Forging a Kingdom - The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934

October 17th, 2013
by Richard McElligott

Richard McElligott describes the different aspects of his book - Forging a Kingdom - The GAA in Kerry, 1884-1934.

1) How and why did the book come about, surely this story has been told before?

Still a lack of study on the history of sport in Ireland and sport's impact on Irish life, society and culture.

While the GAA is probably the one sport served better than most in this regard, there still remains a dearth of quality researched books on the profound impact of the GAA, as an organisation, on the political, social and cultural history of Ireland.

Any books on the GAA have traditionally been either national histories, which focus on a Dublin-centric story of the GAA,  or more local club histories which invariably only tell a broad story of a particular club's local

Until now there had been no book which looked at the development of the GAA in a specific county as a case study to examine the GAA's impact on Irish history.

My own native county was the obvious choice to start, especially as Kerry has had such a profound impact on the national history of the GAA.

There has never yet been a proper history of the establishment and development of the GAA in the county. While there have been some brilliant books on the Kerry GAA, many of them are often only catalogues of All Ireland wins. There is no attempt to look at broader story behind the success of say the Kerry footballers.

Also most GAA books on Kerry are in reality books on the Kerry football team.

My book is first attempt to look at the GAA in its entirety in Kerry during these crucial first 50 years.

What I'm hoping is that my book will not just be seen as the definitive history of the early Kerry GAA but rather an examination of the entire early history of the Association which takes Kerry as its case study. As such, I believe it has the potential to be one of the most important works ever produced on the history of our great Association and a template for all those who wish to write about the development of the GAA in their own counties. I also hope it will prove useful for those who wish to write or update their own clubs history by allowing them to place their individual clubs development into the broader story of the evolution of the Kerry GAA.    

2) Maurice Moynihan and the countywide establishment of the GAA in Kerry, 1887/8.

GAA introduced to Kerry in 1885, and its first big event is the Tralee GAA sports meeting on 17 June 1885, organised by Michael Cusack which was a brilliant success and helped to firmly establish the GAA's control over athletics across Ireland.

However in aftermath of this success GAA stalled in Kerry, due to worsening economic and political situation in county (land war, evections etc).

In Nov 1887, Tralee branch of GAA reformed by Maurice Moynihan a member of the IRB and a committedIrish  nationalist. He also starts a media campaign through the local KS paper to establish GAA on countywide basis.

In Nov 1888, Kerry's first annual GAA convention was held and Kerry County Board was inaugurated with Moynihan being elected secretary and Thomas Slattery, IRB leader in Tralee and publican from Rock Street as president.  

By end of 1888, 19 hurling and football clubs had affiliated to Kerry Board; this would grow to 33 by end of 1889.

3) The inaugural Kerry county championships in 1889.
15 football and 5 hurling teams competed in inaugural county championship in 1889.
First ever championship matches held on 3 March 1889 a triple header in field used by Killarney GAA club a mile from town. Laune Rangers played Barraduff O'Connells in first ever match.
On 19 May Kenmare became hurling champions beating fancied Kilmoyley team in the final. On 26 May Rangers won inaugural football championship beating Dr Crokes in final in Tralee.
Rangers and Kenmare represent Kerry in county first appearance in All Ireland championship against Cork champions in Mallow in July 1889. Kenmare win but despite being unbeaten in Munster are still not crowned Munster Champions. Rangers lose to Midleton.   

4) Kerry's inaugural All Ireland, the Ballyduff victory of 1891

In May 1891 Ballyduff become county champions beating Kilmoyley in final. After beating Cork Champions Blackrock in Munster semi-final they appear in Munster final against Limerick Treaty Stones in Newcastlewest in December 1891.

They lose by point, but appeal decision to Central Council arguing that referee unfairly disallowed an equalising point scored just before full time, appeal successful and Ballyduff replay final, becoming only Kerry side to win Munster title beating Treaty Stones 2-4 to 0-1 in Abbeyfeale in Jan 1892. Wild scenes of celebration in Ballyduff.

