The royal blue and white of Cavan flies at Croke Park.

A century on, Cavan remains blue

Tipperary’s famous win in the Munster SFC final last November, on the same day that Ray Galligan lifted The Anglo-Celt Cup, will never be forgotten by followers of the Premier County. That it happened in the centenary of Bloody Sunday added to the sense of history and poignancy, too.

To mark the occasion, Tipperary county board made the decision to revert, for the 2020 Munster final, to the colours they wore on that fateful day, November 21, 1920, when 14 people lost their lives. Tipp are synonymous, of course, with the royal blue and saffron jersey but when they took the pitch against Dublin on that occasion, described so well in Michael Foley’s classic book ‘The Bloodied Field’, they were wearing white and green, the colours of then-county champions Grangemockler.

That was common practice in the early days of organised Gaelic games. Counties were represented by their own senior champions and, although some counties moved away from that model relatively quickly, in others, it persisted.

The establishment of official county colours was a key factor in this change.

Richard McElligot’s masterful ‘Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry, 1884-1934’, explored the topic.

“The growing popularity of the GAA had begun to infuse meaning into such county boundaries, which otherwise would have been ambiguous and arbitrary. However, it is evident that this process was slower in some counties than in others,” McElligot wrote.

“Up until the early 1910s, inter-county teams from Dublin, Mayo and Cork continued to be reported in the press in the name of their county championship-winning clubs.

“The Gaelic Athlete in February 1912 had argued that the practice of county champions charged with selecting the county side discriminated against players from other clubs and disinclined them from believing that they represented a broader county interest.

“To curb the trend of discrimination against players from outside the county champion club, the paper believed county boards should decide on distinct patterns for their county jerseys.”

The GAA agreed and, in 1913, counties were instructed to register official colours. Many took theirs from a dominant club. Kerry, who had played in white jerseys when they took on Galway in 1891, for example, soon adopted the famous green and gold, which were the colours of Tralee Mitchells, who won eight county championships from nine renewals between 1902 and 1911.

It was around this time that Cavan adopted the famous royal blue colours. It is thought the white trim on the jerseys was added later, in the 1940s. Why Cavan decided on these colours, I don’t know – perhaps some reader can enlighten us.

Royal blue jerseys and white shorts were the colours of the Cavan Slashers at the time but the Slashers were not the dominant club; that honour fell to Cornafean who, even then, were donning the iconic red strip.

According to George Cartwright’s comprehensive history of the Cornafean Naomh Fionnán club, they were wearing “red jersies with sunburst in front” in 1909.

Back then, the Ulster Championship was known, on the pages of this newspaper at least, as the ‘Ulster Medals Competition’. Cavan played Antrim in the final at Wattlebridge, Co Fermanagh (between Newtownbutler and Redhills) in May of 1913.

The build-up to the game in The Anglo-Celt is full of the sort of fiery commentary of the time.

“As the match starts at 2.30 sharp, the Cavan team must be on the grounds at 1.45 so as to allow time for placing etc. The East Cavan and Cornafean players attend 11 o’clock Mass in Cavan, leaving for Wattlebridge at 12.30. On the ball, Cavan. Watch but do not wait!” finished the match preview.

The previous Saturday, a meeting of the county board had seen royal blue chosen as the county colours for the match. At the same meeting, incidentally, it was decided that the Mullahoran club be instructed “to substitute timber for rope as cross-bar in future matches”.

Fast forward 25 years and the ‘GAA Annual 1937-1938’, the cover of which carried the tag-line ‘Official Record of the Gaelic Athletic Association’, contained an exhaustive list of winning teams and line-ups going back to the early days of the association as well as scholarly articles.

On page 18, there is a list of county colours, which makes for very interesting reading. While the travelling Tyrone fans last Saturday came emblazoned in what we know as their traditional white and red jerseys, back then, their official colours were listed as green and gold hoops.

Cavan’s were simply “royal blue”. Mayo’s were familiar – “Green, red hoop, waist and arm” – but a few others differed noticeably from what we know and recognise today. Laois (“Leix”) colours, for example, were listed as black and amber horizontal stripes.

Roscommon’s were black with a green hoop and white collar; