Brendan O Sullivan

The Polo Grounds Final - September 14 1947

by Brendan O'Sullivan

The 8 year old boy named Kerry from New York was going to be the mascot for the team named Kerry in the big match. He didn't fully understand what was going on but he got caught up in the excitement. His mother was originally from Kerry and she had called her son after her home county. Her brother, Teddy O'Connor, was playing at midfield in the game. The boy was brought to the team hotel on the evening before the game and handed into the care of the uncle whom he had never met before.

How did it happen that an All-Ireland Football final could be played  in New York? There was a tradition of Irish teams traveling to America going back to the athletes trip in 1888. Millions of  people who were Irish born or of Irish descent lived there. Emigration, which had commenced well before the Famine, had intensified during that tragic event and had become a way of life  in certain parts of Ireland in the following decades. Thus there were Gaelic teams in the larger American cities. However emigration came to a halt during the Second World War and GAA leaders in America felt that a boost was needed. They proposed that the 1947  Football Final be played in New York. It was the centenary of Black 47, the worst year of the Famine and American GAA leaders found some support in Ireland. Not enough to succeed until a letter was read to the GAA Congress from an emigrant pleading that the game be played in New York. This swung the delegates and the decision was made. It later emerged that the letter was a forgery but the decision stood.

With a trip to New York as the prize all counties were extremely anxious to qualify for the final. In the Kerry-Cork Munster final Cork were awarded a penalty. Joe Keohane, the Kerry full-back, queried why it had been awarded and, as he did so, put one foot on the ball, pushing it into the muddy ground. Remarkably, the free taker did not notice and when he kicked the ball it trickled towards the Kerry goalkeeper. Maybe the fates caught up  later with Joe for his gamesmanship.

Kerry won the semi-final and qualified to meet Cavan. The occasion required a huge amount of planning  and  GAA secretary Padraig O Caoimh based himself in New York for weeks before the game. Most of the Kerry party travelled out by sea whereas the Cavan group went by air. This meant that the Cavan team spent longer in collective training and may have been a factor in the eventual result.

The teams eventually gathered in New York, settled into their hotels and went through the  many formalities involved in the occasion.
Sunday September 14 dawned sunny and humid. The boy mascot Kerry had spent the night in the same hotel room as his uncle Teddy and the team captain Dinny Lyne. There was a lot of talk between the two players --not that the boy could understand any of it--the Kerry accent was incomprehensible to his New York ear. 

Both teams attended Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral and proceeded to the Polo Grounds, home to the New York Giants baseball team. Kerry were favorites as reigning All-Ireland champions. Young Kerry the mascot changed into his team outfit specially made by one of his aunts back in the home county. In the parade he marched behind the band, holding the hand of the team captain.

Kerry got off to an electric start. They were  8 points up after 15 minutes with goals having been scored by Batt Garvey and Gega O'Connor. The ball was in the Cavan net on 2 further occasions but  both times the referee called back the play in order to award free kicks. The Kerry view on this was that the ref did not want such a high profile game to become even more onesided: the Cavan view was that their defenders stopped upon hearing the whistle and Kerry's goals wouldn't have been scored. The game was transformed in the second part of the first half; Kerry were hit by injuries, the most significant being Eddie Dowling who hit his head off the raised baseball mound and was concussed. Cavan scored two goals and turned the game around to lead by a point at half-time. Kerry could make no inroads in the second half and Cavan won the only All- Ireland Final played on foreign soil by 4 points.

Why did Kerry lose the Polo Grounds Final? Was it the ref? Or the injuries? Or the long journey to New York? Or maybe the shrewd switches made by the Cavan management to counteract Kerry's early dominance? Or the fact that this was a very good Cavan team which would win two more All-Irelands in the next five years?.

The game ended and the young mascot Kerry was soon returned into the care of his parents.

He didn't visit his mother's county until 2009 when he was 70 years old. He was surprised to find that he was a minor celebrity and was interviewed on "Terrace Talk". He wasn't aware that he had participated in an event which was the Irish equivalent of the Super Bowl. Apart from himself there are very few Polo Grounds veterans still alive- - 4 from Kerry while the last Cavan survivor, Mick Higgins, sadly died a few weeks ago. Today we remember all who participated in that occasion, the most memorable All-Ireland Final in the 125 years of the GAA.

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