The GAA: Early days in Skibbereen and nationally
The Great Irish Famine (1845–1850) was a defining period in our history. It was a turning point which brought an end to the ‘old’ Ireland and brought about the beginning of a ‘new’ Ireland. The size of the convulsion which Ireland suffered during the Famine and the mass exodus which followed in its wake put an end to any form of cultural or social activities. Conditions in rural Ireland in the years 1845–1875 neither warranted nor encouraged cultural activities, while the uncertain and precarious nature of the times led to either apathy or despondency.
Despite the extent to which the cataclysm of the Great Famine had weakened the Irish people, there followed persistent agitation on the issue of ownership of the land. The land question was the primary concern and, in the eyes of ordinary people, was far more important than the national question, which indeed it came largely to subsume. From 1870 onwards, with the first of Gladstone’s Land Acts, tenants rather than landlords became the focus of the government’s attention and parliament began to look to a transfer of ownership from landlord to tenant through land purchase schemes. By about 1875 democracy was working its way into rural Ireland, asserting the rights of the people to control their own pastimes.
With the agrarian agitation and increased political activity, these years were marked by heightened national expectations and uninhibited expression of national aspirations. The Home Rule movement, together with the Land League and its successor, the Irish National League, were gaining momentum. There was also something of a cultural and social revolution in rural Ireland from the mid 1870s. The ancient connection between native games and national pride once again began to manifest itself as an influence on nationally-minded people, particularly in rural Ireland.
The decline in hurling and football in the post-Famine years and the absence of any organised recreational activity created a vacuum which was, strangely enough, filled by a proliferation of cricket clubs. Rugby also became very popular. Rugby and cricket were elite games, however, and were not available to the vast majority of the people. What was of great significance from the early 1870s, however, was the rise in popularity of athletics, especially in rural areas of Munster and Connacht.
At these meetings, which were usually held on a Sunday, local athletes competed against each other, without restrictions of class or creed, and traditional weight-throwing and jumping events were prominent features of the programme.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was the brainchild of Michael Cusack and Patrick W Nally, who met for the first time in the summer of 1879. During the next three years they organised national athletic meetings and promoted the idea of properly organised sports with standard and consistent rules. Nally was jailed in 1881 for his Fenian activities. He subsequently dropped out of public view and was not present at the meeting in November 1884, when the GAA was officially launched.
Cusack persevered, however, and came to the conclusion that the time had come to form a national athletics association. He chose Loughrea, Co Galway, as a neutral venue to launch the new association. The meeting was held in the house of John Sweeney, on August 15th 1884, with Cusack, William Duffy, PJ Kelly and others present. Dr Duggan, Bishop of Clonfert, a well-known Irish patriot, declined the offer to act as patron and suggested they approach Archbishop Croke of Cashel, who was a well-known supporter of Irish culture.
It was decided to invite the Most Reverend Doctor Croke, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt to be patrons. It should be noted that each of the three patrons was foremost at that very period in the bitter struggles of the Land War against both the landlords and the English government forces. It is of some importance also that it was to Michael Cusack each addressed his letter stating that he was honoured by the association at being elected a patron.
Later on, the names of two other Irish patriots were added to the list of patrons of the GAA, the great Fenian leader John O’Leary in 1886, and William O’Brien, in 1888.
Before approaching Croke, Parnell and Davitt, Cusack made a public appeal to the Irish people in an article entitled ‘A Word about Irish Athletics’, which appeared in the issue of United Irishman of October 11th 1884, to which he was a contributor. In this article, he hoped to focus attention on the problems of organising Irish games. His appeal met with an immediate response and brought to his side Maurice Davin, an athlete with a national and international reputation.
Cusack and Davin then issued an invitation to all interested persons to attend at the Commercial Hotel, Thurles, on November 1, 1884, ‘to inaugurate the formation of a Gaelic Athletic Association for the preservation and cultivation of our national pastimes, which may be by the means of providing rational and national amusements for the humbler and more neglected sections of our race.’
