The Kingdom, the capital and the empire: The role of the Kerry and Dublin GAA in the 1916 Rising

A hundred years to the day that Patrick Pearse stepped on to O’Connell Street and proclaimed an Irish Republic, the GAA will hold its extravagant commemoration of the most seminal moment in modern Irish history. 

The Kingdom, the capital and the empire: The role of the Kerry and Dublin GAA in the 1916 Rising

The Association’s Laochra celebration will follow the meeting of Kerry and Dublin. Remarkably this will be only the third occasion these behemoths of Gaelic football have contested a National League final in the 90-year history of the competition. Yet there is a certain historical symmetry to Kerry and Dublin’s representation. Nowhere was the role of GAA members in the planning and execution of the Rising as noteworthy as in these counties...

In May 1915, the IRB had established a Military Council which, under the leadership of Patrick Pearse, began to plan a rebellion against British rule in Ireland using the Irish Volunteers. To aid their rebellion, a German arms shipment was arranged to land in Kerry.

Kerry was unique in how close local connections were between the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Irish Volunteers and the GAA. Given these links, it was inevitable that prominent members of the Kerry GAA were actively involved in planning the Easter Rising.

Austin Stack personified the inter-play between the Kerry GAA and radical nationalism.

Having captained the Kerry footballers to their second ever All-Ireland in 1906, Stack was forced, through injury, to trade the football field for an administrator’s desk. Already Chairman of the Kerry GAA, by 1915 Stack had become the acknowledged head of both the IRB and the Irish Volunteers in Kerry. During a visit to Tralee to inspect local Volunteers in October 1915, Pearse first informed Stack of the IRB’s plans to land German weapons there.

Aware that the Kerry Volunteers would need to be properly armed to protect the German shipment, Stack planned an operation to smuggle a sizeable consignment of rifles from Dublin. Tadgh Kennedy, a lieutenant in the Tralee Volunteers and a member of the Kerry County Board, was put in charge of a group of Volunteers posing as Kerry supporters heading to the All-Ireland final against Wexford that November. The morning after the final, Kennedy and his men organised two cars to take them from their hotel to the residence of the Kerry native Joseph O’Rahilly, the Irish Volunteers Director of Arms. But even among committed revolutionaries, the fortunes of Kerry football came first. Kennedy recalled that one of his party, Tadgh Horgan, had spent much of the Sunday night drowning his sorrows over Kerry’s defeat. The next morning, still drunk, he reported for duty.

Kennedy, deciding he could be of little use in such a state, bundled him into the back seat as the cars drove off. Once they reached O’Rahilly’s house, Horgan was ordered to stay outside as a lookout while the others went inside to secure the weapons. However when the Volunteers emerged, they found that Horgan and one of the cars had disappeared.

Exasperated, Kennedy somehow managed to load the rifles into the remaining car and drove to the train station where the arms were smuggled aboard the returning supporters’ train to Tralee that evening.

In February 1916, the Military Council asked Stack to command the mission to unload the German arms landing and to ensure the weapons were distributed among Volunteer units in Munster, while simultaneously their colleagues in Dublin launched their rebellion. To assist him, Stack effectively used his local GAA connections. The former Kerry footballer, Patrick Cahill, was appointed his second in command. Meanwhile, Pat O’Shea, Kerry’s star midfielder, arranged for a pilot boat to guide the German vessel, the Aud, into Fenit harbour when it appeared off the Kerry coast. On 11 April, Stack visited the Military Council in Dublin, which approved his plans for the arms landing.

By now, the political preoccupation of Kerry GAA officials was having a detrimental impact on local Gaelic games. As Easter approached The Kerryman was complaining that so much time was being devoted to Irish Volunteer activities that meetings of the County Board were being cancelled due to a lack of attendance. Likewise no game had been played in the County Championships for nearly a year. The paper asked: ‘How long are the Gaels of this county going to stand this kind of humbug; in our humble opinion they have stood it too long’.

With the Rising just hours away, the Military Council’s plans began to fall apart. On Good Friday the Aud was intercepted by the Royal Navy off Kerry. That same morning Roger Casement was captured after landing on Banna strand from a German U-boat. Stack had strict orders from Pearse that no trouble should occur in Tralee before military action was taken in Dublin. As a result, he did not attempt to rescue Casement. Instead he tried to visit Tralee Barracks but upon entering he was immediately arrested. Though the Kerry Volunteers still assembled for action on Easter Sunday morning, now leaderless and with military forces in Tralee on high alert, they took the decision to return to their homes, ending Kerry’s involvement in the planned insurrection.

If Austin Stack personified the Kerry GAA’s link with 1916, Harry Boland embodied Dublin’s. A keen hurler, Boland had played for the Dublin team which lost the 1908 All-Ireland final. Three years later he was appointed Chairman of the Dublin County Board, a positon he held until his death in the Civil War. He was also one of the GAA’s most prominent referees, taking charge of the 1914 All-Ireland football final. Politically, Boland was a senior figure in IRB circles in Dublin and became a founding member of the Irish Volunteers.

On Easter Monday 1916, Boland and other members of the Volunteers’ Second Dublin Battalion took up defensive positons around Fairview to prevent British reinforcements trying to advance on the rebel’s main garrisons on O’Connell Street. However the next day they were forced to retreat into the GPO once their positions were overrun. Boland spent the rest of the week there and was one of the last men to evacuate the burning building that Friday.

Boland was just one of 302 GAA members from fifty-two separate Dublin GAA clubs who numbered among the Easter rebels’ combined force of around 1,500. In the GPO, Boland was joined by Michael Collins, who had played and acted as secretary for the London Geraldines club, as well as four members of the Dublin senior footballers and several hurlers from UCD’s 1915 Fitzgibbon Cup winning team. Other notable figures in the rebellion with GAA connections included Frank Burke (a UCD student who would go on to become the finest dual-player of his generation winning three football and two hurling All-Ireland’s with Dublin), Sean T. O’Kelly (the future Irish President), William T. Cosgrave (the Free State’s first leader who had served as chairman of the Lord Edward’s GAA) and Peadar Kearney (the writer of Amhrán na bhFiann). In total, sixteen GAA members were killed fighting during Easter week.

Outside the city itself, Thomas Ashe commanded the Volunteer’s Fifth Dublin Battalion, tasked with disrupting and destroying enemy communications in north Dublin. Ashe was a former captain of the Lispole GAA club in his native Kerry and had founded the Lusk GAA club when he moved to Dublin, playing in goal with the hurlers. Leading sixty men, Ashe attacked a large police convoy of fifty officers in Ashbourne, Co. Meath on Friday 28 April, killing ten officers, wounding a further eighteen and capturing the rest with the loss of only two Volunteers.

With the rebels’ defeat and Ireland now proclaimed under martial law, the days following the rebellion saw over 3,400 people arrested across the country for their supposed participation with the rebellion. Because of the close connection between the GAA, the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, those targeted included hundreds of ordinary members of the Association. On 9 May, large scale arrests were conducted in Kerry. Among those rounded up were GAA officials and county players such as Paddy Cahill, Dick Fitzgerald, D.J. Griffin of Castlemaine, Harry Spring of Firies, Patrick Launders and Michael Griffin of Listowel and J.F. O’Shea, the Portmagee captain.

1,800 found themselves deported to an internment camp at Frongoch in north Wales. The detention of so many young GAA members, many with little previous involvement in either the Volunteers or the IRB, brought them into contact with the emerging revolutionary republican doctrine. Due to their shared incarceration, many within the GAA became politically radicalised. As Willie Mullins, an internee and footballer with the Tralee Mitchels club, stated: “The comradeship that developed in Frongoch and the knowledge we got of each other from different parts of the country, the military aspect of things and being bought into close contact with men, whom we used only hear about previously, was a binding force in the future.

“John Bull made an awful blunder when he put us all together there.”

Due to the large numbers of GAA players interned, Gaelic football contests were arranged to keep up discipline, fitness and morale amongst prisoners during their periods of free association from 12:30-8pm. The prisoners were also anxious to play hurling but the commander of the camp, Colonel Haygate-Lambert, refused this request for fear that hurleys would be used as weapons against prison guards.

Dick Fitzgerald, Kerry’s legendary captain, and Michael Collins helped establish a committee to run Gaelic football competitions. Though the hilly terrain inside the prison camp was initially unsuitable, the prisoners were able to level out and mark off a serviceable football pitch, albeit one that sloped steeply at one end. A league was started among four teams of prisoners, each playing six matches with two games being held daily. The fourth team, nicknamed ‘The Leprechauns’ due to the small stature of their players, was coached by Dick Fitzgerald and won the competition.

Given the numbers of inter-county players incarcerated, inter-county matches were also held.

In July, an account of the prisoners’ lives appeared in The Kerryman. It stated that: “Gaelic football has been taken up with a great degree of enthusiasm, and a large number of matches are being held daily. Already a Gaelic football and athletic carnival has been held, of which an exciting game between team’s representative of Kerry and Louth was the principal feature. A narrow win for Kerry by a point indicates the closeness and interesting nature of the contest.”

This was a reference to a Dick Fitzgerald inspired Kerry victory in the so-called ‘Frongoch Wolfe Tone Tournament Final’. In August, Fitzgerald was released and returned to Ireland only to be re-arrested and sent back to Frongoch on 22 September. A rumour went around the camp that the Kerry internees had engineered his latest incarceration to guarantee their continued success in the Frongoch football championship!

Another article reprinted in early August recounted an exciting win for Dublin against Wexford in the ‘Frongoch Leinster Championship’. Sean Treacy of the Dublin Geraldines club, who had fought in the South Dublin Union garrison, captained the Dublin team. The report noted that when a goal was scored: “the cheer almost frightened the boys guarding the barbed wire … the players have decided if possible to have a replay at Croke Park at a not far distant date when all who had not the pleasure of being at Frongoch can attend.”

Frongoch became a university of revolution for Irish republicans and the concentration on Gaelic games by its prisoners was a deliberate statement symbolising their rejection of British rule and culture and their commitment to the struggle for independence. The arrest and unlawful detention of many innocent members of the GAA, would fuel a growing resentment of British rule among the Association’s rank and file. In the three years which followed the Rising the GAA, like Irish society at large, became increasingly politically radicalised.

Fittingly the clash of Kerry and Dublin this Sunday will recall the significant role of GAA members from both counties in the Rising.

Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Modern Irish History in UCD. He is the author of the acclaimed, Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934. His examination of the role of the Kerry GAA in 1916 has just been published in Mary McAuliffe, Bridget McAuliffe and Owen O’Shea (eds), Kerry 1916 – Histories & Legacies: A Centenary Record.

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