“Sleep and not Death”: When the GAA ceased in Munster

“Extreme tension and fear of momentous happenings are having their effects on the public mind. Few think of sporting matters these days. This is scarcely pure wisdom, for games and sports form a useful safety-valve to high pressure in public feeling…Let us hope the great game between Limerick and Cork will be played at an early date under happier conditions. Just now, the outlook is dark and the sky thunder-laden.”

No, the above excerpt is not referencing the current crisis that has enveloped the county, nor is it lamenting the inevitable cancellation of Cork’s clash with Limerick in in the first round of the Munster Hurling Championship this coming May. In fact, it is from a publication of the Evening Echo dated September 4th 1920, almost one-hundred years ago, when the Irish Free State was still two years from its inception.

The Ireland of 1920 was experiencing ‘momentous happenings’ indeed. The country was in the midst of the War of Independence and Cork, in particular, was a focal point of revolutionary activity. The most violent county in Ireland between 1919 and 1921, IRA brigades in Cork accounted for 16% of the total at the time, earning the Rebel County an international reputation for its armed resistance against Empirical forces.

the 3rd west Cork Brigade photo
The 3rd West Cork Brigade  that operated in the western areas of Co. Cork during the War of Independence

Initially at least, the GAA managed to keep its games alive and while naturally perceived as a cultural supporter of the struggle for independence, it continued relatively undisturbed by the tumult. The independent co-existence of both national movements in Munster is probably best encapsulated by the events of September 7th 1919 when on the same day that Cork beat Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final at Markets Field in Limerick, an IRA ambush involving twenty-three Cork volunteers took place forty miles to the south in Fermoy. Later that month, as Michael Collins was busy assembling his “Squad”, his Rebel compatriots won the All-Ireland for the first time in sixteen years.

As the war continued unabated into the following year, the All-Ireland champions travelled to Tralee, their provincial and national titles on the line. It was hubris however, rather than any political interferences that almost put a premature end to Cork’s hurling season. The Cork Examiner dismissed the host’s chances of an upset, writing that Kerry had been “for many years, rather backward in this department of the national pastime”. As such, an encouraging display by the Kingdom “caused grave anxiety to the Cork team and their supporters.” Despite being two points down at half-time and seemingly “hindered by an oval-shaped pitch”, Cork recovered to win on a scoreline of 2-5 to 2-2. Job done. The winners of Limerick and Tipperary awaited them in the decider.

Cork (Selection) 1919 Hurling All-Ireland Champions
Cork 1919 All-Ireland Hurling Champions

By August however , the conflict in Munster was escalating apace. A day before Limerick were due to play Tipperary in the other semi-final, Volunteers from the East Limerick Brigade joined forces with the Second Cork Brigade to ambush an eight-man foot patrol near Kildorrery, fatally wounding one. The next day, four Tipperary men were arrested in Fermoy as they made their way to Cork for the game. The match itself, was due to to be played at the Cork Athletic Grounds. However when officials went to open the grounds, they found the turnstiles occupied by machine-gunners who fired over their heads, forcing them to retreat. Unperturbed, the players and spectators made their way to Riverstown, where Limerick recorded a comfortable victory. The following Thursday, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney was arrested as he presided over a staff meeting of the Cork No.1 Brigade of the I.R.A at City Hall. Charged with the possession of “documents likely to cause disaffection to his Majesty”, MacSwiney immediately joined a hunger strike that was already underway in Cork Gaol.

RTÉ Radio 1: Documentary on One - Death of a Lord Mayor
Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, March 1920 – October 1920

Cork’s preparations for the Munster Final, scheduled for August 29th, carried on nonetheless. A couple of trial matches were arranged between St. Mary’s (a now defunct club based in Blackpool) and a Cork County team, after which it was reported that “Cork should be able to produce a fine team to the Munster Final, notwithstanding military restrictions preventing the training of players on a bigger pitch”. But as Cork were busying themselves in preparation for their clash with Limerick, events appertaining to the Lord Mayor’s incarceration were beginning to relegate hurling to back of people’s minds. A few days after his arrest, MacSwiney was court-martialled and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment before being sent to Brixton Prison in London. While on hunger strike, he became an international figure, triggering mass demonstrations globally. The British cabinet, however, remained unyielding and on the Thursday before the Munster Final was due to be played, declared that “the release of the Lord Mayor would have disastrous results in Ireland and would probably lead to a mutiny of both military and police in South of Ireland”.

