The most remarkable meeting in GAA history

From the archive

Seventy-four years ago today, the annual GAA Congress at Croke Park saw one of the most extraordinary debates and votes, setting in motion a plan which would see the All-Ireland SFC final between Cavan and Kerry played in New York that September. PAUL FITZPATRICK looks back on a remarkable sequence of events.

The key figure in bringing the 1947 All-Ireland final to New York was Canon Michael Hamilton, a native of Clonlara in Co Clare who was known in GAA circles simply as ‘the Canon’.

Then chairman of the Munster Council,the priest was a man used to getting his own way. “He was a very articulate man, highly-respected and with a great record of service in the Association,” remembered former GAA President Paddy McFlynn.

Hamilton’s association with Cavan and All-Ireland finals got off on an infamous note. The 1937 final, between Cavan and Kerry ended in stalemate and the Clareman played an important role. When the legendary GAA journalist PD Mehigan, better-known by his pen-names Carbery and Pato, fell ill, the priest commentated on the game on Radio Éireann. However, it was his one and only broadcast, as The Canon made a fatal mistake.

The match ended in a draw but the fledgling commentator announced that Cavan won by a point, prompting bonfires in Breffni, as thousands awaited the return of the champions. They were to be disappointed later that night when the first supporters began to arrive home from Dublin, bemused at the reception and explaining that the match had ended in a draw.

The turnstiles had been broken, the story goes, and up to 10,000 extra supporters, late because of a delay on the train, had gate-crashed the party. They sat everywhere, including on top of the scoreboard, with the result that no scores were recorded on it.

Cavan raised a white flag in the final minute but ref Martin Hennessy disallowed the score for a throw by Paddy Boylan, prompting bitter conspiracy theories that the association, then in the process of a costly refurbishment of the Cusack Stand, had ‘fixed’ the draw with the referee.

The Canon ploughed on and gained huge renown in the association, both in Clare and across the country. He was a man who dreamed big, and had the clout to make things happen. When the Clare county board re-opened Cusack Park in Ennis, he threw in the ball in to start the match – from a light aircraft.

He was remarkably intelligent, an arch-conservative and a staunch defender of 'The Ban'. He was a skilled linguist, who won the prestigious Solus scholarship to Maynooth University – not just in English but in Irish and French, as well.

By 1946, The Canon had just turned 50 and was at the peak of his considerable powers. It is impossible to overstate the influence he held in the GAA at the time.

Congress waited with bated breath for his addresses every year. If he couldn’t make it, it didn’t matter – someone read it out.

Like another great cleric, the first patron Archbishop Croke, whose famous letter is included in the Official Guide to this day, Hamilton became a by-word for all the principles the Association held dear.

Chairman of the Clare county board for a quarter of a century from 1920 on, during which time he oversaw a rare Munster SHC final win in 1932, he also chaired the Munster Council and would, in time, become a member of Central Council, where he looked after the interests of New York. Over the winter of 1946-47, Hamilton and John ‘Kerry’ O’Donnell, ruler of NY GAA, were in constant contact.

O’Donnell had planted the seed of bringing an All-Ireland to New York and it grew in the mind of the Clonlara cleric, by then parish priest in Newmarket On-Fergus. In January of ’47, The Canon got to work with his motion and it would all come down to Congress at Easter.

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CONGRESS came, at last but The Canon was delayed. Easter is the busiest working week of the year for men of the cloth and the Principal Clare delegate was finding it hard to get time off from his boss.

Needs must, though; the priest had his mind set on a little piece of history and late Mass in Sixmilebridge wasn’t going to derail his plans.

He contacted one of the other Banner delegates, Sean Clancy, and asked that he place a special request: let the show go on until evening time but save a slot on stage for The Canon.

The snow had played havoc with the on-field schedule that year. Pitches weren’t so much frozen as buried under feet of it and when it came to making fixtures, all bets were off. The Railway Cup final had been delayed by almost a month and would finally throw-in at Croke Park on Easter Sunday, April 6.

Meanwhile, Congress began, as usual at the time, at the Dublin Corporation council chamber in City Hall, just off Dame Street in the city centre and only two-and-a-half miles from the action.

GAA President Dan O’Rourke called proceedings to order just after 10am.

The morning session ran off smoothly, the usual accounts (showing a surplus of £15,765 for the year) to be ratified.

Four counties moved to drop The Ban – the strict rule that members of the GAA, on pain of instant banishment from the association, were forbidden to play in or even attend ‘foreign games’ – but they were shot down.

The morning session sped along. O’Rourke had announced that business would be over by 2pm, allowing time for delegates to attend the Railway Cup match, then a huge attraction usually played on St Patrick’s Day. The meeting would reconvene in an office space under the tiny old Hogan Stand, he directed, later in the evening.

