A game of whistle
If there was an All-Ireland medal for the characteristic of “understatement” then a Gaelic games correspondent in the local press in June 1916 would be up there with the team of the century.
He surfaced in an issue of June 1916 having been absent since the April of that year and described his absence to his readers as being an “unwelcome interim”. The fact that the weeks since his previous appearance in print had seen the Easter Rising with its deaths, destruction and executions would surely have deserved more than the bland explanation of an “interim” – be it welcome or unwelcome. In fact the sporting scribe goes on to achieve an even greater feat of what might be called “whistling past the graveyard” or, to quote an alternative maxim, “ignoring the elephant in the room.” Because he tortures and bends the English language to write a full column without any direct reference to the Rising and its implications. He reassures his readers that during the two months absence he was without the “natural accompaniment of kicking, or at least, seeing others enjoy that pleasure.” And, no, he is not describing some form of early 20th century martial arts with his reference to kicking but rather taking an unusual – at least to modern eyes – phraseology to describe Gaelic football.
He does concede that a revolution has taken place in “our own little Gaelic world in even the brief space of two short months.” And he records that as a result he resumed coverage of matches with something akin to fear and doubt. His first post-Rising fixture was to travel to “Naas of the Kings” – the rarely expressed English translation of the town’s bardic Irish title – to cover two matches on the second Sunday of June 1916 of which the principal was a tie between Kilcullen and Kilcock. Happily both teams were unaffected by recent events and he heaved the proverbial sigh of relief when as they lined out he saw the old familiar forms line lightly trip out to resume the friendly antagonism of the game – a pointed contrast to the aggressive antagonism seen on the streets of Dublin just eight weeks previously.
However it seemed as if something had changed in the air – and it was not for the best. He observed that the players seemed to be lacking in enthusiasm and interest. At points of the contest he was forced to the conclusion that he was looking at beginners rather than mature footballers. Things were as bad as regards the supporters: “The usual side-line arrangements of cheers, advices, war whoops, etc. were also missing from the card.” That said, at least there was a resumption of business after the disruption in the schedule of Gaelic games caused by the – unmentionable – Easter Rising.
The second tie on the programme for the day which was to see Kilcullen’s No. 2 side versus a side from Blacktrench (off the Naas-Rathangan road) failed to materialise and thus the attention was focussed on the Kilcullen first selection against Kilcock.
And even if the game itself barely registered in his notebook our correspondent has at least rendered the valuable service to future generations of documenting the names of the players. Kilcock lined out for that June 1916 fixture as follows: Joe Baxter (goal), T. Kelly (capt.), Joe Rafferty, M. Crosbie, Jack Dunne, Joe Connor, P. Sheridan, P. Collins, John Moran, C. Flynn, Joe Moran, T. Reid, James Moran, P. Flynn, J. Kelly.
Kilcullen fielded the following team: John Spencer (goal), P. King, P. Byrne, M. Nolan, P. Howe, A. Nolan, M. Brady, P. Garrett, W. Bagnall, T. Ryan, J. Purcell, D. Ryan, T. Connor, T. McGrath, P. Feily.
Perhaps our correspondent’s inclination towards understatement led him to be a bit hard on both the entertainment value of the game and on his own abilities to bring the action alive to his readers. A hundred years on his report conveys a game which portrayed a modicum of skill and colour even if it was scores from frees which largely dictated the contest. Take his lines on the second moiety of the game which began with Kilcock with two goals on the board – including one from a free – to no scores for Kilcullen: “On turning over Kilcullen were the first to commence, and again frees entered largely into the programme.” After some give-and-take play A. Nolan secured first blood for Kilcullen off a free with a point from about forty yards out. Continuing to press the Liffey-siders scored another and – demonstrating that the nick-name was in currency in that time he writes “it looked as if ‘the Rags’ with a bit of luck, might succeed in wiping off the arrears.” Kilcullen raised another white flag and for a time the Kilcock defenders were “sorely taxed”. However they failed to capitalise on some late chances such as when “A. Nolan sent in a grand kick which dropped right under the goal bar but the Kilcullen advanced forward made no effort to get to it, with the result that Jack Dunne was enabled to clear out of the danger zone.” No further score was forthcoming and Kilcock won on a score of two goals to Kilcullen’s three points.
However if the action on the pitch barely registered as a footnote in our correspondent’s assessment his observations on the direction that Gaelic football generally in 1916 was taking had an edge which would ring true with modern commentators on the game. He lamented: “The abundance of frees in latter day matches is really becoming almost a nuisance. It seems on the verge of developing into a game of whistle instead of football.” It sounds like something a Gaelic games pundit of 2016 might declare, never mind a sceptical correspondent navigating the strange atmosphere of the post Easter Rising playing fields. Leinster Leader 7 June 2016, Looking Back Series no: 489.