The GAA and the early days in Mayo

By the Hurler on the Ditch

The Ballina Journal of March 4, 1889, has a feature on two games that were played the previous Sunday. Having just celebrated the year of the 125th celebrations of the GAA, these accounts from the North Mayo area, give us some idea of what the conditions were like for the club then. In fact, one game did not go ahead, whilst the other was a very good game.

This showed the differing attitudes to the GAA and the playing of the game – when the Attymass O’Dowds were to meet Backs Kickhams, in Knockmore, at a place called Coolcronan. The local landlord – Mr. Perry, a member of the Knox–Gore family, would not allow the tenants to take out the boats to ferry the Attymass players across the Moy and the game was called off. This was one of the major challenges facing the GAA at the time, in that they had to depend on the farmers and large landholders to provide them with a field for the game.

Obviously, it was a different matter for the Brian Borus a few miles away, where the landlords or large farmers, and residents of the Big House provided a field for Gaelic Games and athletics until a field was granted, in 1936. The Brian Borus played a game against the Charlemounts, who were a team from Ardnaree, in Ballina. There was a meal and an aeraíocht afterwards.

The paper also gives a list of forthcoming fixtures and the names of teams that no longer exist, but were precursors of what was to come. In any event, a look at the teams in north Mayo in the Parnellite years and the support, or lack thereof, is a valuable lesson in history.

The language in the paper is interesting:

“The football match between the Attymass O’Dowds and the Back Kickhams to have been kicked on yesterday had to be postponed owing to the actions of Mr. Perry of Colcronane.
The above teams met in friendly contact at Bonniconlon on yesterday. The wind was blowing a stiff, frosty breeze but otherwise the day was fine. After play the Brian Borus entertained their guests at a comfortable luncheon. Songs were freely given and toasts proposed and responded to.”

These were the two games and in the use of the language and the overall context, you can see that the GAA in its early years enjoyed differing fortunes. In the case of the second paragraph, the game was played in Bonniconlon, where a good number of the farmers were in favour of the GAA. The Beckett family, of Carha House, were to remain (and do so to this day!) loyal supporters of the GAA and provided their lands, along with their neighbours, the McAndrews, for games and sports days. Another family who supported the game, with some members of the family playing for the Attymass O’Dowdas, was the Woods family, of Lissardmore, where there was a large farm by the side of the lake. In one of those level fields, they played games every Sunday. Later, the Gilmartin family, who bought the farm and built a house after the Woods left, were very good players, too.

Other teams that were mentioned on the same page were; the Ardagh Maudevilles; the Ballina James Stephens; Ballysakery; Crossmolina; the Ballina Commercials and the Backs Davis. In fact, it was not uncommon for there to be two teams in the same area, especially if it were a large town, like Ballina, or large rural district, like the Parish of Backs, that took in Knockmore and other areas like Rehins, Cloghans and the half parish of Rathduff, extending from the area near Ballina to the shores of Lough Conn, and in near the bridge at Foxford. At one game in the town, the Ballina Mechanics Band played, or was expected to be present.

Then, when you turn your attention away from the match reports, there is an editorial celebrating the fact that Parnell had won the case against Pigot, who forged letters to discredit Parnell. It is clear that the Ballina Journal is very much in favour of Parnell. A prominent Parnellite in Ballina at the time was one Mr. Arthur Muffeny.

A meeting of the Mayo County Committee, or County Board, was held in the Moy Hotel (now the library in Ballina) in late February 1889. The Swinford Sextons was one of the leading clubs in the county at the time.

Mayo reached their first All–Ireland final in 38 years, in 1989. There was a great sense of occasion at the time. Interesting, then, to see how the GAA in the county developed over the century, from its early days in 1889, when the first county conventions were held. There were teams in every district, with very few – if any – facilities and dependent on the landed classes to give them a pitch.

In the years before and after this account was written in the Ballina Journal, the fortunes of the GAA wavered. There were 600 clubs in the country, in 1887, and the IRB had an influence within each club. For this reason, the Catholic Church and not just the landed aristocracy was opposed to the GAA. The growth continued, nevertheless, and there were 1,000 clubs in 1888, when Mayo held its first convention. This would have been more-or-less the same number when these games were being reported on in the Ballina Journal. With the continued opposition from the Church, due the IRB element and the support for Parnell, the number of clubs declined and there were only 557 affiliated in 1890. When the Parnell crisis came, the GAA formed Parnellite Support committees, in April 1891. There was a meeting of this committee held in the Brian Borus area of Carra, in May 1891, to propose a resolution of support for Parnell.

So, as we leave the 125 celebrations behind and enter into GAA 126, here is how things were in the late 1880s for the GAA at local level. The Oral History Project is presently collecting memories from its people around the country and from now on we will not just have to rely on the accounts from the papers, but will have detailed, eye–witness information on what went on in the GAA, from the 1930s onwards.