The recent controversy concerning Sean Cavanagh has again brought the issue of cynical play in Gaelic games into the national spotlight.
Moreover, it is just the latest instalment in a now decade-long indictment of Ulster sides in Gaelic football. Many have publicly bemoaned what they see as the defensive, negative and overtly physical style of play of northern teams. In contrast, counties like Kerry, with their tradition of ‘pure’ and attacking football have been exalted as the antithesis. Yet the issue of cynical play is as old as the association itself. Indeed, the early history of Kerry teams playing Ulster opposition was no less controversial than in modern times. And, ironically, it was the Kingdom which was so often reviled for being the cynical and excessively physical side in such encounters.
In 1911, Antrim became the first Ulster team to contest an All-Ireland final. Their recompense for their achievement was to receive such a beating from Cork that the winning margin (19 points) is still a record for senior football final.
Regrouping, Antrim made it back to the semi-final the following year where they faced Kerry. This was the first time Kerry had ever been drawn against an Ulster side in the championship. It was widely expected that they would handsomely qualify for the 1912 final.
The reason for this optimism was Kerry had beaten Cork impressively by 2-3 to 0-1 in Munster. Seeing as Cork had humiliated Antrim the previous year, a Kerry victory looked certain. Yet what transpired was, according to the Freeman’s Journal, “the most sensational GAA result of all time”. The southerners were thrashed 3-5 to 0-2.
Antrim, employing a soccer-style ground football, were said to have shown up Kerry’s catch and kick tactics as outdated, disorganised and lethargic. Afterwards, it emerged the Kerry players were so confident of victory they stayed up late into the night before merry-making, having been invited to attend the wedding reception of a prominent Kerry businessman in Dublin. The Kerryman newspaper was less than sympathetic, declaring the team had “succeeded in humiliating us to an extent almost incredible”.
Kerry’s next significant meeting with Ulster opposition was in the 1930 All-Ireland final against Monaghan, the first time they faced an Ulster side in the decider. By then this Kerry side, which had emerged from the ashes of the Civil War, had already laid claim to the title of the greatest team of any previous era. Between 1923 and 1933, they won six All-Ireland titles, including a four-in-a-row, 10 Munster senior football titles, two Railway Cups, four consecutive National League titles and completed three hugely successful tours of America.
Yet Kerry’s monopoly of Gaelic football was not universally lauded. Controversy surrounded their All-Ireland victory in September 1930. The final was dubbed a farce, with Monaghan, who were contesting their maiden All-Ireland, being completely ill-equipped to deal with a Kerry side that routed its Ulster opponents 3-11 to 0-2. Yet the match would enter GAA folklore as “the last battle of the Civil War”. This was not only due to the perceived associations of the Kerry and Monaghan teams with the Republican and Free State sides respectively (the Monaghan team contained several officers in the Free State Army while many of the Kerry players were known IRA members including the head of the Kerry IRA, John Joe Sheehy), but also because of the number of Monaghan players injured in the match and the county’s accusations about the rough tactics of Kerry.
After the game, the Monaghan Board protested against “the brutality” of Kerry’s play and the supposed bias of the referee towards the southerners (it was said at one point he took no notice of three Monaghan players lying injured on the ground). At a meeting of the Central Council in December, the Monaghan GAA officially objected to the result, claiming the match resembled “a Spanish bull-fight” and that if such tactics were introduced in the North, “they should all find themselves on the touch-line”. The meeting concluded that Monaghan’s protests were unjustified.
However, a reputation for Kerry vigour seems to have persisted. Following their 1932 All-Ireland victory over Mayo, the Kerry secretary complained about the conduct of the match referee, Martin O’Neill. Before the throw-in, he had entered the Kerry dressing room and proceeded to criticise and insult the Kerry players, stating that as far as he was concerned they had been blackguarding in every game they played and threatened to stop play if they carried on like that today! This reputation was only enhanced in the fallout of the 1946 All-Ireland semi-final, a match which proved even more controversial than the 1930 final. Again Antrim (after winning their first Ulster title since 1913) provided the opposition. They stormed through Ulster after developing a completely new style of play by introducing the modern hand-pass into Gaelic football. Before the game, talk was dominated by how the Kerry traditionalists could cope with this new playing style. Their response was physicality. While Antrim launched attack after attack and effectively tried to hand-pass the ball into the Kerry net, the Kingdom’s backs resorted to pulling and dragging. Seven of the 10 points Antrim scored came from frees. After the game, the Kerry defenders admitted this cynical play was premeditated and that it was the only solution they could come up with to cope with Antrim’s blistering forward play. Kerry went on to win by 2-7 to 0-10 but the second half was mired by frequent and heated clashes. Both teams were reduced to 14 men before full-time, while an Antrim supporter in the stand threw a glass bottle at one of the Kerry players. Subsequently Antrim objected to Kerry’s win on the grounds their tactics brought the GAA into disrepute. Cynical play? Even Kerry are old dogs at it.
- Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Irish history in UCD. He is also the chairman of the Sport History Ireland Society. He is the author of Forging a Kingdom — The GAA in Kerry 1884–1934, which will be published by The Collins Press in October 2013, price €17.99.