Qualify for final against Wexford's Crossabeg club, played on 28 February 1892 in Clonturk park (near Drumcondra) Dublin. Only hurling final ever to go to extra time. With sides level Crossabeg get a free and score a winning point, but referee declares he called full time before ball sailed over the bar. Despite protests from Ballyduff that they will miss their train, their persuaded to play extra time and win by 2-3 to 1-5.

Ballyduff one of first club sides in All Ireland to use players from other clubs. In 26 man panel were 7 Lixnaw men and ten from Kilmoyley. However irony that this national success actually lead to near collapse of hurling in Kerry. Financial cost of getting to final, cripples players many never again hurl for their club in county championship (Cost 16s for transport accommodation when average farm wage was 1-2s a week).

5) Kerry's first All Ireland football final appearance with Laune Rangers in 1893.
In September 1892 Rangers beat Ballymac to become Kerry champions.
Beat Cork champions, and then defeated Waterford's Dungarvan in the subsequent Munster final, setting up a tie with Dublin's Young Irelanders for the 1892 All Ireland final.
Meet Dublin Young Irelanders in Clonturk on 26 March 1893, lost final 1-4 to 0-3.
Rangers unhappy with defeat. Dublin crowd accused of unsportsmanlike conduct and being hostile to Kerry players. JP O'Sullivan, the famous Rangers Captain, tries to get Dublin team to replay.
However attempts fail last appearance of Kerry team in All Ireland for 12 years, football and hurling continue to decline in popularity in Kerry.   

6) Continued decline of the GAA, the threat of foreign games, and the growth of rugby in Kerry in 1890s.

GAA goes into rapid decline in Kerry during the 1890s because of widespread economic recession in the country and the re-emergence of mass emigration which robs so many clubs of their players. (Big parallels with what's happening today). By 1894 only 16 GAA games recorded as palyed in Kerry.

Significant growth in popularity of cricket and especially rugby in Kerry in mid to late 1890s. Men playing rugby mostly from town and less likely to be affected by economic depression in agriculture. In 1896, due to diminishing of its members, GAA revoked its ban on members playing foreign sports. Was great benefit to rugby in Kerry as in the absence of GAA clubs, men now looked to rugby to satisfy their sporting needs and could do so without fear of being banned of GAA membership.

In 1897 Thomas Slattery retires as President of Kerry GAA, had been in position since 1888. Robbed of his energetic and forceful leadership, the GAA in Kerry practically ceased to exist.

No Board meetings are held and no county championships are played in Kerry between then and 1900. Few clubs which remain disintegrate due to lack of interest.    

7) Thomas F. O'Sullivan and the reestablishment of the Kerry GAA in 1900.

The mid-1890s saw the emergence of a collective movement, which transformed the cultural, political, economic and social history of Ireland. 'The Gaelic Revival'.

O'Sullivan was born in Listowel and became a journalist with local Kerry papers. He was a committed nationalist and IRB member and he was deeply affected by the Gaelic Revival movement which aimed to create a culturally, politically and economically independent Ireland.

Since he was 19, he was involved with GAA first being secretary of Listowel GAA club. In 1899 to keep GAA alive in the area, he organised a tournament in which 15 teams from north Kerry and west Limerick participated.

In 1900 he made an appeal through local press to reform Kerry Board. The GAA's central council sent down two officials to help him organise a Kerry GAA convention in May 1900 which was a huge success. He was elected secretary in new county board.  By end of year 30 clubs had reformed and re-affiliated to new board.

8) O'Sullivan campaign against foreign sports and the introduction of the GAA's Foreign Games Ban in 1905.

Rugby was still a great threat to popularity of GAA in Kerry. Its popularity was such that in 1900 Tralee was chosen as venue to host Munster v Leinster interprovincial match. Munster Rugby Branch hoped that this would further encourage rugby clubs to spread in area.

O'Sullivan was horrified that a garrison game was growing so popular, especially in major towns like Tralee, Killarney and  his native Listowel.

Through his GAA column in KS he lead a press campaign against rugby calling on all right minded Irishmen to reject the sports and the 'Anglicised Cads' who played it.