The GAA was officially founded at 3pm on November 1st 1884, at a meeting in the Billiard Room of Miss Hayes’ Commercial Hotel, Thurles. The following were present: Michael Cusack, Maurice Davin, John Wyse Power, John McKay, John K. Bracken, Thomas St George McCarthy, Patrick J O’Ryan and FR Moloney. John Sweeney of Loughrea, in whose house the August meeting was held, was unable to attend the Thurles meeting, owing to illness.
Dr Croke’s connection with the GAA began on December 18th, when he replied to the communication sent to him by Cusack inviting him to become patron of the new organisation. He gave the organisation his unqualified approval in a letter which has frequently been described as the ‘Charter of the GAA’. He saw the GAA as an expression of Irish independence, implying Home Rule in sport.
When the first edition of the rules for the Gaelic Athletic Association were published in 1885, it contained a recommendation that ‘Archbishop Croke’s letter ought to be read as an order of the day, at every annual meeting of the GAA’. In this way Croke helped to establish the movement which, in Michael Cusack’s words, ‘swept the country like a prairie fire’.
The value of Dr Croke’s patronage to the GAA in its infancy can not be exaggerated. In addition to the prestige of his exalted ecclesiastical office, his support of the Land League and in the people’s struggle gave him nationwide popularity.
Dr Croke later intervened when a kind of ‘ban’ or boycott, the so-called ‘exclusion clause’, was introduced. This clause provided that: ‘Any athlete competing at meetings held under other laws than those of the GAA shall be ineligible for competing at any meeting under the auspices of the GAA.’ He appealed to the committee of management to modify their rules ‘so as to allow all qualified athletes to compete for their prizes’. Croke’s annoyance with the GAA at this juncture was due very much to the anxiety he felt over the Home Rule struggle and the need to impress English observers of the ‘fact’ not just the ‘possibility’ of Irish unity.
In deference to Dr Croke’s wishes, the exclusion rule was formally withdrawn in February 1886. It was, however, re-imposed at a later date and was maintained in one form or another until 1971.
The early days of the GAA were not without controversy and Cusack was seen to be a bit of a dictator and was asked to resign his position at a meeting in July, 1886.
This was only one of the setbacks suffered by the GAA in its early days. A far more serious threat to the young association were the political ambitions and rivalries of its members. Cusack had hopes that the GAA could either ignore or avoid political involvement, but this was to prove unrealistic.
In fact, in its formative years the association was very political and gave a strong voice to nationalist opinion. Following the failure of the Home Rule Bill of 1886, the GAA played an important role in reviving Fenianism in Ireland in the years 1887–1891, especially by helping to mellow public opinion towards the Fenian men who had died in 1867.
One of the earliest reports we have of sports being organised under the ‘new order’ in the Skibbereen area is from August, 1886. In The Eagle and County Cork Advertiser of August 21, 1886, the following report appeared:
High Street Pluckily to the Front
High Street, which looks down proudly and healthfully on Skibbereen, was the centre of great attraction on Sunday last, insomuch as athletic sports on a very extensive scale were admirably carried out there on that day. For some time past this elevated region has been making history of a very agreeable and hopeful kind.
The report goes on to give the winners of the various events which included – 100 yds, 200 yds, 7lb weight, half-mile, high jump, one-mile, hop, step and jump, siamese race, long jump, etc.
Dunmanway was the first club to be organised in this area, being established in November 1886. On January 6, 1887, Rowry played a game against Cregg and Glandore in a field in Rowry and we are told that over 300 spectators assembled to witness the play.
A report in the Eagle of February 26, 1887, is evidence of Skibbereen’s first football match, though, as yet, no club had actually been formed in Skibbereen:
Football – Skibbereen v Baltimore — A very exciting match was to have come off at Baltimore on Sunday between Skibbereen and Baltimore, when some hundreds of people from the surrounding and the adjacent islands of Cape Clear, Sherkin, etc, mustered on the trysting ground. The principal players on Baltimore side were non-resident, hailing from Cork city, and some members of the constabulary force. After half an hour’s play, some misunderstanding arose as to the rules, and the finish of the game had, to the great disappointment of all, to be abandoned.
