The GAA wasn’t found wanting when it came to cancelling all activity because of the coronavirus pandemic — a precedent was set over 100 years when the Great Flu swept the country, writes
In late 2018 a knot of GAA men, women and children with their camáns and instruments gathered in Fenloe Graveyard outside Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co Clare to commemorate their long-forgotten hurling hero Jim Guerin.
Five years before that Guerin was briefly catapulted back into Clare’s hurling vernacular in the aftermath of Shane O’Donnell’s three-goal salvo in the dramatic 2013 All-Ireland final replay victory.
Guerin was in the news as a touchstone for immortality — 99 years previously he hit a hat-trick in Clare’s All-Ireland victory over Laois in what was the first final played on Jones’s Road after the City and Suburban Racecourse was renamed Croke Park.
Along with the other Newmarket-on-Fergus players on Clare’s first All-Ireland winning side — John Fox, Jim ‘Bawn’ Clancy and Rob Doherty — Guerin was commemorated in verse soon after that 1914 victory:
Almost hauntingly it was sung to the air of ‘O’Donnell Abú’, but what gave the All-Ireland goal heroes nearly a century apart an extra dimension were the similarities that went well beyond the symmetry of scoring stats.
They were nearly the same age when plucked from their All-Ireland match-day squads at the 11th hour and given a place on Clare’s starting 15; 20-year-old Guerin hadn’t started in the Munster final win over Cork — just like 19-year-old O’Donnell hadn’t lined out in the drawn All-Ireland final against the Rebels.
The rest was history.
Now, it’s the poignancy attached to Guerin’s story that’s given fresh relevance in light of the coronavirus pandemic, because he lived, hurled, and tragically died during the Great Flu epidemic that swept through the country and the world in 1918-19.
“Clare had the lowest rate of deaths from the flu in 1918 when compared to all other counties in Ireland,” says historian Ida Milne, “but Jim Guerin was one of 49 from the county that died that year.
“His death really shows how the flu hit the GAA, but apart from that GAA fixtures throughout the country were greatly curtailed by the epidemic. Both All-Ireland football and hurling finals in 1918 were postponed.
“When the football final was finally played in February 1919, Tipperary’s top scorer Davy Tobin couldn’t play against Wexford because of the flu, while flu prevented Larry Stanley — Kildare’s captain when they won the 1919 All-Ireland — from playing in the 1918 Leinster semi-final against Louth,” she says.
Jim Guerin was in full health for the majority of 1918 hurling championship, but he had passed away by the time the protracted campaign concluded in January 1919 when Limerick beat Wexford in the All-Ireland final.
His last Clare appearance came against Limerick in the Munster final the previous September, being one of the few Banner players to hold their head high in a chastening 11-3 to 1-2 defeat. Three months later he was dead.
“Gaels throughout Clare will regret to hear of the death of one of the best known and popular Gaels in Clare, who has just gone to his long rest,” reportedin late December 1918.
“This is Mr James Guerin of Ballycar who worthily upheld the credits of the Banner County in many a hard-fought field. He was one of the splendid combination which represented Clare at Thurles and later in the All-Ireland Championship at Croke Park and won the coveted medals for Clare. His vigorous health was unable to avert the dreadful flu and an attack was followed by acute pneumonia, to which he succumbed.”
Guerin was only 24. He attended Ballycar National School that would later count President Michael D Higgins as its most famous alumnus, while the hurling connection with the school is maintained in the present day by teacher Cian Dillon, the 2013 All-Ireland winner, who also captained Clare to National League success in 2016.
“Jim Guerin was one of the best men of my time,” recalled Jim ‘Bawn’ Clancy, when interviewed forin 1970. “The Ballycar man proved his worth when he outplayed the great John ‘Tyler’ Mackey in the second round of the championship in 1914,” he said.
“Jim Guerin lived a life that was not ordinary, but that touched many, many people”, local historian Colm Liddy told the ceremony marking the centenary of his death in December 2018.
“The 1914 team shone as a beacon that it was possible that a Clare team could reach the very summit of hurling. It gave countless generations at least some bit of hope that it could happen. Jim Guerin, while his life was cut tragically short, made a difference. I salute you.”
His tragic passing underscores the importance of the quick and decisive action made by the current GAA administration in the past week in the fight against coronavirus.
“The delay in this season’s games is occasioned by the influenza epidemic,” wroteGAA correspondent, PD Mehigan, known as Carbery, in the same week that Jim Guerin’s death was reported in 1918.
“When both All-Ireland final games are played it is hoped that the worldwide conditions will be less prejudicial to the enjoyment of peaceful trials of skill,” he wrote.
Carbery’s words are as relevant to 2020 as they were over 100 years ago.