Kerry Captains

Phil O'Sullivan - The Man not the Myth

by Weeshie Fogarty

Neatly resting at the foot of the Caha mountains lies Glanmore Lake, on whose south-western shore is situated the former local National School, now a Youth Hostel. It was here that Phil Sullivan, one of Kerry's great captains was born in 1897. His father, John F. O'Sullivan, a man of great strength and athletic ability, was the local school teacher.

According to oral tradition, which, even in modern times, is an inescapable factor, Phil was a man of exceptional talent that few written records unfold. According to this tradition, he was an outstanding footballer and hurler, a great athlete, intelligent, courageous, and a man who had reckless pluck and tenacity. Stories about the lengths to which he went to perfect his skills are legion, and not all fictitious. The record books of Gaelic football recall the magnificent game he played for Kerry, which he captained in the 1924 All-lreland against Dublin. But not so well documented is the story of the man who brought fame and honour to his native parish of Tuosist.

It is only natural that a man of such great talents would have legions of stories trailing after his memory about his youthful activities in his own locality and beyond. Doubtless some of these have suffered from exaggeration down through the years, while others have retained their authenticity since their actual occurrence. A few of the latter will be sufficient to expose the true character of the man.

It is said that he could swim the length and breadth of Glanmore Lake, which is nearly a mile long by half a mile in width. The majority of his schoolboy companions were also good swimmers, thanks to Phils persuasive methods of teaching. He would throw them into a deep part of the lake and make them splash their way to safety, while he swam close by in case assistance was required.

In the lake lies the island of "Oilean a Tighe", so named because of a house which is built on it. At that time a contest used to be held in the locality from time to time as to who could throw a stone from the mainland and hit the house on the island. Phil Sullivan is reputed to have been the only man to accomplish this feat of strength.

Apart from being an outstanding footballer and hurler, he was also a very fine athlete. Excelling in the 100 and 220 yard dash, the Iong jump, the hop-step-and-jump, and weight throwing. On one occasion at a sports meeting in Adrigole, which he walked to over the Healy Pass. as there was no road there then, he tied with his opponent in the final of the 100 yards dash.

A dispute arose, with both claiming victory. Phil proposed that the prize money be divided, but his opposite number refused to co-operate. Finally it was decided to re-run the race. The contestants were allowed time for a rest during which time the man from Glanmore went for refreshments, of a strong nature, and in the re-run Phil came in a clear winner.

His fame as a footballer and athlete was known far and wide, but it once nearly cost him his life. In 1921 he was in Johnny Shea's pub in Glengarriff, now Doc Ryan's, with his brother-in-jaw, Florry Sullivan, a native of Kilgarvan. At that time the Tans had their headquarters in Eccles Hotel, and on the same occasion three of them were in O'Shea's pub.

On the same day some members of the West Cork Flying Column were waiting in ambush outside Glengarriff for a Tan patrol. The ambush was Iater called off when the patrol failed to turn up. Three members of the Flying Column went into Glengarries that evening to seek information on the Tans. Whether by design or coincidence, they went into Shea's pub. As they entered one of them saluted Phil Sullivan by name. A short time later the Tans left, followed almost immediately by the three members of the Column.

Outside the pub a skirmish broke out and in the exchange of fire one Tan was killed, one wounded and one of the Flying Column wounded. The surviving Tan escaped and raised the alarm at his headquarters. Reinforcements were immediately rushed to O'Shea's pub where the surviving Tan pointed out Phil Sullivan as the one to whom a member of the Column spoke. He was taken outside the door to be shot, which was one of their normal methods of retaliation, but Johnny Shea insisted that he was known by the Column only because of his popularity as a footballer.

Had it not been for O'Shea interceding on his behalf and insisting on his innocence, there is no doubt that he would have been shot, as similar incidents happened on numerous occasions throughout Ireland during the Tan War.

During his playing career there were no county or local leagues such as we have today, but many challenge games were played. He played with UCD and Faughs in Dublin during his student days. Later, he players championship football with Ballymacelligott, where he was employed as a teacher, who won the county title in 1923, thus enabling him to become captain of the Kerry team in 1924. He played hurling with his native Laraugh in local challenge games.

