ever win enjoyed by the Geraldines club, but O’Hegarty only let them enjoy slivers of credit for that success.

He wrote that the “result was practically due to the fact that four Raparees missed the train from Forestgate … and they were, therefore, four men short throughout.”

Nonetheless, a win is a win — however O’Hegarty might condition it — and to lose in those circumstances would surely have been soul-destroying, even for a fledgling team. And one of the players who contributed to that win was Michael Collins, recently arrived in London, still a teenager and trying to find his way in a new city.

Having taken the boy’s clerk exams in Cork in February 1906, had his references checked and completed his medical examination, Michael Collins started work with the Post Office Savings Bank in London in July 1906.

He was paid 14 shillings a week to work in the writing room of the bank.

Collins later explained his motivations in joining the GAA in London. He was aware, he said, that there was little regard for Irish people among the people of England: “When you lived among them you had to be defending yourself constantly from insults.

Every man that has lived amongst them knows that they are always making jokes about Paddy and the pig, and that sort of thing.

The response was to seek out his own: “I had Irish friends in London before I arrived, and in the intervening years I had made many more friends among Irishmen resident in London. For the most part we lived lives apart. We considered ourselves outposts of our nation. We were a distinct community — a tiny eddy, if you like, in the great metropolis.”

As Anne Dolan and William Murphy write in their brilliant new book, Michael Collins: The Man and the Revolution (published this week in Cork by The Collins Press), this is a likely exaggeration of the extent to which Collins isolated himself in London. The book is beautifully illustrated, elegantly written, and persuasively argued.

And in making the point that Collins did not live in some sort of walled-off Gaelic reservation in London, Dolan and Murphy are surely correct. After all, it was not as if he was a monk who had taken himself to a beehive hut on High Island, off the coast of Cleggan in Galway, to meditate and pray.

Allowing for that, it is still the case that Collins was active in the cultural nationalist movement that was thriving in London. He joined the Gaelic League, where he attended language classes in a typically tenacious manner, while also enjoying the various social and recreational activities that Gaelic League clubs organised in the city.

And he made his way into the Geraldines’ hurling team, where he was remembered as a dogged, committed player, though not one who was overly bothered with (or capable of) finesse.

Indeed, partly because this was a team and club in the making, Collins immediately rose through its ranks.

In fact, although only 17, he was appointed to the club committee in January 1908. He was made vice-captain of the hurling team six months later.

And then, in the summer of the following year — July 1909 — he was appointed as secretary of the club.

Being a committee member of any sports club is unglamorous; being secretary of a GAA club is a form public incarceration where no penance can ever be enough.

Attempting to extract membership fees is just about the most thankless task that any volunteer officer must undertake. But that is a marginal decision in ranking thanklessness — almost all of the work manages to be both tedious and essential.

In his secretary’s work, Collins proved to be dedicated and organised.

He was no dilettante — emphatically so.

He remained as secretary for seven years.

During these years, Collins befriended those London men who were not just to the fore of the GAA — but also to the fore of Republican politics.

These included not just PS O’Hegarty — later acknowledged as a first-rate civil servant, writer, and already a leading figure in nationalist circles — but also Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy, who also managed to secure their own particular type of enduring fame.

And it was with these hardliners that Collins sided when in 1911 there was a dispute in London GAA about the application of the GAA’s ban rules.

In that year, a majority of London GAA members voted to oppose the rules and Collins was apoplectic. He said of those who disagreed with him on the ban rules that the London environment had ‘made them into shoneens’ and that there was ‘no place in the GAA for them’.

All the while as he made the nationalist connections that truly shaped his future,
Collins continued to hurl.

It should be noted that in his judgement on the merits of the Geraldines hurling team, with the future nationalist icon Michael Collins at wing back, PS O’Hegarty does indeed seem to have been correct to offer only tempered praise of their victory over a depleted Raparees team.

The victory over the Raparees had been enough to put Geraldines through to a London semi-final where they played against O’Hegarty’s own team: The Rooneys.

Now, it’s a fairly brave man ordinarily who dismisses the abilities of the team he is next to play, but O’Hegarty was not short on courage.

Two weeks later, he captained the Rooneys when they defeated Geraldines in the semi-final 7-17 to just 0-2.

There’s no easy way to put a gloss on a loss like that. The only thing that such a result demands is a stoic commitment to improvement and a determination never to allow a repeat.

In the case of the Geraldines, the immediate future brought little change, however.

Indeed, in his secretary’s report for the following year — 1909 — Michael Collins did not hold back at what he saw were the flaws in the Geraldines club: “An eventful half-year has followed a somewhat riotous general meeting. Great hopes instead of being fulfilled have been rudely shattered... Our internal troubles were saddening, but our efforts in football and hurling were perfectly heartbreaking.

In no single contest have our colours been crowned with success... I can only say that our record for the past half-year leaves no scope for self-congratulation.

“Signs of decay are unmistakable, and if members are not prepared in the future to act more harmoniously together and more self-sacrificingly generally — the club will soon have faded into an inglorious and well-deserved oblivion.”

Perhaps, the best thing to say about that is that O’Hegarty was not the only observer of the London GAA who was willing to speak the truth as he saw it.

- Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin and his new book The Hurlers is now on sale.

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