The Beginning of the Dublin Kerry rivalry in the 1920s
Before 1976, the last time Dublin had defeated Kerry in an All Ireland final was in 1923 (Dublin team photographed above). However, that year’s final was not held in 1923, and the reason that it was not almost overshadowed the final itself. Although it has become the main rivalry in gaelic football, prior to 1923 they had only met on three occasions; Dublin won the 1892 final, Kerry were victors in 1904, and Dublin beat them in the 1909 home final. The frisson in the 1920s was as much political as sporting.
Dublin had beaten Kerry in the 1892 final, but Laune Rangers, who represented Kerry, were not happy about the result. They claimed that the hoots and groans from the Dublin supporters had demoralised the poor lads from Killorglin. The Kerry captain P.J Sullivan referred to the Dublin Young Irelands as dogs.
The years of revolutionary turmoil that followed 1916 had a profound effect on the GAA. Not least because of the fact that so many GAA members were involved as IRA Volunteers, often as prominent leaders including Harry Boland from Dublin, who was county chairman between 1913 and 1918, and honorary President in 1919, and Austin Stack from Kerry. It is clear from the minutes of the Dublin county board that Dublin GAA was overwhelmingly on the side of the revolution. Not only that but in September 1913 it had approved the organisation of a monster tournament for the benefit of the men on strike or locked out, many of whom are either members or supporters of the GAA (p.51).
Even though games activity was severely curtailed in parts of the country where resistance was most intense, Dublin and Kerry being a good case in point, the revolutionary years without doubt boosted the popularity of gaelic games. Dublin resisted the attempts of the British to close down the GAA through various methods, and in August 1918 the county board organised Gaelic Sunday, a mass act of defiance of the Crown. So much for the Jackeens.
It was impossible to organise the 1920 championship under the conditions of martial law in Munster and the Black and Tan terror that prevailed in Dublin. The final could not be held until June 11, 1922 and was contested by Dublin and Tipperary, the two teams that had been in Croke Park to raise funds for republican prisoners on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920 when Michael Hogan of Tipp and 13 spectators were murdered by the British army.
The delayed 1920 final, which was won by Tipperary, took place just weeks before the outbreak of the Civil War which was to have an even more disruptive impact on the GAA than the previous six years. Dublin won the 1921 and 1922 finals, against Mayo and Galway, both of which were played in 1923 following the end of the Civil War, and were in pursuit of their third three-in-a-row.
A number of counties had refused to participate in 1923 because of the continued detention of anti-Treaty prisoners in jails and internment camps after hostilities came to an end in May 1923. That was complicated by the fact that a number of former or current county players were IRA prisoners.
There is a myth that the GAA in Dublin was largely sympathetic at official level to the Free State. It is true that the leading club OTooles had as members former Dublin Brigade Volunteers who had been close to Collins and who not only took the Treaty side but some of whom were officers in the Free State Army. A number of them had been in Kerry, where the Civil War was particularly vicious, and that gave an extra edge to the dispute over the final. O’Tooles had in fact taken part in a tournament to raise funds for released anti Treaty prisoners. The Dublin county board also approved a match between Dublin and Wexford in aid of ex-internees in July 1924.
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. When long time County Chairman Harry Boland was killed during the civil war, the county board passed a resolution that all Dublin GAA members (are) requested to assemble at Earlsfort Terrace on 3 August 1922 to accompany Boland’s remains from St Vincent’s Hospital to Carmelite Church, Whitefriar Street. (p.304). When Collins was killed not long afterwards, the county board meeting was suspended as a mark of respect. The GAA was walking a tightrope and was possibly the only unifying force in the country during those dark days.
Joe Stynes was an anti-Treaty IRA Volunteer and a former member of O’Tooles. He had left them and joined another club, McCrackens, which was based in Ballsbridge. Stynes was imprisoned during the Civil War but O’Tooles, as county champions, selected Stynes to play for Dublin. Stynes later emigrated to the United States where he became a prominent figure in Noraid. One of his grand-nephews Brian won an All Ireland with Dublin in 1995. Another, Jim who died of cancer in 2012, became one of the stars of Aussie Rules with Melbourne.
Kerry GAA was not universally supportive of the republican side, again in contradiction to some peoples mythology. Kerry was as much divided as any other part of the country which had been to the forefront of the revolution. While on the one hand that led to tensions, it is also acknowledged that the association played a major role in making it possible for former enemies to come to some accommodation. One step towards this took place when a match was arranged between former Kerry republican prisoners and the actual Kerry team. That took place in July 1923 after the last republicans had been released. The “Curragh” won by 0 – 4 to 0 – 2. The Kerryman of July 5, 1924 published a letter from the Erskine Childers Sinn Féin cumann in Dublin hailing “the splendid action of the Kerry team in refusing to play the Dublin team until the prisoners were all released.”
With all that resolved, Kerry were confident of fielding a better side than the one which had defeated Cavan by a point in the semi-final in April. The Kerryman was looking forward to the match with keen anticipation, declaring it to be the event of the season. It generously declared that Dublin were “no fools” and would be fielding their strongest team in order to beat Kerry. The match was seen as a clash between Kerry’s “high fielding and punting” combination against the Dubs “short low combination, in which palming of the ball so characteristic of Leinster football in recent years, will predominate.”
Two weeks after August GAA Congress had ironed out the remaining hangovers from the dispute over the prison releases, Kerry and Dublin met in a challenge match in Tralee, something that would be have been unthinkable in later years. Both teams were reported by the Kerryman to be about to start training, which again appears strange to modern eyes, and the challenge was advertised as “The Great Who Shall.” Admission would be one shilling and the referee was to be Jim Byrne, star of the Wexford four-in-a-row team. He was also to referee the All Ireland final. As it happened Byrne was unable to attend the match which was refereed instead by Tom Costelloe of Tralee.
P.J O C, the Kerryman GAA correspondent, looked forward to the match and warned: “When Dublin sends its best men to represent it goes without saying that they will take some beating.” He dismissed rumours that Dublin only intended to field a “scrap team.” Kerry also would be putting out its intended All Ireland team.
On the day a crowd of around 6,000 packed into the Sports Field, yielding a gate of £285. It was reported that the conduct of the crowd had been good and this was regarded by the Kerryman as “a happy augury for the future good relations that we all hope will exist between the youths of the county.” But the Civil War was not far away. General Richard Mulcahy, who was Commander of the Free State Army, attended as did Kerry pro-Treaty TD Fionán Lynch. Austin Stack was also there. The Kerryman, perhaps allowing its enthusiasm for reconciliation get the better of it, declared that Mulcahy, who was hated by republicans, had been seen in “friendly conversation” with Humphrey “Free” Murphy, O/C of the 1st Kerry Brigade, who had been released from the Curragh and who had been on the Kerry team that lost the 1915 final to Wexford. P.J O C elsewhere admitted that this report was in error.
The Dublin team was greeted with extravagant hospitality, being put up at the Kerry County Board’s expense in the Ashbourne Hotel, and brought on a visit to Casement’s Fort on the morning of the match. They did not, however, reciprocate on the field of play where P.J O C claimed that they beat Kerry “pulling up.” Kerry did lead at half-time but Dublin’s hand-passing game exposed Kerry’s lack of fitness despite the efforts of a few players like Con Brosnan.
P.J did not like the Dublin style and claimed that the old Kerry team would not have stood for it. “Any one of the old Kerry team would burst that combination in five minutes, and have no talk about it either.” He also complained about the lack of discipline by some Kerry players who would not stay in their allotted positions, thus allowing the wily Dubs the opportunity to roam about, hand-passing and all that Fancy Dan sort of thing.
John Joe Sheehy had a goal for Kerry after 20 minutes and Joe Stynes, who was adjudged Dublin’s best player, forced a number of saves from the Kerry goalkeeper Denis Hurley. Exchanges were pretty tough but there were no complaints. A Dublin man was knocked out “but soon resumed amid applause.” Stout fellow. Kerry led by 1 – 1 to 0 – 2 at half time.
Despite playing into the wind, Dublin had a goal scored by Frank Burke of UCD Collegians early in the second period. Another passing movement that involved all of the Dublin forwards led to Stynes crashing the ball into the net. Kerry, despite tiring, rallied but Dublin’s defence held out for a 2 – 3 to 1 – 4 victory which was sportingly acclaimed by the home crowd.
The O’Tooles players had not travelled, possibly for political reasons, so the Dublin team only bore a slight resemblance to that which contested the final in September and which had six of the county champions in its starting line-up. Of those who played in Tralee, only five togged out for the final. One of those who was in Tralee but who missed out on the big day was Frank Shouldice who had won Dublin championships in 1914 and 1915 with the Geraldines. He was more famous for having escaped from Usk Prison in Wales in January 1919. The Kerry team featured eight of those who would play in the final.
Matt Treacy’s book on Dublin’s All Ireland campaign in 2013, The Year of the Dubs, is available on Amazon: