They Know the Call of Freedom in their Breasts

By John Scally

You could say that in a GAA context Tom Burke did it all. And in a political context he had a remarkable life also. He was a player, referee, administrator and freedom fighter.

In the world of Gaelic Games Louth has an honourable pedigree, being at the forefront of the Gaelic Athletic Association since its formation in 1884.

In May, 1885, a branch of the Association was set up in the county following Michael Cusack’s visit to Drogheda. Shortly after, clubs sprung up the length and breadth of the county. Louth were represented by Young Irelands from Dundalk in the first football All Ireland final held at the Benburbs club grounds, Donnybrook on 29th April, 1888.

In the early 1900’s Louth qualified for three All Ireland football finals, losing the 1909 final to Kerry but victorious in 1910 and 1912, wins gained at the expense of Kerry (in a walk-over) and Antrim respectively.

In 1916 Tom Burke answered the “call to arms’’ and was interned in Frongoch Prison (North Wales) where he met Michael Collins. Following the 1916 Rising, 1,800 Irish rebels were arrested and interned at that Prisoner of War camp. In the aftermath of the Insurrection, 3,000 Irish rebels were arrested in all, and were marched to Dublin Port to board boats destined for internment camps in Britain.

Over the next six months, the internees included leading lights of the struggle for independence like Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Terence MacSwiney and Sam Maguire, formed deep bonds of friendship while sharing their knowledge and skills. The lessons of the Rising had been learnt and republican networks were strengthened within Frongoch’s North and South camps, located at a former Welsh whisky distillery.

The testimony of one of those men arrested, Johnny Flynn, exists today: ‘We were lined up at Richmond barracks, marched down along the quays, and along the North Wall. There were two rows of soldiers either side of us, with a lorry behind us with a machine gun mounted upon it. We certainly weren’t very popular as we were marched down to the boat. But for the soldiers either side of us, we might have fared very badly with the women of Dublin. Many of them were shouting “shoot the bast**ds’’.’

‘The rebels were brought to Britain on cattle ships, many of them thrown into pens alongside the cattle. Of the 3,000 aboard, 1,800 were interned at Frongoch in Wales: an old, disused distillery which had been used as a Prisoner of War camp for German soldiers during the first world war. Living conditions were atrocious, with many of the German prisoners at the camp dying of TB.’

‘In spite of the poor conditions, the proximity of so many Irishmen with similar republican ideals led to a community atmosphere among Michael Collins and the other detainees, and the prison became known as Ollscoil Na Réabhlóide or the University of Revolution.’

At the time, the Wolfe Tone tournament was the secondary competition in the GAA. Louth – captained by Tom Burke – and Kerry had qualified for the final, which was postponed owing to the Rising. Such was the volume of players from both teams interned at Frongoch, it was decided that the Wolfe Tone final would be played on the barbed wire-enclosed field the inmates had deemed as Croke Park. It has become known as the “All Ireland Behind Barbed Wire”.

Attendance at the game was made compulsory, so a crowd of about 1,800 watched a game that has been described as extremely tough and competitive. Perhaps apocryphally, one British officer was recorded as having said: “If that’s what they are like at play, they must be bloody awful in a fight!’’

The game was recorded by prisoner Joe Stanley, who was a Louth-based publisher of Republican literature. His report of the game itself is sadly rather vague. All that is known is the game lasted 40 minutes (comprising two 20 minute halves) and that, Kerry won the game by a point. The Proclamation was read out by piper Cormac Bowell during the interval.

After the game each player placed a piece of grass from ‘Croke Park’ into the box with their medals as a tribute to the men interned there in 1916. There was an unusual marketing strategy for the game. Posters advertising the Wolfe Tone Tournament final match in Frongoch between old rivals Kerry and Louth informed fans that ‘admission was 5 shillings and wives and sweethearts should be left at home’!

Tom Burke’s granddaughter Sarah MacDonald takes up the story: ‘The last Irishman in Frongoch on December 23, 1916 was Dublin priest Fr. Laurence Joseph Stafford. In the Dublin Diocesan Archives include one letter dated December 23, which was written to Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin. In it Fr. Stafford writes, “Five months ago when they were releasing the men interned here in hundreds, I said I should be the last Irishman left in Frongoch; and today I am.”

‘Outlining to the archbishop how he lobbied the British authorities for the prisoners’ release he had argued “that Christmas was Christmas”.

“Today the gates of the compound are thrown open and tonight there will not be a single Irishman (save myself) left in Frongoch.”

According to Noelle Dowling, archivist at the Dublin Diocesan Archives, when World War I broke out in August 1914, Fr. Stafford asked to become a military chaplain and the following March he signed up. This proved a difficulty when he was appointed to Frongoch because he wore the military chaplain’s uniform.

The men looked at him as being a sort of ‘Khaki chaplain’. Even though he knew some of them, they did not take to him initially. But through his good work and his perseverance they finally did accept him. Another letter written by Fr. Stafford from Frongoch is dated July 19, 1916, shortly after he arrived in the camp.

He relates how he celebrated Mass for the men in both camps in Frongoch, as well as Confession and the Rosary: ‘I need hardly say, the men appreciate the presence of a priest among them and I am up shortly after five every morning to begin my work.’

In 1920 at the behest of Michael Collins Tom Burke was nominated and elected Secretary of the Co Board, a position he held until 1925. He later served four years as Co Board Chairman from 1928-31. He refereed the 1928 All-Ireland Final and Tailteann Games and Railway Cup Finals as well as countless Louth Finals.

With Drogheda Stars he won two Louth Junior and two Louth Senior medals, before helping to form Wolfe Tones in 1923. He won a third Louth Senior medal with them in 1925. He declined the invitation to represent Leinster in the 1924 Tailteann Games because of his political views. In 1928 he refereed the All Ireland final, the first occasion, Sam Maguire was presented to the winning team, Bill “Squires“ Gannon lifting the trophy for Kildare.

Sarah MacDonald explains what is happening in the camp today:

‘Today, the barbed wire has been removed from the field, and now it is grazed by sheep. Locals in the Welsh village still refer to the field as ‘’Croke Park’’. There is a small monument to the memory of the game and the men involved, which was erected by a Liverpool branch of the Gaelic League.’

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