Buying into sporting history at an auction of GAA memorabilia

Big news. I’m off to an auction of GAA memorabilia and I mean business. Serious business. I’ve studied the catalogue inside out and back to front. I have put on my best suit. I’m even wearing a dickie bow, although unfortunately it quickly comes loose and has to be discarded. Pity. I was determined to cut quite a dash in the photo.
Buying into sporting history at an auction of GAA memorabilia

The auction is part of a Rare Books and Collectors Sale organised by Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, the venue the Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel. Along with the usual selection of old match programmes, this particular event features the medal collections of Phil Shanahan (old Tipperary hurler) and Joe Barrett (even older Kerry footballer and the first man from the county to lift the Sam Maguire).

The room, then, shimmers with GAA history. It also contains its share of familiar faces. There’s Donie Shanahan, chairman of Toomevara GAA club, here to keep a proprietary eye on the fate of the Shanahan (no relation) collection. There’s Dominic Williams, the Wexford GAA historian. There’s Seamus O’Reilly from Clare, a familiar ponytailed photographic presence on big days at Semple Stadium and the Gaelic Grounds and a man who, having started collecting at the age of 10, has all but 11 of the Munster senior hurling championship programmes issued since 1946.

There’s also a charming couple up from Douglas, Pat and Bernadette O’Connell. Pat is the vendor of lot 711, the programme from some match or other played in Thomond Park on October 31 1978… Pat was there. Yes, really. One of the communion of saints who actually saw Munster beat the All Blacks, as opposed to one of the millions who claim, à la the GPO in 1916, to have been there. He appreciates it now more than he did at the time, he says. “Oh, I came home very happy afterwards. But now that the match has taken on such mythic proportions, I’m even happier I was there. I didn’t realise at the time it was one of the best days of my life.” His and Bernadette’s three sons live in Yorkshire, Australia, and San Francisco. No point in giving the programme to any of us, the lads told them. “We want to see it live on, and this is the way to do it,” says Bernadette. It realises €380. Very respectable.

Other items of interest include an eclectic collection of autographs that features the signatures of such luminaries as Jerry Lee Lewis, Gazza, Paul Newman and, um, Maxi. An Arsenal jersey signed by their 2015 FA Cup winners prompts Larry Ryan of this parish to maintain text communication with me until such time as it sells for €210, which is €190 more than Larry’s limit. Bidding for a hurley reputedly used by Nicky Rackard in the 1955 All-Ireland final starts at €400. It finishes at €1,200.

My riding orders are straightforward: Attend, observe and report. On no account bid for anything, which leads to horrible visions of me coughing or rubbing my head at the wrong juncture and ending up in some Mr Bean sketch as the unwitting, unwilling owner of a priceless artefact. The Examiner’s finance department would just love that, alright.

Pictures: Pat Moore

Guess what, though? After a while, the bug bites me and I completely forget my orders. A programme for the 1939 All-Ireland hurling final — World War Two, thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening, all that jazz — comes up, complete with ticket stub. Deadly. Anyway, I’m dying to wave that paddle thing they use at auctions.

In I duly plunge at €200. Up it goes, much too rapidly, in increments of €20. Three hundred, 320, 340, 360, 380. I am rapt in this Centre Court rally, the problem being I’m facing Rafa Nadal. The gent on the other side of the net has an irritatingly swift return for every one of my volleys. Bastard. At €400, common sense belatedly kicks in and I cry halt. Damn. On second thoughts, undamn. I can afford to eat this weekend.

The Shanahan collection, which includes his three All-Ireland medals (1949-51) and a raft of Munster, Railway Cup and Tipperary club honours with Toomevara, goes for €19,000.

Then, it’s time for what Fonsie describes as “the pièce de resisténce of this sale — of any sale”: Joe Barrett’s collection, with its All-Ireland, provincial, club and War of Independence medals. It was withdrawn by Barrett’s son Jojo from the GAA museum in Croke Park as a mark of protest over the playing of God Save the Queen at the Ireland/England rugby international there in 2007. Sometimes, with the GAA, as William Faulkner might have said, the past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

The bidding starts at €28,000. In a flash it hits €38,000, then €39,000 before a phone bidder offers €40,000.


Afterwards Donie Shanahan says he hopes that the new owner of the Shanahan collection will see fit to make it available for special club occasions in Toomevara, while Seamus O’Reilly reveals he’s filled in two of the gaps in his collection. One that remains is a Kerry/Waterford clash of the 1950s. It’s his holy grail and he’s not optimistic about finding it.

“I doubt it even exists.”

As for me, I’m 500 quid better off than might have been the case. Auctions of GAA memorabilia are fascinating, but I’ll be giving them a wide berth in future. No more suits, no more dickie bows, no more temptation.

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