Although these early games were played under the auspices of the GAA, there were many misunderstandings as to the rules and more often than not games were abandoned and descended into the age-old faction fights for which the Irish were notorious. The Irish had the reputation of being a difficult race to control, and nowhere was this apparent uncouthness evident so much as on the sportsfield.
There was a great need to regulate the games of hurling, football and handball and this was to prove a major challenge for the new association. In the early days referees had no whistles to control games and usually took their stand on horseback, along the sideline, interfering only in very urgent or necessary cases by riding among the players and separating them. Such refinements as measured goalposts, time-keeping, size of ball or stick used, did not enter into consideration before the 1880s.
Activity continued to increase throughout West Cork but it was November before a club was formed in Skibbereen. On November 8th 1887, the inaugural meeting was held in the Town Hall. The following report appeared in the Eagle of November 12, 1887:
Skibbereen GA Association
The members of the above newly formed club held their first general meeting in the Town Commissioners Town Hall on Tuesday night, and if we may judge from the overflow attendance, it bespeaks a prosperous future. The branch has become affiliated and embraces some fifty members. The principal business to be transacted was the election of officers, and decide what the future name of the club would be.
Mr Timothy Sheehy, TC, was moved to the chair, amid loud and continued applause. He said he had to return them his most sincere thanks for the honour they had conferred on him. He had no intention when entering the room, or coming to the meeting, that he should occupy the proud position of chairman. Their first business that night was to organise their club and elect officers. (Hear hear.)
The following officers were then proposed in globo by Mr John O’Callaghan (sec, pro tem) and unanimously adopted, the name of Father O’Leary being received with an outburst of applause: president, Father John O’Leary; vice-president, Mr T Sheehy, TC; captain, Mr Richard Walsh; vice-captain, Mr Patrick O’Sullivan; secretary, Mr John Donelan; treasurer, Mr David Barry.
A committee was then balloted for, the following names being submitted for election: Messrs C O’Sullivan, John Hurley, John O’Mahony, P Murphy, B Coghlan, Daniel McCartie, TC, James O’Neill, Thomas Dillon, Michael Harrington and William Sullivan. The first named six gentlemen were declared elected by the chairman.
The chairman said he felt deeply grateful to the members of the Gaelic Association of Skibbereen for the proud position which they had elected him to that night, as Vice-President of their club (cheers), an honour which was quite undeserved by him (no, no). He regretted that their worthy President, Father O’Leary, who had done so much for his country and his people, was not with them that night, but he was proud to be next to him in command (cheers). They could not have selected a better or safer captain for their ship than Father O’Leary and as long as he was in command – like anything he took in hands – there was no fear but they would steer clear, keep to the surface, and gallantly buffet the most adverse waves. They were yet only fifty in number, but when the result of this meeting went before the public outside, it is not fifty, but five hundred, they would have in their roll of membership (applause). There was no doubt but their old Irish sports were much neglected from time to time, and cast aside or replaced by English innovations, until resuscitated by the brave and chivalrous Michael Davitt and the great and illustrious Archbishop Croke (cheers). The chairman then referred to the meeting in Thurles where the manhood of the country would be assembled. It would be one of the greatest days that they had seen or heard of within the last 500 years, and would give an impetus to Gaelic sports throughout the length and breadth of the land (applause).
It was then decided that this be named the ‘William O’Brien Branch’.
The following resolution was then passed by Mr Richard Walsh, and seconded by Mr P O’Herlihy and carried amidst applause: ‘That we sympathise with our patron, Mr William O’Brien, MP, on his incarceration in a British dungeon, he being the first prominent victim of Balfour’s Coercion Government in this misgoverned country, and also with our neighbour, Mr James Gilhooly, MP, who has also been singled out for a sample of Balfour’s favours.’
On the motion by Mr David Barry, a cordial vote of thanks was passed to Mr Sheehy for presiding.
