By Eddie Bohan
For decades, Rule 42 of the GAA forbid the playing of British sports, like soccer and rugby at GAA grounds across Ireland, including Croke Park. In 1923, after several years of uncertainty due to war, the GAA urgently needed to generate funds to pay off debts for the development of Croke Park.
The ground had become synonymous with the events of Bloody Sunday 1920 and was a beacon of Irish nationalistic traditions. As anti-English sentiments echoed across the new State, the GAA earnestly embraced British entertainment, desperate to fund their operations at Jones Road.
A festival was held for a fortnight from June 2nd 1923. Apart from the sports championships on the field, dancing competitions and markets were installed, all with one aim, to generate as much money as possible from the paying public. The Fete was opened by Dan McCarthy TD, the GAA president and he enthusiastically proposed an ambitious plan to bring the Olympics to Croke Park.
This sentiment was echoed by the then Postmaster General J.J. Walsh, both men veterans of the battles against the British. The opening ceremony, on the steps of the main stand, was the first time ever that the speeches were delivered via a loudspeaker system, installed by James Kearney and his ‘Irish and Continental Trading Company’. The broadcasting of the speeches was described by the Irish Independent as ‘arousing much curiosity’ and ‘the first fete in Ireland where this microphone system was used’.
The installation of the system led to a bitter exchange between Kearney and fellow Easter Rising veteran, Sean McGarry. McGarry, an electrician and businessman, seemed to be under the impression that the loudspeaker system required a licence but it did not and he also complained that the equipment used was imported from Britain instead of being ‘guaranteed Irish’.
Kearney wrote that McGarry could not tell the difference between ‘broadcasting’ and ‘listening-in’. It may have been a coincidence that in the midst of the Fete on June 15th, the electrical supplies shop on Andrew Street owned by McGarry was broken into, ransacked and a money box taken.
While the GAA opposed anything English, they were not against using very specific British institutions to generate cash for their organisation. One of the popular attractions at the Fete and one that required an additional entry ticket, was also organised by Kearney and licensed by the PMG. For four hours of ‘wireless listening-in’ to British radio stations, attendees paid an extra shilling.
Underneath the main stand a wireless receiving set was set up with ‘perfect acoustics’ and thousands of Dubliners enjoyed the unique experience of listening to the wireless. In 1923, with no Irish station, and despite the Cardiff and Aberdeen stations both being audible in Dublin, they only tuned in to English stations relaying concerts, gramophone records and even live sports. The gramophone records were ‘risqué’ for many Catholics but the younger generation flocked to the wireless room to hear the ‘decadent’ modern music played by the English stations.
The Dublin Evening Telegraph reported,
‘Last night a most enjoyable programme was listened to by appreciative audiences. First, we had Manchester, which entertained us with music and song, then we switched to Newcastle to avoid a lecture which was not of great interest. From Newcastle we had some fine dance music admirably rendered. When this station announced it was closing down at 10.30, we switched onto London. After some orchestral selections we got news straight from the ring about the Ratner-Todd fight’.
While the GAA publicly maintained their anti-English attitude, they saw no wrong in embracing distinctly English culture from the airwaves. The GAA had both created an interest in the new medium of radio broadcasting and for English culture. But the prospect of an Olympic Final was just the beginning of an eventful year.
It may be strange today (the Garth Brooks fiasco springs to mind) but in 1923, there were events almost every day in the grounds. Due to the chaos caused throughout the country, Croke Park witnessed the 1921 football and hurling finals, the 1922 finals and even the 1923 semi finals in that one year. The postponed 1921 Hurling final was won by Limerick (8-04) defeating Dublin (3-02), the first time the Liam McCarthy Cup was played for. Meanwhile on June 17th the Dublin footballers won the All-Ireland 1-09 to Mayo’s 0-02. Dublin repeated their success winning the 1922 Final on October 7th beating Galway.
The 1922 Hurling title was claimed on September 9th by Kilkenny who defeated Tipperary in front of an official attendance of 26,000 but newspaper reports put the figure closer to 60,000, with twenty seven special trains travelling to the capital that day. While the 1921 and 1922 finals were being played in 1923, the 1923 championships began that May to be completed in 1924.
Throughout the year there were challenge games designed as fundraisers including the Ned O’Shea Testimonial game on August 17th between Tipperary and a Dublin team made up of players from Ballymun Kickham’s. O’Shea was the Tipperary captain on Bloody Sunday. The ‘Kevin Barry Memorial Fund’ challenge game was between Dublin and Kilkenny in February ‘for a set of valuable Gold Medals’ were presented by Kevin Barry’s sister.
On Friday June 1st 1923, the department stores of the city enjoyed the sporting spotlight. According to The Freemans’s Journal,
‘In Croke Park this evening this competition will be brought to a close, when Pirns meets Clery’s, who defeated McBirney’s on Tuesday after a very good game. Pirn’s team have been training very hard for this match and can be relied on to give Clery’s a good fight for the trophies. The followers of both teams are expected to turn up in large numbers to witness a very keen and interesting game.’
The Dublin senior and junior club championships in both codes were played at Croker. Union leader James Larkin made several appearances firstly in May when he addressed a large gathering of transport workers on the pitch celebrating Labour Day and again in September when a challenge match generated funds for unemployed transport workers in the city. With a running track around the pitch, there was numerous athletic events and weekly bicycle racing. The National Athletics featuring a national javelin record of 133feet 2 ½ Inches and Cycling Championships were held on July 30th and 31st.
The army held their multi-discipline championships in July, while the Dublin Tramway sports were held in August. The Civic Guards (An Garda Síochana) Sports championships generated their own shock headlines. In August, as their sports took place in the main grounds, in Con Lonergan’s pub opposite, on a Sunday afternoon when it was supposed to be closed, the local Sergeant from Store Street raided the pub and discovered that over thirty ‘civic guards and athletes’ were illegally drinking on the premises. The subsequent court case was a front page headline.
Finally, to complete the sporting list of Croke Park’s 1923 sports calendar, handball, rounders, and camogie all were played at Croke Park and one of the most popular midweek events was outdoor boxing. On May 16th almost 11,000 fans witnessed a 20 round welterweight contest between Belfast man Pat McAlister and British champion Arthur Treacy. After 20 gruelling rounds, the fight was declared a draw. McAlister would fight six times in Croke Park throughout 1923, drawing three and winning three.