That was when The Canon, after flooring it from noon Mass, would make his big play. Sean Clancy, an army officer, was a friend of both Canon Hamilton and Padraig Ó Caoimh’s. On the eve of Congress, he took a call from the clergyman, asking him to beseech the GAA’s General Secretary to jig around the agenda so that he could speak on the New York motion in the brief evening session.

Ó Caoimh agreed; this was Canon Hamilton asking. No problem, the Corkman said. The rest of the items would be heard in the morning and The Canon would get his say.

It was 4pm by the time Hamilton, parochial duties fulfilled, hit the big smoke. By then, the delegates were assembled in Croker, watching Connacht produce a massive shock in winning their first Railway Cup hurling title, a crown they wouldn’t wear again until 1980.

“[At] about half-time, Canon Hamilton arrived from Clare and he joined us in the Hogan Stand,” recalled Clancy. “And we told him what the feeling was among the delegates at Congress and people at the match and we advised him that there was no hope of getting the motion through, everybody seemed to be against it. At that stage, several people approached the Canon and apologised to him for not being in a position to support him.

“And I remember one in particular, Seamus Gardiner, he was afterwards president of the Association, and I recall the words he said. He said: ‘Look, Canon, I supported you always in the past in the great things you’ve done for the Association but I cannot support you in this motion.”

Canon Hamilton, however, was a man who got his own way. The iron cleric was not for turning.

Clancy: “I suggested to him that he might withdraw the motion but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said the motion is going through.”

Gardiner’s son, speaking to legendary GAA writer Mick Dunne half a century later, would verify the story. “My father said that he told the Canon that he couldn’t support him, but some people were afraid that the Canon would get very few votes. He remembered that he and Pádraig Ó Caoimh asked a number of people to give the motion a few votes so that the Canon wouldn’t be embarrassed.”

Indeed, when, during the recess for the match, Clancy and another friend, Fr Johnny Minihan, then parish priest in Nenagh, asked Ó Caoimh to be allowed in to watch the debate, the official handed both men, neither of whom had any mandate or position, delegates’ voting cards, imploring them to support the motion.

“Look, vote for the motion, it’s going to be heavily defeated and I’d hate to see the Canon humiliated,” he implored.

So, in the pair went, and The Canon began to fire.

******

Patsy Lynch was the Cavan chairman at the time.  The youngest man ever to play in an All-Ireland final, when he lined out in the 1927 junior decider, he was the son of a butcher from Market St, Bailieborough.

He won a senior All-Ireland medal at full-back alongside Hughie O’Reilly and Big Tom (then a teenager and referred to as ‘Young Tom’) in 1933, and, like Jim Smith, was a folk hero by the time he was in his 20s. After the ’33 final, tar barrels were lit in Bailieborough and a brass band headed a torch light procession to his home.

His playing career appeared to be over after he wound up in hospital following the 1934 semi-final against Galway, with the Irish Press even speculating in 1935 that he would “never don the blue of Cavan again”. Don it he did though, returning in the new role of full-forward late in his career.

By the late 1930s, he was routinely described in the national press as a veteran, despite the fact that he wouldn’t turn 35 years of age until 1946.

He had come in as county chairman in 1944, making him effectively the leader of the group at the top table to whom the Cavan delegates reported. He would later credit The Canon and another Banner man, Vincent Murphy, as the individuals who, more than anyone, brought the final to New York.

“Canon Hamilton and Vincent Murphy operated like a two-man Clare army, knocking over all the obstacles and pushing ahead, with every means at their command, to get their plan adopted and then, put into effect,” he remembered.

Hamilton’s address certainly was militaristic in its precision; he found the weakness in the delegates – their nostalgic side, their longing to see their relatives again – and he pummelled them with his heavy arsenal of powerful oration. The doubters never stood a chance.

By the time Canon Hamilton took to the stage, snow was pelting down outside and a sizeable number of the delegates had turned for home after the match, content, perhaps, that the preposterous Clare motion wouldn’t go through in any case.

So there they were, crammed in a cubby-hole under the creaky old stand, which itself would be knocked 11 years later. The meeting room underneath, recorded in the minutes of Congress as “the secretary’s room”, comfortably held, it was later claimed, somewhere closer to 20 than the 200 or so that squeezed in. Tired, uncomfortable and cramped, they craned their necks and listened.

As the snow thickened on the ground outside, the motion was called: “That the incoming Central Council take up with the Gaels of New York the question of resumption of tours and that the Congress empower the Central Council to arrange, if found feasible, for the playing of an All-Ireland final in New York. That Rule 92 of the Official Guide be amended accordingly.”

The Canon’s moment had arrived. In all, he would speak for over 20 minutes, without notes. “The second part of the motion is not such an easy proposal for, in the first place, it requires the temporary suspension of a rule in the Guide Book and, moreover, it would be the biggest request ever made to Congress, namely that in the special circumstances of this year, and to give a much-needed fillip to the games beyond, the 1947 All-Ireland football final be played in New York,” he said.