His main mode of transport was the bicycle and his journey home from Ballymac was done in two stages. He came with his bicycle, by train to Kenmare and cycled from there to Glanmore. However, the return journey to Ballymac was done entirely on the bicycle, a distance of approximately 65 miles. It was usually well past midnight before he set out on his journey, as the day's sporting activities had to be discussed with the locals before leaving. On many occasions he cycled to and from Ballymac, with the journey not always lacking in adventure. On one of his return journeys one night, he came across a group of itinerants camped on the roadside and Phil, possibly full with more spirits than the spirit of devilment, decided to pay them a visit. He wasn't received with overflowing hospitality and the resulting fight with one of his ungrateful hosts ended in a draw. In later years, Phil said that he was one of the best men he ever met.

However, it is as a footballer that he is best remembered. "Carbery" in his book "Famous Captains" (1947) refers to him as "a muscular man, 5' 10", weighing 13 stone. He was an outstanding wing-back, a strong resolute tackler, safe fielder, strong kicker. He beat some of football's finest wingers and was a good hurler."

His first recorded appearance in the 'Green and Gold' was with the Kerry juniors in 1915. Kerry and Westmeath met in the final played in Athlone on August 20th. The final score was Kerry 0-6, Westmeath 1 -2, with Kerry scoring the winning point in the dying moments of the game. In the line-out, Phil Sullivan is listed as playing in the right half-back position.

He was now 18 years and approaching what were to be some of the best years of his playing career. However, historical events from 1916 onwards seemed to have an effect on activities on the Kerry playing fiends, and it was many years before sporting activities came back to normal in the "Kingdom".

During this period many Kerry Gaels were interned in different internment camps, Ballykinlar and Frongoch, South Wales, being two of the more notorious ones. This had a weakening effect on G.A.A. activities in Kerry which is evident in its absence from the AII - Ireland scene from 1915, when Wexford beat them 2- 4 to 2-1, until the 1923 final, which they lost to Dublin, 1-5 to 1-3, played on September 28th, 1924.

From the above, it is safe to assume that Phil SuIIivan would have appeared in the "Green and Gold" at senior grade long before his recorded appearance in the 1923 All-lreland final,. and possibly would have been the holder of more than two All-lreland medals, had ireland enjoyed a more peaceful era between 1916 and 1923.

In the 1923 All-lreland against Dublin, he played full-back, a position he retained for the 1924 All-lreland semi-final against Mayo - the final score: Kerry 2-4, Mayo 0-1. In the same year, he filled the right full-back position for Munster who defeated Leinster in the final.

The most memorable occasion of his playing career was the 1924 All-lreland final, played on Aprll 26th, 1925, the year in which he filled the role of captain. It was a final which aroused great enthusiasm throughout the country. Croke Park was specially resurfaced and excursions were arranged from all parts of the country. In addition to the number who went by road, 3,706 travelled by train from Kerry. The attendance of 30,000 broke all previous records, with gate receipts amounting to £2,563.

This was a final which meant something special to the people of the district of Kenmare, not just to the people of his native Tuosist. Their spirit glowed with pride and exultation at the thought of their newly crowned hero leading the men in the "Green and Gold" onto Croke Park. That man out there was one of them, and this gave them a glorious feeling of involvement.

Joe Lyne remembers the momentous occasion quite well. "On the morning of the All-lreland, a large contingent of supporters left Lauragh in the early hours of the morning on the first leg of their journey to Kenmare, where they boarded the train at 7 o'clock, arriving in Dublin around one. The round trip cost 10 shillings and 6 pence. This may not seem very much in our days of rapid inflation, but 10 shillings at that time was considered a good weekly wage." As his local supporters waited for the game to commence, victory or defeat did not matter, it was enough for the moment that their newly crowned hero was out there leading his men.