By this stage, prisoners in Cork Gaol were more than two weeks into their hunger strike and in seemingly perilous condition,  to such an extent it was reported that “removal, in lorries, to a barracks, might prove fatal”. The perishing men included Joseph Kenny from Grenagh (great-grandfather of future Cork hurler Tom), Joseph Murphy from the Pouladuff Road who hurled with the Plunkett’s Club in Togher and Michael Fitzgerald, a G.A.A playing member with Fermoy. A cohort of five Limerick natives, namely Christopher Upton, Michael Reilly, John Hennessy and John and Peter Crowley were also among the hunger strikers in Cork.

Michael Fitzgerald, Joseph Murphy and Terence MacSwiney | An Phoblacht
Michael Fitzgerald (1881 – 1920), Joseph Murphy (1895 – 1920) and Terence MacSwiney (1879 – 1920)

On the Friday night, the Cork Selection Committee held an emergency meeting. There, the decision was made that “in view of the treatment being meted out to the Lord Mayor and other political prisoners by the British government, and especially the exceedingly perilous condition of these patriots at the present time, that the Cork team would not travel to Thurles to fulfil the engagement with Limerick in the Munster hurling final. It is felt that this decision will have approval of not only the Gaels of Cork City and County, but also the approval of the Gaels of Limerick City and County and every part of the country”. A wire was sent to Limerick, intimating Cork’s stance. As expected, Limerick replied, approving of their decision and agreeing to the postponement.

It is perhaps indicative of the times that by the Sunday, news of the postponement had yet to filter through to all quarters of the national media. One newspaper, previewing the game, noted that although “Cork have been handicapped by the present unsettled condition of affairs in their county, we understand they intend fielding a strong combination that is expected to uphold the honour of the Southern capital.” Unaware of its cancellation, the publication anticipated “one of the best contests played in the Cathedral town in some years”.

The Nationalist (Tipperary) August 28th 1920

On the 25th of October, Terence MacSwiney died in Brixton Prison. Joseph Murphy died that same day in Cork Gaol. A week before, Michael Fitzgerld had become one of the first hunger strikers to die. The day after MacSwiney’s death, the Central Council of the G.A.A held a special meeting, where they unanimously decided to make the following Sunday a closed date throughout the country, after which all G.A.A. games were to be postponed “so as to record the sympathy of the GAA with the Lady Moyoress of Cork in her great bereavement and admiration for the Lord Mayor’s heroic sacrifice”. The conclusion of the 1920 Munster Championship would have to wait.

By the end of the year, the war had reached its crescendo and on 10th of December, the British government declared martial law in Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry. Mass gatherings of young men were forcefully terminated, often with tragic repercussions. On the 7th of February 1921, a military patrol opened fire on a body of civilians near Knocknagree, who were thought to have been armed. Two boys, aged nine and eleven, were wounded as they hurled, or rather ‘were armed’ in a field. Michael J. Kelleher was killed. He was fourteen years of age. That year, almost no G.A.A activity occurred in Cork.

The absence of Gaelic Games was often remarked upon in ‘Carbery’s Column’, a regular feature in the Evening Echo. One such column, published on May 9th 1921, observed that the “cessation of hurling, football, coursing, handball, bowling and kindred native pastimes leaves a big void in the lighter side of our outdoor physical life…in Tipperary, Clare and Limerick, as well as in Cork County, games are almost dead”. Carbery proceeds to solemnly ponder how long it would be “before Cork hurling will again fill its old place in the weekly and seasonal life of the populace.”

Carbery would have to wait a further eleven months. On the 22nd of January 1922, the Munster Council met in Limerick, where it was decided that the deferred Munster Final would be fixed for March 5th in Dungarvan. However, at a subsequent meeting held in Cork in February, a deputation on behalf of the Southern Division of the I.R.A requested that the games be devoted to “the members of the I.R.A who were incapacitated through active service”. Consequently, it was decided that the game should be postponed once more until the first Sunday of April.