He acknowledged the potential pitfalls but stated: “All I ask today is that this Congress gives its sanction to the principle and empower the Central Council to make the tremendous gesture to help our fellow Gaels in exile in their efforts to preserve the continuity of their racial characteristics and to cherish amongst a rising generation of Irish-Americans the games and pastimes of the Motherland.

“That such an incentive, such an inspiration, is really necessary, there is no shadow of doubt. The Gaelic Athletic Association in New York is in a critical stage of its existence. It has been hitherto sustained by the Irish-born hurlers and footballers that we knew.

“They are now passing beyond the period of active field service, in fact, many of them have long defied the passage of the years in their efforts to keep the games going.

“The immigration quota is not sufficient to fill the depleted ranks, so there remains but one hope of the survival of the GAA and it is the young Irish-American element growing into manhood.

“The leaders of Gaelic life in New York have come to the conclusion that nothing else than an All-Ireland final can create that stir and give that impulse to new life, which can put the Association once more on a sound footing.

“I could not attempt to express what an All-Ireland would mean to our exiles. There are hundreds of thousands of them awaiting the decision of Congress and if that decision is in their favour there will be a wave of joy and happiness in the homes of our exiles not merely in New York but north to Chicago, south to Florida and west 3,000 miles to San Francisco.”

******

By now, the delegates, tired, huddled together, and glancing furtively at their watches, began to sit up and take notice. The Canon was on a roll. It was time to seal the deal.

“Strong hearts will throb with emotion that only those who have been in exile can appreciate or understand. We are asking you in the name of these exiles to pass the motion, to make whatever sacrifices are involved, we ask you especially in the name of the more humble and lowly amongst them, fortune did not smile on them all, there are thousands who will never see their native land again and there are thousands among them who feel they would die happy if they saw their native county playing in an All-Ireland final.

“This,” he said, “is the year 1947,the centenary of that dark and dismal period, when hunted by the spectre of famine and pestilence, the great exodus of our people found a friendly welcome and warm hospitality on America’s shores.

“By sending out the best of our athletes, the flower of our manhood, to contest an All-Ireland in New York, we give a magnificent demonstration of the unbroken historical continuity and the wonderful tenacity of our race.”

Sean Clancy surveyed the room, which had been transformed. Men were weeping silently. The Canon had struck the right chord.

“He gave his reasons for having that match played in New York and he finished his speech, I can remember it very well, by saying ‘every one of you here this evening has some relative in the New York area, a brother or a sister, an uncle or an aunt or someone else’. And he said, ‘are you going to deny them this little piece of Ireland? They’ll never see their homeland again. Are you going to deny them this bit of Ireland in the area where they’re living?’” recalled Clancy.

“Honestly, I could see tears in the eyes of some of the delegates and I could see a change coming over the gathering. That’s the line on which he finished his speech.”

******

Members of the Cavan and Kerry delegations enjoy a drink on the way home from New York.

Better was to come. An ally of Hamilton’s, a teacher from Milltown Malbay in west Clare called Bob Fitzpatrick, spoke next, seconding the motion and conjuring from his pocket, like a magician, a heart-wrenching letter he had received from an emigrant, from which he quoted at length about what it would mean to have a final played in New York.

It pulled on the heartstrings and sealed the deal. It mattered little that the letter was a fake, written by Fitzpatrick himself the previous evening – it produced the desired effect.

“The delegate, the rogue, after the thing was passed admitted to all and sundry that he had written the letter himself the night before in Barry’s Hotel,” recalled Paddy McFlynn.

This was later confirmed by Seán Ó Síocháin, the GAA Director General in the 1960s.

There were still questions to be answered, though. In all, 20 individuals spoke on the motion, with Gerry Arthurs and Fintan Brennan (secretary of the Ulster Council and chairman of the Leinster equivalent respectively) speaking vehemently against the idea. Both men, ironically, would later be included in the official party.

Another to speak in the strongest terms against the idea was a Waterford-based Galwegian, Vincent O’Donoghue, who was later President of the GAA.

As an aside, in the 1960s O’Donoghue sought permission for the Waterford hurlers to travel to the United States for an unofficial tour while he was Central Council delegate for the Déise. One of his strongest advocates was one Patsy Lynch.

At the time, though, he was adamant. The Canon bit on his gumshield and rolled with the punches.

Would this set a precedent? No, he said, we only want this to happen in 1947. Was it for football or hurling? Who would take charge? How would the costs be estimated? The Canon had answers for it all.

“It was clear,” said Lynch, “that the Canon had done his homework but there was still considerable resistance as the delegates – remember, this was long before the championship had even started – presented a whole litany of arguments as to why the All-Ireland final should be played at home.

