Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dublin V Kerry, Croke Park and Civil War

Dublin Captain Bryan Cullen lifts the Sam McGuire Cup after Dublin beat Kerry by 1:12 to 1:11 to become All Ireland Champions. President Mary MacAlese and Taoiseach Enda Kenny are behind him.

On Sunday I was in Croke Park to to watch the final of the most sought after competition in Irish sport, the All Ireland Gaelic Football Final. It was a privilege to be there to witness such a great Irish sporting occasion. The atmosphere was electric, the enviroment friendly and the match was possibly the best I was ever at. I have been a fanatic supporter of the Dublin football team since I was ten and Sundays result was one of my most joyous moments in sport. This is not a sporting blog. But Gubu World readers will know that while I love many sports, I particularly enjoy analysing when sport interacts with politics. We see this in many sports such as Rugby where for many years the South African team were the subject of anti Apartheid boycotts. In fact South Africa's national Rugby team remains controversial post Apartheid because of the ANC's very unwise policy of requiring a quota of black players. Irish Rugby too has its issues as our national team is a 32 county United Ireland team making it a rare entity that appears to bring Irish nationalists and Ulster Protestants together. The Olympics and International soccer have likewise seen many political controversies. There was the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which was followed by a Soviet refusal to attend the 1984 games in Los Angelas. The soccer controversies are endless but perhaps the most notable was the "Soccer War" in 1969 when Honduras and El Salvador engaged in a four day war after a particularly bruising World Cup qualifying match which was followed by violent riots. And my favourite sport Gaelic Football has controversies of its own. The Gaelic Athletic Association has its roots in Irish Nationalism and during the War of Independence its headquarters at Croke Park was the scene of a massacre in 1920 when British forces killed 14 civilians during a match. For many years the GAA forbid the playing of foreign games (soccer and rugby) at Croke Park for nationalist reasons. When the ban was overturned in 2007 and the British Rugby team were set to play in the stadium, many objected to the pre match playing of the British National anthem at the same scene of the 1920 killings. However, political controversy involving the GAA is not confined to our relations with Britain.

The Civil War
The Irish Civil War (1922-23) is a conflict which I have developed something of an obsession with in recent times. It is a conflict that has been under explored by most historians. But given Sundays final between Dublin and kerry which Dublin won in such glorious fashion, I thought I would post something on the ugly events which occurred in Co Kerry in March/April 1923, just as the war was coming to a close. When the war broke out in June 1922 between the Pro and Anti Treaty factions of the IRA, it did not take the new National "Free State" Army long to dislodge the IRA from the major towns and cities of the country. When this happened much of the IRA dispersed but a minority remained on to conduct a guerrilla war against the new government and its army. Perhaps the most effective fighting unit in the Free State Army was the Dublin Guards, a battalion whose officer corps was made up of former men from Michael Collins' ruthless "squad" and other pro treaty IRA men from the Dublin Brigade. In the Spring of 1923 the Dublin Guards found themselves occupying Co Kerry after landing late the previous year on the southern coast. Many of the officers in the Dubin Guards had been ruthless assassins during the war against the British. And after the civil war commenced, they continued to be ruthless against their former comrades, particularly after the death of their beloved leader Michael Collins. On occasions when the anti treaty IRA succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on the Free State Army in Kerry, the Dublin Guards would retaliate. The most notorious incident occurred in a little known place called Ballyseedy, just outside Tralee.

The Ballyseedy Massacare
On March 6th 1923 a detailed and complicated plot by the anti treaty IRA in Kerry came to fruition when five Free State Soldiers were killed by a booby trap bomb in the townland of Knocknagoshel. The intended target of the bomb was a Kerryman, and Free State Officer who had joined the Dublin Guards because of a personal grudge he had against the IRA who had mistreated his family. This officer's knowledge of the area and the local IRA proved vital for the National Army, so much so that the IRA hatched a quite extraordinary plot to kill him which culminated in the knocknagoshel landmine. However, another man killed that day included an officer from Dublin who had been a prominent member of the pre truce IRA and a squad member. His comrades were outraged by his death. The following day nine IRA prisoners were taken from a barracks in Tralee and brought out to Ballyseedy crossroads by men from the Dublin Guards. At gunpoint they were tied to a landmine and it was detonated. The Free State soldiers claimed that they were making the prisoners dismantle an IRA barricade which was booby trapped when it exploded. This was a lie. Amazingly, one man survived the massacre. His name was Stephen Fuller. He was blown free of the barricade and landed in a nearby stream. Although badly wounded he managed to escape in the darkness. So grim was the scene, that the Free State soldiers placed the body parts of the 8 victims into 9 coffins, not realising that one man had escaped. Stephen Fuller lived to tell the tale. In later life he became a Fianna Fail TD (member of parliament). He died in 1984. Whether the Ballyseedy massacre was orchestrated by the Army High Command, the Government or simply by members of the Dublin Guards acting on their own has never been firmly established. It was however not the only atrocity committed by the Free State Army in Kerry before the wars end in May 1923.

It would be stretching things a bit much to suggest that such incidents have created any lasting hostility between Dublin and kerry people. After all the Irish Civil War was not geographical. There were plenty of Kerrymen in the Free State Army and Dublin men in the anti treaty IRA. But it is true to state that many of the older generation in Kerry would have had memories of not so pleasant Dublin men in uniforms with distinct accents that probably seemed almost as foreign as the British. And believe it of not, the 1923 All Ireland Final was also between Dublin and Kerry. The GAA made a huge effort after the Civil War to heal the wounds of the Civil War. In fact, for the 1923 final (which Dublin won, again) the Kerry GAA board insisted that the team consist of men who had been both pro and ant treaty. However, the tension must have been palpable in Croke Park that September day, considering there were many Kerrymen still in prison, including some players and that the Dublin team had some individuals who had been members of the Dublin Guards and had seen action in Kerry. Of course I would bet that %95 of the people who were in Croke Park on Sunday last would be unaware of the Ballyseedy massacare. But perhaps not in the 1970's when the great Dublin and Kerry teams met in 6 All Ireland finals. Back then there were a lot more people around who had fresh memories of this dark and largely forgotten episode in our history. Hostility between Dublin and Kerry in those days was likely more genuine. But let us not dwell too much on this. Part of the marvellous aspect of Sundays match was the sportsman like nature of the Kerry team and their fans, several of whom congratulated me as I was leaving the stadium. Furthermore one can't help be heartened at the stories of lasting friendship between the players that met so often during the 70's many of whom had sons playing on Sunday. It was simply a wonderful day that I will never forget. A touching moment also occurred at half time when members of the New York Fire Department received a standing ovation from the 82,500 people attending the match. Of course, nothing could match the cheer that was heard when Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton came up to take the last minute long range free kick which gave the capital their first All Ireland victory in 16 years. Lets have a look shall we !

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