Keys to the Kingdom: a fascinating account of the GAA in Kerry

 FEEL THE FORCE: Richard McElligott, at Croke Park, writes on how the GAA was hugely influential in Kerry. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry, 1884-1934
Richard McElligott
The Collins Press, £17.99

It is often forgotten that Kerry’s first All-Ireland success was in hurling, when a Kerry team won the 1892 All-Ireland. The players had to pay their own expenses then, and this proved so costly that the team did not defend its crown the following year

The Gaelic League is often credited with inspiring the movement that led to Irish independence, but the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) had been set up nine years earlier. Thus, the GAA was arguably a more seminal inspiration because it inspired the establishment of the Gaelic League.

The GAA was founded primarily to promote athletics. Initially it was easier to arrange athletics meetings, because there were defined rules for athletic events, while the rules for Gaelic football and hurling had not yet been codified. Richard McElligott concludes that the strength of the GAA in Kerry was its “ability to develop and then dominate the sporting landscape while destroying the threat of rival sporting codes”.

The GAA largely undermined athletics, the sport it was initially set up to support. It introduced a ban against those who competed at rival athletics meetings, as well as those who played “foreign games” like rugby, soccer, hockey and cricket. From 1905 to 1915 “Gaelic football became the dominant sport in Ireland in terms of playing numbers, attendances and media interest.”

During those years, Kerry won five different all-Ireland senior football titles, and reached three other finals. Hence, Dr McElligott concludes, “Kerry played a vital role in this popularisation of Gaelic Games”.

It is often forgotten that Kerry’s first All-Ireland success was in hurling, when a Kerry team won the 1892 All-Ireland. The players had to pay their own expenses then, and this proved so costly that the team did not defend its crown the following year. Travel and accommodation in Dublin for the final had cost the players 18 shillings each at a time when they were only earning between one and two shillings a week.

Agricultural labourers were the most populous component of the GAA players in Kerry, but the county also had more than twice the national average of professional people participating. These figures were the result of an impressive piece of research on the part of the author, who gathered the names of players from local newspapers and then matched those with the census to determine their occupations.

The early driving forces of the GAA in Kerry were Austin Stack and Maurice Moynihan, who were both active in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The IRB gained control of Kerry GAA by 1887, but it was essentially undermined when it supported Parnell against the Catholic Church in the wake of the Kitty O’Shea affair.

As a result the GAA was slow to involve itself in politics in the coming years. The GAA was not involved in the Easter Rising, but its influence was still felt. Éamon de Valera later admitted that even though he preferred rugby, he never dared to attend a rugby game while he was active in politics after 1913.

The GAA burst into politics with great effect during the conscription crisis of 1918. When the British tried to suppress the campaign against conscription by outlawing public meetings, the GAA called for gatherings throughout the country in what became known as “Gaelic Sunday”. Dr McElligott concludes that this “represented the largest, most widespread and successful act of public defiance against British rule in Ireland”.

“The Civil War had probably affected Kerry more than any other county in Ireland and the GAA in the county had effectively ceased to exist during its duration,” according to the author. But football played a significant role in helping to overcome the bitterness of the period.

Republicans like John Joe Sheehy and Joe Barrett played alongside the Free State Army Captain Con Brosnan and Garda Paul Russell in winning the 1924 and 1926 all-Ireland championships. They formed the backbone of the team that went on to win four all-Ireland championships from 1929 to 1932.

Joe Barrett captained Kerry in 1929 but when he was selected captain again in 1931, he gave the captaincy to Con Brosnan in recognition of his contribution to the team, not only in ensuring the unobstructed passage for republican colleagues but also in ensuring that Free State politics were kept out of team affairs.

It would be naïve to assume that they all became intimate friends, but they did play together for the good of the team, and this afforded magnificent example for the people of Kerry in providing “a powerful symbol of unity”. Some saw this “as a metaphor for the power of sport to transcend politics”, according to Dr McElligott.

The book is an impressive piece of research. The author, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the early history of the GAA, provides a magnificent example of the importance of sport as a serious historical topic.

For too long history has been presented in our schools as if it were the exclusive preserve of conflict and politics. In reality it should also be about all facets of life. Austin Stack first made a name for himself as an administrator in the GAA, and his reputation led to his appointment as deputy chief of staff of the IRA in 1919, and Éamon de Valera selected him to replace Michael Collins as deputy president in 1921.

The book, which concentrates on Kerry, clearly demonstrates that there is considerable scope for further assessing the influence of the GAA throughout the country. Other leading figures — such as Michael Collins, Eoin O’Duffy, and Harry Boland — first made names for themselves as administrators in the GAA. One might also ask if we would ever have heard of Jack Lynch, if it had not been for his prowess on the hurling and football fields.


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