Paul Rouse on the battle for the All-Ireland and an independent Irish State

It’s late on a Sunday night, a week before Christmas 1916. Gus Kennedy and the rest of the Wexford senior footballers are out at an all-night dance in the Connarchy Hotel on Parnell Square.

Kennedy has just given a display of set-dancing that has enraptured those at the dance.

Earlier that day he had played brilliantly for the Wexford team that had retained the All-Ireland senior football championship.

It was a display that had lit up a poor match, described by one observer as “remarkable in its tameness”. Only 3,000 people turned up to watch it on a bitterly cold day — they saw Wexford easily defeat Mayo by 3-4 to 1-2.

The victory was captured by the Film Company of Ireland for showing in Ireland’s cinemas.

This was the latest achievement of an extraordinary team who eventually would win four All-Ireland senior football championships in a row.

It would have been five but Kerry had sneaked past them in 1914.

It was fitting that Wexford should win in this year of rebellion — fitting not just because of Vinegar Hill and Fr Murphy and the old lore of rebellion.

Fitting, instead, because it was in Wexford that the greatest uprising in support of the rebels in Dublin had taken place.

This was Wexford’s time.

The thrill of victory

Seán Etchingham could not come to Dublin for that All-Ireland final, which was played on December 17, 1916.

In fact, he couldn’t go anywhere. He was lying in an English jail, a man who had initially been sentenced to death as a leader of the Easter Rising.

He may not have been in Croke Park — but he must have been thrilled by the victory. Success for Wexford’s footballers was something that Etchingham had laboured for across many years.

He worked as a journalist and lived in the small towns of north Wexford. From 1902, the newspaper that Etchingham was most associated with was the Enniscorthy Echo.

This was an extraordinary paper that supported radical republicanism rather than Redmondite constitutional nationalism. It also supported trade unionism and argued in support of the right of women to vote.

But the success of the Echo was rooted, most of all, in the quality of its journalism and at the heart of this was Etchingham. He wrote brilliant, funny articles about life in the towns and countryside all around him.

He wrote also on sport, culture, and politics — and everything he wrote was written with passion and style.

But unlike most journalists, he didn’t just pontificate from a height, he also actually got himself active in politics.

For example, he established a trade union which catered for farm labourers; one of them later recalled that “it was he who first got an increase in wages for the farm workers of Wicklow and Wexford”.

Etchingham was also a hugely devoted cultural nationalist. He founded a branch of the Gaelic League and became intimately involved with the GAA in north Wexford.

There is no record of him playing Gaelic games, but his role as administrator was central to the reorganisation of the GAA in Wexford after 1900 and — along with the men who worked beside him — to the production of a new generation of players who would bring unprecedented glory to the county.

Over the following years, men such as Etchingham, Seán O’Kennedy (the outstanding Ross Geraldines footballer), and the Enniscorthy men Pádraig Doyle and Frank Boggan, worked tirelessly to promote football in Wexford.

The county was now brilliantly run. Its championships underpinned the development of a county team that came close to winning the All-Ireland in 1914, before losing to Kerry by a goal.

They had revenge, though, in 1915 when they overturned that result in the All-Ireland final, winning by a goal themselves.

A more radical GAA

All the while they were trying to win All-Irelands, many of these men were also attempting to push the GAA in Wexford towards a more radical nationalist position.

The problem for those who wished the GAA to be more than a mere sporting organisation was that there were many members whose involvement was rooted in a love of sport and who conceived of the GAA only in terms of sporting engagement.

The pragmatism involved in running a broad-based organisation ensured that the ambition of drawing a line between Irish-Ireland and West-Britain was no straightforward task.

In 1912, for example, across the fields from Enniscorthy in Bunclody, the Bunclody GAA club passed a vote of thanks to Robert Hall-Dare, the huntsman and British army officer, for the use of a field for Gaelic games.

Implementation of the ‘Ban’ rules was also contentious. These rules disbarred from membership of the GAA anybody who played or watched those “foreign games” of cricket, rugby, soccer, and tennis.

Policing such rules was difficult — if not impossible — and, in Enniscorthy, for example, the foundation of the rugby club in November 1912 left one more temptation in the path of Gaels.

It was not one which could always be resisted. Men from the Enniscorthy Volunteers GAA club attended a rugby match in 1913 and were suspended. Indeed, the number of GAA men attending rugby matches was acknowledged to be large at the annual convention of the Wexford GAA. Such men were condemned for giving moral and financial support to “foreign games”.

A state of high dudgeon

Enniscorthy’s risingleaders, from the National Library of Ireland.
Enniscorthy’s risingleaders, from the National Library of Ireland.

The failure of the wider membership of the GAA in Wexford to match their cultural ambitions often drove Etchingham — and his friend and fellow GAA official Pádraig Kehoe — into a state of high dudgeon.

When a member of the Enniscorthy Volunteer GAA club, Robert Hanlon, looked for readmission to the GAA having attended a dance run by a rugby club, the case was made by a member of his club that Hanlon understood he was doing nothing wrong.

Mr Kehoe: What! Attended a rugby dance and he understood he was doing nothing wrong?

Mr Etchingham: What class of a dance is this? Is it like the tango?

Mr McGrath: A little above that.

Mr Etchingham: He must come here and express his regret and make an apology.

Mr Kehoe: What is the Association coming to? Here we have a man breaking the rules, and afterwards seeking to be readmitted.