The Cork team prepared diligently, arranging trial matches against both Collegians at the Mardyke and Shamrocks in Shanbally. The Munster Final, itself, was played out in front of an estimated 14,000 strong crowd at the Cork Athletic Grounds on April 2nd 1922. The eagerly anticipated clash lived up to its billing, the Cork Examiner eulogising the performance of both teams, claiming it had never seen “a more strenuous contest than that in which the hurling prowess of Cork and Limerick was put to the test”. Cork emerged victorious, on a scoreline of 3-5 to 0-5, thanks in no small part to the stellar performance of one Brendan Considine, who contributed 1-2 to the winning tally. Twenty-two months after its commencement, the 1920 Munster Hurling Championship had finally drawn to a close. Or had it?

Irish Independent, April 4th 1922

A couple of weeks after the game, it emerged that Limerick had lodged an objection to the result, on the basis that Cork had fielded an illegal player. The player in question? Brendan Considine, a Clare native whose nomadic hurling career owing to his position in the Munster and Leinster Bank had seen him don a Dublin jersey, winning an All-Ireland in 1917, before pitching up in Cork, where he hurled with Collegians. (Considine is also reputed to be the youngest player to ever win an All-Ireland hurling medal having been part of Clare’s victorious team in 1914 at the age of seventeen). Limerick argued that Considine had already played in the championship for Clare, albeit two years previously in their defeat to Tipperary and was thus ineligible. Ultimately, the 1920 Munster Championship would be settled in the boardroom.

Considering that Ireland, and Munster in particular, was on the precipice of a vicious Civil War, further division in the province was certainly undesirable. On April 12th (two days before 200 Anti-Treaty I.R.A men took over the Four Courts), the editor of the Evening Echo warned that “a division in the Gaelic ranks at the present time is to be guarded against” and that should Limerick be awarded victory it would result in the “severance of a friendship that has been cemented on many a hard-fought field”

The Four Courts on fire in June 1922
The Four Courts on fire, June 1922

Whether or not Cork’s young recruit from the Turnpike area of Ennis had actually played against Tipperary is unclear. The match report from June 1920 references a T. Considine, possibly Brendan’s brother Turlough, who also hurled for Clare. Nevertheless, a special meeting of the Munster Council G.A.A was arranged for Sunday 23rd April in Tipperary to resolve the issue as amicably as possible.

The Cork representatives went on the offensive, lodging a counter-objection, claiming that Limerick had breached a rule in relation to the payment of two shillings to the Provincial Council from each affiliated club.  The Munster Council pleaded for a harmonious settlement, asking both Cork and Limerick to come to an agreement among themselves. After much deliberation and consultation, it was eventually decided that both the objection and counter objection would be withdrawn. Cork would be allowed to progress to the All-Ireland Final as Munster champions and in order to “preserve the friendly relations subsisting between Cork and Limerick”, both counties would also compete in the final of the 1921 Munster Championship, which had to that point remained un-played. After some reluctance, the representatives of Waterford, Tipperary and Clare acquiesced in the hope of “maintaining the splendid feeling which had animated the Gaels of Munster”. Finally, the saga was over. Cork were Munster champions.

Dublin (Faughs) 1920 Hurling All-Ireland Champions
The Dublin (Faughs) team that defeated Cork to win the 1920 Hurling All-Ireland Championship, May 1922

On the 14th May 1922, Cork lost the final of the 1920 All-Ireland Hurling Championship to Dublin (a representative team from Faugh’s GAA Club). Two weeks later, they lost the final of the 1921 Munster Hurling Championship to their old foes Limerick. Unsurprisingly, Brendan Considine played in neither game. By then however, the sobering inevitability of civil war in Ireland had trivialised those outcomes, the Cork Examiner reflecting after the defeat to Dublin that “none will deny that such contests – no matter who may be the victors – are infinitely preferable to rivalries of another kind which it is not necessary, more minutely to describe.”

More pertinently, Gaelic Games had returned at last to Cork and to Munster. The epic story of the 1920 Munster Championship is a timely reminder that sport in Ireland has persevered through testing times before. It will return. Eventually. As our old friend Carbery alluded to; our native games are merely in a period of enforced hibernation. “How long the sleep, no man can know but that it is sleep and not death is certain.”

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