Brendan O Sullivan

Forging a Kingdom

December 20th, 2013
by Brendan O'Sullivan

Richard McElligott is now the unquestioned king among Kerry GAA historians. His recent book, "Forging a Kingdom", is a meticulously researched account of the first fifty years of the GAA in Kerry.

This is far more than a local history. Kerry GAA did not exist in isolation, it was part of a larger body. Politics and policies, disputes and decisions at Convention and Central Council level all influenced events in Kerry. There were similarities between what happened in Kerry and what was happening in other counties. So, we have a county history set in a national context.

Furthermore, developments in Kerry are explained within the broad sweep of Irish history. The GAA was founded at a time of serious agrarian unrest and when Parnell led the Home Rule Party. All the major movements and events, from the Parnell Split in 1890, through the dramatic years from 1916 to 1923, to the Blueshirts in the 1930s had an impact on the GAA in Kerry and feature prominently in the story.

Other sports also feature. The GAA was essentially an athletics association at the start and Tralee was the venue for its first show of strength. In June 1885, Michael Cusack organised an athletics meeting in direct opposition to the established meeting fixed for what was then called the Sportsground, now Austin Stack Park. Cusack's meeting, held in Rathonane, near the present greyhound track, was an unqualified success. So the GAA got off to a flying start in Kerry but there were many ups and downs as the years progressed.

Cricket, soccer, rugby and hockey were rival sports in the early years. As the 19th century ended, the GAA in Kerry was in disarray; rugby, its rules quite similar to gaelic football, was becoming the most popular sport. But, mainly through the efforts of county secretary Thomas F. O'Sullivan, the GAA was regenerated to such an extent that Kerry won the 1903 All-Ireland Football title, played in 1905.  The heroes in this story, if heroes are allowed in an objective history, are the administrators. When a strong personality and good organiser was in office, the GAA was more likely to flourish and, as well as O'Sullivan, Thomas Slattery, Maurice Moynihan, and Austin Stack all played major roles. Eventually, the formation of divisional boards facilitated the organisation of such a large county.

 1903 was not Kerry's first All-Ireland; that was the 1891 hurling final, played in 1892. One of the themes in this book is how hurling became the poor relation in the county and the first of Kerry's 37 All-Ireland victories was also the last hurling success.

Dr McElligott reveals some fascinating details. The abuse of alcohol was a major social problem and always an issue in the GAA. In Killarney in 1900, there was one pub for every 11 adult men. There was no Sunday opening in those years but the bona fide laws meant that those who travelled over 3 miles from their homes were entitled to be served in a public house on a Sunday and this was one reason why supporters followed their teams. Many games in the early years were abandoned due to pitch encroachments and violence and undoubtedly some followers were intoxicated before the matches started. Publicans were supporters of the GAA but the clergy tried to curb alcohol intake. The temperance movement was strong and the Listowel Temperance Society even started a GAA team which was shortlived as the members may have been temperate where alcohol was concerned but this moderation did not extend to violence on the field of play.

 Transport is another major theme. The popularity of gaelic games increased as railway lines extended into the more remote parts of the county. There were problems as the railway company demanded a significant deposit before a match excursion would be scheduled and many games weren't played as a result. The most important dispute came in 1910 when Kerry refused to travel for the All-Ireland Final against Louth and eventually forfeited the match.

The effects of the traumatic years between 1916 and 1923 are well described and some interesting facts emerge about how gaelic football seemingly healed the wounds opened by the Civil War. In 1924, the Kerry team, on their first appearance in Croke Park for 5 years, walked to the spot where Michael Hogan had been shot, knelt and prayed. But although they were united on the field, tensions simmered off the pitch. The IRA continued to be very influential in Kerry GAA politics and the infamous 1927 tour to America was actually masterminded by them as a fundraising and gunrunning exercise.

This is not a story of matches lost and won, although many matches are described. This is a work by a professional historian, but eminently readable and compulsory reading for anyone interested in the history of Kerry sport. The author hopes that other historians will follow his example, because, apart from Dublin, no county has an account in any way comparable to this book. The 400 pages of text are augmented by almost 50 pages of footnotes, some as interesting as the main narrative. There are graphs detailing the social background of Kerry GAA players and administrators, names and numbers of clubs, a wealth of information painstakingly researched and clearly outlined.

This is the definitive history of the first 50 years of the GAA in Kerry and also a major contribution to Irish sports historiography. But it will be most appreciated in Kerry and Dr Richard McElligott deserves the gratitude and support of the people of the county for this epic work.

Radio Kerry - The Voice of the Kingdom