The GAA gave a new spirit to rural Ireland and the following year, 1888, there was a huge increase in football activity in West Cork and it did indeed seem to ‘sweep the country like a prairie fire’. On December 4th 1887, Skibbereen had travelled to play Rosscarbery at Downeen, and it was reported that a crowd of 4,000 watched the match. This was the first match to be played under the GAA rules in West Cork. On January 15th, a return game was played in Skibbereen and the team included – R Walsh, captain, P Sullivan, vice-captain, C O’Sullivan, B Coghlan, J Hurley, J O’Mahony, J Maher, D O’Sullivan, T O’Mahony, P Maher, C O’Sullivan, P Twomey, M Donoghue, C Hegarty, P Burke, P Sullivan, P Herlihy and J O’Mahony (18-a-side).
The following week, Dunmanway were visitors to Skibbereen, a game the home team won by a point.
On February 12, Skibbereen travelled to Dunmanway for a return match. The team travelled by train and was accompanied by Father McCartie’s Brass Band. The train fares were 2s. First Class and 1s. Third Class. This game was deemed a draw but there were some very ‘unedifying scenes of drunkenness and disorder’ by the Skibbereen supporters on the way home.
In late April and early May, Skibbereen and Bantry played each other twice and on both occasions there was trouble and recriminations, so much so that it prompted a strong reaction from the Eagle —
... While on the subject of these sports, it may not be out of place to state, and it is with regret we record the fact, that the Gaelic Athletic Association has gained anything but an enviable notoriety in West Cork. Indeed, the scenes at various meetings during the past three months have been nothing short of disreputable in the extreme; and, no later than last Sunday, the contest between Bantry and Skibbereen terminated in most disgraceful conduct. …… This is, indeed, a sad state of affairs, and a condition of things to be deeply deplored. Manly and athletic exercises are to be encouraged and appreciated, but, if drunkenness and rowdyism are to be the fruits of these sports, then, the sooner the GAA becomes ‘a thing of the past’ the better.
There developed a great rivalry between Skibbereen and Bantry in those early days. On Friday May 6th, a special meeting of the Skibbereen club was convened for the purpose of taking into consideration a challenge from Bantry for £20 a side. ‘The members present seemed to vie with each other in their anxiety to lay down most money and if the bet were doubled, they would willingly do so,’ according to a report in the Eagle.
The challenge never materialised, however, as the County Board deemed it to be a violation of the rules of the GAA to play for money. The two clubs did take action to heal any rift that existed and at a meeting of the Skibbereen club on June 7th, a letter was received from the Bantry (Emmet) club, apologising for the attack made on ‘the picnic party’ from Skibbereen and also withdrawing the challenge of playing any other match that season, fearing it may create further ill-feeling between the two clubs. It was the unanimous wish of all the members present that the good feeling which always existed between Bantry and Skibbereen should continue.
As the months progressed, more and more teams emerged — Smorane beat Shepperton in March. There were teams from Maultrahane, Woodfield, Reenroe, Drimoleague and Caheragh, Drimoleague, Drominidy, Drimoleague North, Dromore, Schull, Durrus, High Street had its own team, and Skibbereen fielded a second (junior) team.
It was common in the early years of the GAA for clubs to adopt the names of patriots as an expression of their nationalist tendencies. Skibbereen adopted the name William O’Brien branch; Clonakilty, (founded probably a month before the Skibbereen club, in October, 1887) became the Eugene Davis branch; Dunmanway (the first club in West Cork to be affiliated, November, 1886), were the Michael Doheny branch; Leap were known as the Geraldine Club, Drimoleague adopted the name O’Connell’s, Bantry (founded in September, 1887) were the Robert Emmet’s, and Rosscarbery (whose first meeting was also in November, 1887) were known as the Michael Dwyer branch.
The first annual general meeting of the Skibbereen club was held on October 17th 1888, in the Town Hall, for the purpose of electing officers etc. for the ensuing year. Among those present were — Rev J O’Leary, RCA, President; Messrs T Sheehy, TC, VP; John J Donelan, secretary; D Barry, treasurer; P O’Sullivan, J O’Mahony, C O’Sullivan, T Dillon, John Kelly, James Neligan, J O’Neill, P Murphy, W O’Sullivan. Father O’Leary was again elected president, amid applause. Mr T Sheehy, VP; John J Donelan, secretary; D Barry, treasurer; P O’Sullivan, captain, and John O’Mahony, vice-captain. Then followed the election of six members of the committee by ballot, the following being successful – John Hurley, C O’Sullivan, Thos Dillon, James Neligan, Daniel Donovan and James O’Neill. Mr T Sheehy, TC, vice-president, and Mr John O’Mahony, vice-captain, were appointed delegates to attend the annual Gaelic County Convention, which was held in Cork on Thursday October 18th.