"P.F." in his book, "Kerry's Football Story" says the following about the game: "The 1924 final was a terrific struggle. Twenty minutes had gone before Dublin had opened the scoring with a point. Kerry equalised two minutes later. Again Dublin pointed and Kerry levelled. A free just before the short whistle put Kerry leading three points to two. . . . Feature of the match was the sterling play of Phil Sullivan, Joe Barrett and John Murphy in Kingdom's last line of defence.

The following is a brief extract from the Cork Examiner, Monday, April 27th, 1925, on the match: "The display of football was superb. clean and brilliant. To the end almost the issue was in doubt. . . . To say they deserved it and that Dublin had hard luck is the best way to pass the compliment. Both teams were game and manly. They knew the game and played it.

"The Kerry backs were mainly responsible for the victory, the defences having been superb. Burke (Dublin) was a source of danger, but Phil Sullivan responded with effect." It is interesting to note that in these two reports on the game that Phil Sullivan is one of the few to be singled out for praise, which is testimony to the man's playing ability.

In 1925 Kerry were once more on their way to contest the All-lreland after defeating Cavan in the semi-final at Tralee on August 23rd. The final score was Kerry 1-7; Cavan 2-3, a Kerry back having scored one of Cavan's goals. Since there was no broadcasting at that time, some of the Cavan supporters released carrier pigeons from the Tralee sportsfield to convey the results of the game back home.

Kerry's All-lreland hopes suffered a severe setback a few days later when the Kerry Co. Board received a letter from Mr. Fay, Secretary, Cavan County Board, which read as follows: "My committee claim the match on the grounds that Phil Sullivan, who played with Kerry was a suspended player, he already having played with UCD and Faughs in Dublin League championship in 1925, the necessary transfer not being granted from the former to the latter club."

The question of his legality was considered at a meeting of the Kerry selection committee on the Sunday morning before the match. The committee accepted Phil Sullivan's version which concluded: "If l am illegal, Smith and Murphy are illegal also."

Kerry's contention was that Phil Sullivan was playing hurling for Faughs who had no football team, and football for UCD in 1925. However, Cavan maintained that twelve months should have elapsed from the time he played hurling with UCD, before he could play with Faughs. A strong appeal was made to Cavan to withdraw the objection, but the chairman said that he had no doubt Phil Sullivan was illegal and ruled the objection upheld.

Kerry lodged a counter objection to J. P. Murphy of Cavan. On a majority vote of the Central Council, Cavan was declared illegal also and were ruled out of the championship.

Needless to say the objection was the main topic of conversation in Kerry G.A.A. circles for some time afterwards. Terrier coursing was popular in the county at that time, and the name "Cavan's Objection" given to a well known Kerry Blue who ran successfully at most of these meetings.

Phil Sullivan must have, undoubtedly, regretted that he was the cause of Kerry's suspension from the AIl-Ireland, and also the chance of his colleagues winning an All-lreland medal.

However, Kerry were back in the All-Ireland final the following year, this time against Kildare. He lined out at centrefield in this final, an unusual position for a man who played most of his inter-county football in the fullback line. But one of his team-mates, the late John Joe Sheehy, R.I.P., once said of Phil Sullivan; "In any position that Kerry were experiancing difficulties at, all they need do was switch Phil to that position and the problem no longer existed. This, possibly, explains why be was picked at centrefield, because in this final, Larry Stanley, who was centrefield for Kildare, was more than a handful for any opponent. At half-time Phil Sullivan retired with a knee injury. The game ended in a draw: Kerry 1 -3, Kildare 0-6.

Today Phil Sullivan lies at rest in Mount Calvary Cemetery in New York, far from his native Glanmore.
Go nDeanfaid Dia trocaire ar a anam.
In 1965 the Tuosist G.A.A. Club named their sportsfield "The Phil Sullivan Memorial Park", a fitting tribute to the memory of a great sportsman.

I wish to thank all those who gave me information, no matter how small, to help compile this article, and a special word of thanks to Mr. Joe Lyne and Mr. Dick Smith of Lauragh, and Mr. William Cousins, Kenmare. Also, "P.F.'s" book "Kerry's Football Story" was an invaluable source of reference.

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