At GAA's annual convention in December 1901 delegates voted in favour of his motion to reintroduce the ban on GAA members playing foreign sports. In January 1905 delegates approved his motion to strengthen the sanction of the rule, suspending members for 2 years caught playing rugby, cricket and other sports. In the face of such campaigns, popular support for rugby in Kerry collapsed and Gaelic football became dominate. Thanks to his work the GAA was able to lay claim to Kerry's sporting heritage.       

9) Kerry's inaugural football All Ireland title, the three game epic with Kildare in 1905.

With re-establishment of County Board a new generation of young and talented officials were determined to make Kerry teams successful on a national stage.

Austin Stack was one of the most important. He became secretary of reformed Tralee Mitchels GAA club in 1902 and was also elected onto County Board. Mitchels dominated county championship winning 9 titles in a row. Stack saw that for Kerry to compete, needed best players in county to represent Kerry not just county championship team. (When they won in 1905 only 8 Mitchels players on team as well as 6 Dr Crokes, 2 Castleisland and 1 Cahirciveen).

Stack was regular on Kerry team and made sure men picked for Kerry were best players in Kerry and that they were properly trained with trail matches played in weeks before they palyed inter-county contests. Thanks to these innovations, Kerry team began to gain inter-county success.

In October 1904 Kerry won only their second Munster title, when Mitchels beat Cork champions 1-7 to 0-3 in 1903 Munster final. They beat Mayo in semi to reach all Ireland against Kildare on 23 July 1905 in Thurles. Game was an instant classic and captured the Irish sporting public imagination. No one had ever seen a GAA match played with such skill and speed as this was. Enormous attendance of 12,000 at drawn match and gate receipts were record £123. Match went unfinished as Kerry fans invaded the pitch towards the end once they thought it was won. Replay ordered in August in Cork and again huge crowd watched fast, exciting game which again ended level. For third match interest in the event was unparalleled in previous history of GAA. On 15 October Kerry won first football final beating Kildare 0-8 to 0-2 in front of massive 20,000 crowd. The games heralded the GAA's coming of age, and Gaelic football emerged as a major competitor nationally to the popularity of soccer and rugby in Ireland. Close to 60,000 people witnessed the games and the standards of football exhibited exceeded anything previously seen on a Gaelic field.

10) The Croke Cup final of 1913, and Kerry's part in making Gaelic games the most popular sports in Ireland.

After 1903 victory, Kerry team became most famous GAA team in Ireland. Retained their title in 1904. Kerry's famous players like Dick Fitzgerald became household names. Kerry's successes came at time of unprecedented growth of press and media. Start of extensive use of photography. Illiteracy levels feel from 61% in 1861 to 12% in 1911  

GAA rules were constantly involving, in 1913 GAA passed law to reduce player numbers to modern 15 aside. First match to demonstrate this new rule was Croke Cup final of 1913. Press and spectators astonished at the skill and speed of this game and it entered GAA folklore as perhaps the greatest game of all time.

In 1912 Central Council decided to hold special competition in order to raise enough money to build a memorial to their dead patron archbishop Thomas Croke who passed away in 1902. Kerry and Louth reached the final. Huge media interest as they were great rivals of the era and there was much animosity between the teams (1909/1910 finals).

No sporting event in Ireland generated as much hype and media attention as the match. Final held in Jones road 4 May ended level 0-4 to 1-1. 25,000 estimated attended and this broke all records for attendance of sporting event in Ireland. Spectators astonished at speed and skill levels and closeness of match. Media interest even greater for replay (June) and up to 50,000 attended. Kerry won 2-4 to 0-5. Cemented Kerry place as powerhouse of football and on the back of this success Kerry tradition was born. The games captured the public's imagination and following these games Gaelic football became to dominate and most popular sport in Ireland and the GAA secured its place at heart of Irish culture. Jones Road purchased from huge gate receipts and renamed Croke Park in honour of Archbishop Croke. 

11) The Birth of the Kerry Tradition

Kerry tradition is built on the back of the impact of the 1903 Final and Croke Cup final on Irish sporting psyche.

Kerry became media darlings and the press constantly emphasis how they embody everything good and right about Irish culture and Irish masculinity and they are the antithesis of everything wrong with foreign 'British' sports, i.e. professionalism.

Helped by remarkable success of Kerry clubs in local competitions in likes of America which is being reported back to local national media.

All enhanced by the publication of Dick Fitzgerald's seminal How to Play Gaelic Football in 1914. 
12) Outward Success, Inward Stagnation, the Association within Kerry, 1905-1915

Kerry's huge success on national stage, did not translate to strong and organised GAA within the county.

Departure of O'Sullivan to work for FJ in Dublin in 1907, huge blow. In addition the county board focused most of its attention on preparation of the county football team and disregarded clubs.

Finance a major issue, County Board always lacked money. Cost to prepare and train inter-county teams and transport to matches in Dublin huge. County Championship matches poorly attended, and County had few enclosed grounds to ensure patrons always paid in. Frequent clashes between Kerry Board and Central Council with Kerry often complaining they never got a fair share of huge profits GAA was making on back of Kerry success.

Football championship became dominated by two main feeder clubs to county side, Tralee Mitchels and Dr. Crokes. Other clubs disheartened by their domination and inability to break it. Likewise, two clubs had an intense and often bitter rivlarly. Frequent crowd trouble and mass brawls at their county final appearances. (eg 1911 semi final/1913 final). Interest in county championship fell.

13) The abandonment of hurling in the Kerry tradition 1900-1915.

Hurling became smothered by the overarching success of the Kerry footballers, the county's hurlers experienced a dismal record on the inter-county scene. The emerging Kerry tradition, had effectively abandoned hurling.

County Board increasingly devotes it's time to state of football. The hurling championship, even though often only 5-6 teams in it, constantly runs months or in cases, years late and often clubs only play one competitive match a year.

Hurling clubs, bar isolated examples like Kenmare, are all rural based. They lacked population of towns which football clubs could rely on. No tradition in Killarney or Listowel and even in Tralee where there was hurling, it relied on players who had come looking for work from hurling areas in north Kerry. Lack of a strong urban centre reason for inability of hurling to grow and prosper.

Also small area in which hurling popular. Inside this area 6-8 clubs on average all trying to compete for players among dwindling young rural male population (emigration and increasing urbanisation), leads to disputes and animosity and inability to pull together for county team.  

14) The Kerry GAA and the 1916 Rising/War of Independence and Civil War.

Pearse visits Stack in Tralee in Oct 1915 and appoints him head of Volunteers in Kerry. Informs him of plan to launch rebellion. In response Stack arranges to purchase and transport of a large consignment of weapons for the Kerry Volunteers. He orders group of Volunteers under Tadgh Kennedy to travel to Dublin in guise of Kerry supporters going to 1915 All Ireland Final, in order to secure weapons and transport them home (Tadgh Horan Killarney, O'Rahilly).

Nationally GAA members heavily involved in Rising. Thomas Ashe Lispole ex captain and secretary commanded Battle of Ashbourne. 5 of 15 leaders of 1916 executed had GAA connections. Other GAA men in fighting included Dublin Board representative Harry Boland, Cork President JJ Walsh, Michael Collins who had been active in London GAA. In Dublin some 300 GAA members from local clubs took part in fighting. In Galway Volunteers from local hurling clubs active on Easter Monday.                

Start of War of Indo in January 1919. In Kerry many local GAA members became heavily involved in the fighting. Local Volunteer companies reorganised into renamed IRA Brigades. Patrick Cahill of Mitchels took charge of No 1 Brigade based in Kerry. Tadgh Kennedy of County Board became IRA Intelligence officer for Kerry region. Patrick Launders who played with Kerry became head of Listowel IRA battalion. Humphrey Murphy of Kerry and Dr Crokes was high ranking officer in No 2 IRA brigade centred on Killarney. Fellow club man John Joe Rice commanded Kenmare IRA battalion.     