One change in the club hierarchy from the previous year had been that of captain. R Walsh, the first captain of the club, had moved to Cork in June and the position of captain was taken over by the former vice-captain, Pat O’Sullivan. An interesting link with those early days and the present exists in that Pat O’Sullivan was father of the late Mrs Elvie O’Gorman of Cork Road and great-grandfather of Dillon Quish, 98 Street, who was a prominent footballer and hurler with the club at underage level in recent times. Another connection with those early days was that the Patrick Maher who played with those first Skibbereen teams is a great-grandfather of Killian and Neville Maher of Kilnaclasha, who play with the club at present.
At the county convention later that month, Timothy Sheehy was elected to represent the county at the annual convention in Thurles the following month.
The politics and rivalries that affected the association at national level were also very apparent at County Board level in those early days. After a dispute at the County Board convention, a separate County Board was formed and a third County Board came into being for a while in 1889. It was 1894 before any semblance of uniformity was achieved.
There was further activity on the playing pitch in December, as Skibbereen took part in the Dunmanway Football Tournament. After their second game against Leap it took a meeting of the organising committee to settle a dispute and award the game to Leap. Dohenys Firsts and Geraldines (Leap) qualified for the final of this tournament, which was actually played early the following year.
Skibbereen’s last game in 1888 was on Sunday December 23rd, against Schull (Erin’s Hope), in Denis O’Brien’s field at Curragh, and Skibbereen won the game well. This was the Schull club’s first fixture.
On the last Sunday in January 1889, Skibbereen travelled to Schull for a return match which they again won easily and the Eagle reported that ‘no less than three thousand spectators were present to witness the contest.’
On Sunday March 17th, The first match for the county championship played in West Cork took place at Leap, between the Carbery Rangers (Rosscarbery), and the Wm O’Brien’s (Skibbereen). It was evident from the report in the Eagle that the GAA was really capturing the imaginations of the people of West Cork: ‘The greatest interest was taken in the match, as was manifest from the vast numbers who attended from every parish in West Cork. Not even at the monster meeting of the Irish National League, which was held here some time ago, was there such an assemblage as there was on Sunday to witness the match’.
A great honour for the Skibbereen club that day was that they were seen off from Skibbereen and wished well by the patron of the Association, his Grace the Archbishop of Cashel, who was visiting the Right Rev Dr Fitzgerald, Bishop of Ross, in Skibbereen.
Those were the days, of course, when the diocese of Ross had a bishop. The bishop was resident at Prospect House, or the Bishop’s Palace as it was known, in Skibbereen. Prospect House was the home of Mr Timothy McCarthy Downing and was built on what was originally a column between two public roads. It also contained his law offices where for the most part McCarthy Downing’s large fortune was accumulated. He was very prominent in the legal profession and was also an MP for Cork. McCarthy Downing died on January 10th 1879. Prospect House came to the Bishop of Ross under his will in consequence of the death without issue of his son, Eugene Downing. He survived his father only by a few months, whereupon the premises passed into occupation of the Most Rev Dr Fitzgerald, who up to then resided at Hollybrook.
Carbery Rangers won the match by 2 points to 1. In the account of the game in the Eagle, the reporter brings to our attention that emigration was still a serious problem in rural Ireland and that young people were still leaving in droves: ‘It is deplorable to record the fact that Ross can never again put forward the same men, as several of them intend to seek in the foreign land, that employment which they could not get at home; and, as an instance, at the Benduff slate quarry some time ago, upwards of one hundred men were employed and out of their ranks some of the ablest members of the club were picked, and at present not more than a dozen men are employed there, whilst some serious evidence of Home Rule, aye, home manufacturers purchase foreign slate to cover their houses, and even their factories!’
A few weeks later, Bantry beat Clon in the championship. Two weeks after their championship defeat, Skibbereen beat Ballydehob in a challenge match at the Marsh by 1-3 to nil. It was reported that there were again over three thousand people present. This was more or less the end of football activity in Skibbereen for 1889, although there was still plenty of activity in the surrounding areas. In May, in the Skibbereen Football Tournament, Drishane beat Ballydehob by 2 goals and 3 points to nil.
The next event of significance to the club was the departure of Fr John O’Leary to Clonakilty. In June 1889, Very Rev Fr John O’Leary was appointed parish priest in Clonakilty and was replaced by Rev Daniel O’Brien as Administrator in Skibbereen.
Fr O’Leary had been six years as Adm in Skibbereen and during that time he had advanced many causes, national and otherwise, and his departure was seen as a great loss to the town. At a meeting in the first week of June, held under the auspices of the local branch of the St Vincent de Paul, plans were made for a suitable testimonial to Fr O’Leary and £50 (a considerable sum in those days) was raised from subscriptions at that meeting alone.
On July 7th 1889, the first of a series of handball matches was played at Newtown, Rosscarbery, reviving what was probably one of the oldest games in the country. The prize was a solid silver medal which was given by the Rosscarbery GAA Handball Club. Over the following number of Sundays, large crowds attended these handball games and Skibbereen men figured prominently throughout. Among the players from Skibbereen were Con Hurley, baker, and his son, John Hurley, Cork Road, and Tim McCarthy, Bridge Street, P O’Driscoll and T Leary.
John Hurley, mentioned above, was very active in the promotion of handball in the early days of the GAA in Skibbereen and, even for many years after he moved to Dublin, he was a regular contributor to The SouthernStar, advocating the building of a handball court in town.
On November 5th 1889, a general meeting of the committee was held to elect officers and committee and to start the club on a firm footing for the coming year. A large number of new members were enrolled but the only significant change of officers was that Tim Sheehy was elected president.
The first practice match for the season was held the following Sunday in a field placed at the club’s disposal by Mr Cain O’Mahony.
Following the great flurry of activity which marked the early years of the association in West Cork, there was a dramatic decline in all GAA affairs in 1890. There was a number of reasons for this. After such a hectic beginning, it was inevitable that interest in the new association would level off and things would settle down a bit. While this was undoubtedly a factor, the reason for the almost total collapse of playing activity of any kind was much more closely related to the economic situation that year. In West Cork in 1890, there was an almost total failure of the potato crop and the situation, particularly in rural areas, was very serious. With memories of the devastation wreaked by the Great Famine just forty years earlier, still very much alive in the minds of the people, there was a great sense of desolation and panic in the area.
From reports in the Eagle, it is very obvious that fears of another famine were very widespread and that the situation deteriorated as the year wore on. There were numerous reports in the Eagle during August and September outlining the very serious state of affairs in West Cork. The following report, from August 30, 1890, illustrates just how critical the situation had become:
‘THE STATE OF BARRYROE — In Timoleague Abbey, a rude but flower-strewn slab covers the grave of the first victim of the famine that is already upon us. In the historic burial-ground was laid to rest on Saturday last an inhabitant of Barryroe, whose death adds a new terror to the many that are in store for the people of the districts afflicted by the potato-failure. This is the death which Dr Magner reported to the Clonakilty Guardians at their last meeting, and which has come upon the public with startling suddenness, as nobody dreaded the cause whose effect has been so sad and swift. At the worst, nothing has been up to the present feared except starvation, but Dr Magner now informs the public that there is to be feared what will spare the well-cared as little as the starving ...’
There had been an attempt earlier in the year to organise a West Cork Challenge Cup, mainly through the efforts of TJ O’Mahony of Rosscarbery, but there is no record of this having been played. The following letter, which appeared in the Eagle of October 4th 1890, is evidence that GAA activity had ceased almost totally that year:
‘THE GAA IN WEST CORK — To the Editor of the Eagle, Dear Sir – Cannot the Gaels of West Cork arouse themselves from their shameful apathy and endeavour to restore their Association to its former flourishing condition? Two years ago there were clubs in Skibbereen, Schull, Leap, Ross, Dunmanway, Aughadown, Kilmacabea, Castlehaven, Kilfaughnabeg, Clonakilty, Ballinadee, Ballylickey, Kealkil, Bantry, Union Hall, Ballydehob, Knocknagree, Kilmeen, Myross, Castletownbere, Drimoleague, Labbamologga, Kinsale, etc. etc., Now there are only two clubs, Dunmanway and Bantry. When will the young men of West Cork betake themselves to their national pastimes again, which provide for them cheap and healthy amusement. Yours truly, CAMAN.’
The following month, November 1890, the annual convention of Cork county clubs affiliated to the County Board took place and, while 36 clubs were represented, there was only one representative from West Cork, that being Mr Barry from Clonakilty. Dunmanway (M Doheny Branch) was also trying to organise again but, overall, the GAA was at a very low ebb in West Cork as the year 1890 came to a close.
We know who the founding fathers of the Skibbereen GAA Club were but, unfortunately, with the passing of time some of these names are not so easily identified. Some of the more prominent early members are, however, readily identifiable and some still have strong family connections in the parish. We do know that at the original meeting of the club on November 8th 1887, the following were present — Father John O’Leary, Timothy Sheehy, Richard Walsh, Patrick O’Sullivan, John Donelan, David Barry, C. O’Sullivan, John Hurley, John O’Mahony, P. Murphy, B. Coghlan, Daniel McCartie, TC, James O’Neill, Thomas Dillon, Michael Harrington and William Sullivan.
Father John O’Leary was the first president of the club. John O’Leary was born in Lislevane, Barryroe, in 1850. He studied for the priesthood in Maynooth and was ordained in 1874. After spending terms in Cape Clear and Sherkin he was appointed CC in Clonakilty in 1881 and became a great champion of the Land League. He was involved in one particularly notorious controversy with the landlord,William Bence Jones.
Fr O’Leary was appointed Administrator in Skibbereen in 1886. He was appointed president of the Skibbereen GAA Club at its inaugural meeting in November 1887. He returned to Clonakilty as parish priest in 1889 but maintained a close association with Skibbereen through his involvement with The Southern Star.
The Southern Star, founded in 1889, was purchased in July, 1891, by a consortium of ten shareholders, led by Fr John O’Leary. He was appointed chairman and was very actively involved in the running of the company up to at least 1915. He was an avid supporter of Parnell and continued to promote Parnell even after the Church had turned on him after the bitter controversy involving Kitty O’Shea. Fr John O’Leary died on October 31th 1921.
Timothy Sheehy was elected vice-president at the inaugural meeting and was the most prominent and important administrator in the early days of the club. The Sheehy family, of course, has contributed much to the cultural and business life in Skibbereen for a number of generations. Timothy Sheehy, representing Cumann na nGaedheal, won a seat in West Cork in the general election in June 1927. West Cork was then a five-seat constituency and Skibbereen returned two deputies in that election, the other one being Jasper Travers Wolfe, independent. There was another general election in September that year and Timothy Sheehy retained his seat and held it until February 1932.
Tim Sheehy is a grandfather of Mrs Mary Sheehy-Hussey and is a great-great-grandfather of Kevin and Caoimhe Davis, who maintain that strong family connection with the club for another generation.
Richard Walsh was elected captain and, other than the fact that he lived in Main Street, we know nothing of him.
Vice-captain was Patrick O’Sullivan who is one of the founding fathers with whom there is a palpable link to the present day. As already stated, Patrick O’Sullivan was a father of the late Mrs Elvie O’Gorman of Cork Road and a great-grandfather of Dillon Quish, who has played many a game of hurling and football with the club.
The first secretary elected was John J Donelan, another man with strong family connections still in the parish. John J Donelan was father of the late Ernie Donelan and was grandfather of Kevin Donelan and Patricia Long and a great-grandfather of Damien Long, currently a fine footballer with the club.
Mr David Barry was the first treasurer of the club and is another with strong family connections still in the parish. David Barry’s son was PatrickBarry, who in turn had three sons, Edward, Pat and Ted. David Barry is a great-grandfather of David Barry, Building Supply Store, and of Eamon and Pat Barry, electricians.
Who the C O’Sullivan was, we don’t know. John Hurley was a son of Con Hurley, baker, of Cork Road, and John himself carried on the bakery and general business. In the early days of the GAA in Skibbereen, he was a prominent handballer and, along with his father, took part in many of the tournaments in West Cork. He long advocated the erection of a handball alley in Skibbereen and, even while residing in Dublin, wrote many times on the subject in The Southern Star. He was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and did much to help the cause during the national struggle. He moved to Dublin and was, interestingly, an uncle of Donal Deering who played rugby for Ireland in the 1930s.
John O’Mahony and P Murphy we were not able to identify.
Daniel McCartie is another who is easy to identify. He was, for a long number of years, manager of the brewery in North Street which was owned by the MacCarthy family of Glencurragh. The Skibbereen Brewery was established in 1812 and closed in 1888. In that period, a large and remunerative trade was carried on, yielding a net profit of from £1,500 to £2,000 a year by brewing and the sale of corn. The brewery was situated off North Street, in the yard which is now owned by David Barry.
Daniel McCartie was a very influential figure at a time of great political and social unrest in these parts and anyone who has read Rossa’s Recollections will be somewhat familiar with McCartie’s involvement in the founding of the Phoenix National and Literary Society in Skibbereen and the prominent role he played in its development.
Thomas Dillon is another who is easy to identify. Dillon’s shop and public house at the corner of Bridge Street and Mardyke Street was, for well over a century, a notable landmark in Skibbereen. The Tzar public house later stood on the site. In the early part of the last century, the general provisions store was particularly noted for specialising in different kinds of teas. Thomas Dillon himself was a commercial traveller and well known throughout West Cork. He was a member of a number of nationalist organisations. Thomas and Mrs K Dillon had five daughters and many will fondly remember Gretta and Nora, who ran the business in Skibbereen for many years until their retirement in the early 1980s.
B Coghlan, James O’Neill, Michael Harrington and William Sullivan were other founding members but we haven’t been able to positively trace them.
That is, in part, the story of the early days of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Skibbereen. Perhaps it is now time for the history of the O’Donovan Rossa Club to be recorded in its entirety. The story of how the club evolved and grew over the past 120 years would be a most interesting study. Such organisations are not founded overnight; they emerge from the impact of political, social and economic influences on one another over a lengthy period.
The inaugural meeting of the GAA in Skibbereen was held in November 1887 and in the intervening years there can scarcely have been any family in the parish that has not had an input into the association or that has not been affected by it. Thousands of people have contributed to the wellbeing of the club. Some are household names because of their endeavours on the playing pitch. Others, many of whom may never have taken to the pitch, have been just as dedicated to the Skibbereen club and have helped to maintain and promote the ideals of the GAA. A full history of the club would be a very worthwhile contribution to the overall story of the development of Skibbereen over the past 120 years or so.
It was only in 1947 that the club changed its name from the Skibbereen Hurling and Football Club to the O’Donovan Rossa Hurling and Football Club, although they had adopted the name of O’Donovan Rossa for a brief period around 1903–1904.
The story of the association in Skibbereen is very largely a social history of the area. From the very beginning, way back in the late 1880s, when there was such enthusiasm and zeal for this great new national ideal, right to the present day, the GAAhas been one of the most prominent organisations in the parish. There is so much more to it than just fielding teams and winning matches – it is about people. People make up the GAA – people from every walk of life, from the rank and file members right up to the top hierarchy in the association, from those who start kicking a football or pucking a sliotar at 8 or 9 years of age, right up to the more senior members.
The Skibbereen club has a very rich vein running through it. It has a wonderful tradition. It began in the 1880s at a time when this country was in a very precarious state, politically and socially. It survived that period; it survived the 1916 period right through the War of Independence and Civil War; it survived two World Wars; it survived a few periods of mass emigration from this most peripheral of areas. It survived and prospered. Its endurance and subsequent prosperity are a testimony to the dedication and enthusiasm of its members for over a century.
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