Worse was to follow when one of the star players of the Enniscorthy teams which had won hurling and football championships since 1900, Aidan Connolly, turned to rugby. Connolly had won seven senior football championships, including captaining the Red Rapparees to victory in 1913.

On St Stephen’s Day 1913, Connolly played in the centre for Enniscorthy Rugby Club in a match against Lansdowne. He was suspended from the GAA for 1914. When he sought re-admittance, he was castigated by Etchingham and the two men had a vicious exchange in the newspapers. Connolly accused Etchingham of being a fraud, and was accused, in turn, of forsaking the GAA for rugby because he had been overlooked for the Wexford county team. Etchingham quoted to him the lines: “He acted so oddly, we doubted his sanity. Till we discovered the cause was his vanity.”

War breaks out

The backdrop to the spat between Connolly and Etchingham was the outbreak of the Great War. Enniscorthy was transformed and was reported as being one of the best recruiting centres for the British army in Ireland.

On Tuesday, September 23, 1914, for example, 23 men enlisted in the town. The Enniscorthy Guardian reported: “They are going now by every train,” seen off at the station with presents of cigarettes.

When the rugby club announced it was suspending its matches until the end of the war; Etchingham sneered that they must be making socks for the troops.

For men such as Seán Etchingham, the Great War represented an opportunity. At a Wexford GAA meeting in November 1914, his suggestion that the GAA clubs of the county should establish rifle clubs was met with general agreement.

There was, however, a concern expressed that the weather might be unsuited to such activities. Etchingham was apoplectic: “Do you want special weather for war? It is not a question of weather. It is a question of time, and you may be required to have knowledge on this point at any moment. If you wait till the summer the opportunity — the like of which you have not had for a century — may pass; an opportunity that may not occur again.”

When it was pointed out the establishment of rifle clubs was a subject for discussion at the forthcoming national convention of the GAA and that Wexford should await the decision on a Kerry resolution to establish rifle clubs, Etchingham commented: “Sure it’s rifles I want, not resolutions. If resolutions could do any good, this country would have been free long ago.”

Still planning a rebellion

Etchingham was tired of talk and wanted action. He put before the Wexford County Board elaborate drills which its clubs should follow in their rifle training. This never happened on any formal basis, but in Enniscorthy, sections of the GAA — led by Etchingham — continued to plan for nationalist rebellion.

And when Enniscorthy rose during the rebellion of 1916, Etchingham was a leading figure. Not all of the GAA men who were expected to fight did so, however. One of the rebels, Peter Galligan, remembered that Seán O’Kennedy had been sent a mobilisation order in New Ross, but did not act.

When a second order was sent, O’Kennedy’s father was reported to have met the man who carried the orders and said he would shoot him if he did not leave.

It meant that when it came to the All-Ireland football final in December 1916, Seán O’Kennedy was in a position to captain the Wexford team and to play a pivotal role in their victory over Mayo.

During Easter Week 1916, the rebels held the centre of the town of Enniscorthy and were left unchallenged.

At the end of the week they initially refused to believe the Dublin leaders had surrendered, and Etchingham, with another officer, Seamus Doyle, was sent under a flag of truce to meet Patrick Pearse in Arbour Hill prison to confirm the situation.

After the surrender, Etchingham was sentenced to death by a court-martial (his response was dripping with black humour as he inquired if he could be let off under the first offenders act).

His sentence was eventually commuted to five years, and he was sent to Dartmoor Prison.

The first Dáil

Prison permanently injured Etchingham’s health: He contracted tuberculosis before he was released in June 1917.

It was a tribute to his intelligence and how he was perceived by his colleagues that on November 28, 1919, he was appointed in the first Dáil as minister for fisheries. That same month he also became the first Sinn Féin chairman of Wexford County Council.

His time as minister was, of course, rendered extremely difficult by the fact he spent much of it on the run in Wexford. At one point he evaded a search by engaging in a long conversation about boxing with a soldier, who decided such a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport could not be a dangerous enemy.

In May 1921, his house at Courtown Harbour was des-troyed by Black and Tans. The same month, Etchingham was returned as one of four Sinn Féin TDs for Wexford in the uncontested general election.

When it came to the treaty, Etchingham belonged to the hard-line republican wing of Sinn Féin. It is reported that as he walked out of the chamber following the conclusion of the debate, he engaged in some sort of an altercation with Michael Collins on the floor of the chamber.

The end approaches

In the middle of 1923, with the flames of the Civil War still burning, Seán Etchingham was dying in Courtown. He had spent several months in a nursing home in Dublin but was then brought home for his final days.

He was racked with TB and recovery was not an option. With the end approaching, he sent a message to Wexford County Board. He declared himself heartbroken “at the continuance of the present differences among Irishmen who had done so much in the past for the uplifting of our motherland”.

When Etchingham died on April 23, 1923, there followed a genuine outpouring of grief. He was described as a man who was fiercely intelligent, brave, occasionally difficult, exceptionally driven, proud, funny, belligerent, and a patriot. Most poignant of all the tributes was that of pro-Treaty councillor JJ O’Byrne.

O’Byrne had stood against Etchingham (who had been strongly opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty) in a bitter election in 1922, but he was moved by Etchingham’s death: “He was a man, and although one might differ with him, still one would love him just the same.”

Etchinghman had lived to take part in the rebellion that he had been so committed to. For all its limitations, he had lived also to see the establishment of an independent Irish State.

And he had lived to know that the Wexford footballers won four All-Irelands in a row.

The fruits of his labours were written now into history.

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