William Nolan of Ardfert IRA and sec of Kilmoyley hurling club died in ambush of RIC in Causeway in May 1920. In Nov Georgie O'Shea and Stephen Fuller of Abbeydorney IRA who had formed Tullig Gamecocks fought ambush of Black and Tans at Shannow Bridge in Abbeydorney. Con Brosnan of Newtownsandes IRA/ GAA and future Kerry captain involved in assignation of RIC District Inspector Tobias O'Sullivan in Jan 1921. A number of GAA members involved in biggest engagement of war in Kerry, IRA ambush of troop train at Headford Junction in Ma 1921. Only IRA fatality of operation was Jim Bailey who played with Ballymac. Lixnaw hurler and IRA officer William McCarthy was executed at hands of Tans in Tralee park in March 1921. John Joe Sheehy as head of IRA Boherbee company in Tralee planned last major action of war in Kerry, the killing of Major John Mackinnon, the local commander of Auxiliary forces.

15) The resurrection of the Kerry GAA in 1924 and the healing power of Kerry football.

With end of Civil War, Kerry GAA quickly reorganised itself. Kerry made its reappearance in Munster championship in July 1923 and beat Limerick and then Tipperary in 1923 Final. Yet hundreds of IRA men from Kerry were still interned over their role in Civil War. They included many of Kerry's best players like Joe Barrett.

In December 1923 many of the internees released. Was well known that Kerry players were dominate in games and tournaments of football arranged by prisoners in camps. In January 1924 a team made up of Kerry ex-internee footballers challenged the Kerry senior team to a match. Both teams train hard and huge local media interest in event as its announced the match will also serve as trail for places on Kerry side due to play Cavan in All Ireland semi final. In February they play and Kerry side win tight, rough match 0-5 to 1-0. Agree to replay on 23 March and internees win 4-4 to 0-4. A Kerry team comprised of the two sides makes first appearance in Croke Park in 5 years and when they run onto field they knell together at spot where Michael Hogan was shot dead. Hugely symbolic moment, as shows the team, despite their political divides are united under one jersey.

They lose to Dublin in 1923 final that September by 1-5 to 1-3. However within six months they deny Dublin a four in a row and win the All Ireland final of 1924 on 26 April 1925 by 0-4 to 0-3.

This Kerry side played huge part in healing the wounds and divisions in Kerry society after a bitter Civil War. In Ireland they became the great symbol of what could be achieved by reconciliation rather than continued division. Die hard Republicans like John Joe Sheehy and Joe Barrett lined out shoulder to shoulder with Free State officers like Con Brosnan. In the process they became one of the greatest teams in the history of the GAA. Between 1923 and 1933 the county would win six senior All-Ireland titles, ten Munster titles, two Railway Cups, four National Leagues and would conduct three tours of America. They were first example in Irish history of the power of sport to transcend a social divide caused by conflict. The successes of the Kerry team provided a powerful symbol of unity which both sides of Kerry society in the post war years could aspire too. 

16) Great Kerry team, 1924-32 were not as universally united or popular as they are often perceived to be 

Fiasco of the 1925 All Ireland Championship

Tensions in the dressing room

Accusations of cynical and rough play esp when playing Ulster teams (Irony)

1930 Final versus Monaghan

Referee incident in the 1932 Final against Mayo

17) Continued Tensions and Republican influence in Kerry GAA, 1924-1934

It would be wrong to say that the great Kerry team of 1924-34 era completely swept away the bitter political divisions still within the Kerry GAA and Kerry society due to the War.

Republican's continued to have an unhealthy influence over the Kerry GAA.

Kerry's tour of America on 1927 was organised secretly by the IRA as a fund raising exercise by the IRA even though the non-Republicans on the team had no idea of this.

Tensions surrounding Blueshirt v IRA activity in early 1930s and its impact on the Kerry GAA

Johnny Walsh of Ballylongford Kerry playing career, tainted as a Blueshirt

Boycott of 1935 which leads to GAA's collapse in Kerry for over a year and severely damages credibility of IRA in Kerry

Radio Kerry - The Voice of the Kingdom