“It was a hot, sticky night and the meeting dragged on to nearly two in the morning… There didn’t appear to be a breath of air as the arguments waged, first one way, then the other. The general opinion was, at that stage, that the Canon was going to fail.”

There was relief when an adjournment was called for refreshments. While the delegates took a break, Hamilton and his Clare colleague Murphy got to work again, canvassing, imploring, fighting their corner.It was politics at work, coercing and coaxing the weary would-be voters until the plan was nearly over the line.

Lynch: “I don’t know who he spoke to or what he said but on the resumption, it became clear that considerable headway had been made in winning opinion over to his way of thinking. It must have been about 2am when the decision to play the game in New York was finally taken.”

As the weather worsened outside, delegates, many facing hours of driving in treacherous, dark conditions, must have wished it was all wrapped up. Now, their emotions stirred, their beds calling, they gave in. The vote was called.

“The President said it was the most unusual motion ever to be discussed at Congress in his experience,” said Clancy.

“However, he eventually put the motion. Slowly, an odd thing happened. As if by magic, a forest of hands appeared, as virtually all the delegates rose in acclamation and the motion was declared and carried without even counting the handful of dissidents. At this stage, there was a wild rush to congratulate the Canon on achieving something that appeared to be impossible.

“Everybody agreed that nobody else in Ireland could have won the hearts and the votes of the delegates as the Canon had done. It was, indeed, his hour of triumph.”

There was one bridge yet to cross – the motion was only that the idea be explored to see if it was feasible, and the GAA were immediately sending Ó Caoimh and Connacht secretary Tom Kilcoyne to New York to investigate. They would report back to the Central Council meeting in late May, when the decision could well be effectively over-turned.

But, for now, in the early hours of Easter Monday, April 7, things looked very promising indeed.

******

It’s late in the afternoon on Easter Monday, and Dan O’Rourke has made his way from Congress to London to watch a tournament  match between Cavan andAll-Ireland champions Kerry in Mitcham Stadium.

With time ticking away, Cavan are struggling; the Kingdom are dazzling, Dinny Lyne,Teddy O’Connor and Batt Garvey whipping over scores as Cavan, trailing with the clock ticking down and playing into the teeth of a gale, struggle to hold them off. On the sideline, the cameras click – a battalion of English pressmen have mingled with the 16,000 assorted Irish exiles, here for an hour-long trip home, and the handful of bemused locals, who have come to watch the Paddies in action.

Before the game,  the players bow as Cardinal Griffin, Archbishop of Westminster, strides on to the field, his robes swishing in the wind, to throw in the ball.

Dan O’Rourke, the GAA President, has flown over for the match straight after Congress the previous day, and with him he brought surprising news. The All-Ireland final, if feasible, will be played in New York. The teams are stunned, the champions, we can only guess, already thinking of the Big Apple.

Cavan were no strangers to Mitcham, a ramshackle old ground, which wouldn’t see another decade. It was tossed in 1956 after it went to the dogs, literally – the owners, making nothing from humans, tried to attract the greyhound racing community but the venture never got off the ground. Soon, the old stadium, which had catered for 25,000 rugby league fans in its 1920s pomp, was in a similar condition, levelled to make way for housing and then a public garden.

Cavan needed a warrior attitude in London as Kerry threatened to take the Owen Ward Cup back on the boat with them, along with Sam Maguire. With 12 minutes to play, Kerry, with the wind, were cruising but Cavan’s revolutionary short-passing style cut the Munster men to ribbons on the home stretch.

Higgins, the greatest of them all, broke through for a goal (he would finish with a tally of 1-5) and Tony Tighe and Big Tom sent over points. Cavan won by four and their supporters stormed the field at the finish. It was only a tournament match but the significance of a win over the All-Ireland champions, while missing three of their most experienced players in captain John Joe O’Reilly, Barney Cully and TP O’Reilly, wasn’t lost on the Breffni exiles in attendance.

The teams shook hands when they left the field. That night there was a function for both sets of players and they spoke among each other, the Kerrymen’s lilt mixing with the broad Cavan tones.

The teams were stunned when the word filtered through. When they were leaving, Mick Higgins called out to some of his Kingdom counterparts.

“We’ll be meeting in New York, we’ll see yiz again over there,” he grinned.

“But just as a joke,” recalled Mick, a half a lifetime later, “little did we ever think that the teams would be travelling to New York in the following September.”

By then, though, they were daring to dream. In August, Cavan would beat Roscommon in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final and secure their passage; the unlikeliest All-Ireland win ever followed a few weeks later.

Main pic: Liam Hassett and Stephen King lead out the Cavan and Kerry teams in 1997 in a match played in New York to mark the 50th anniversary of the Polo Grounds final.

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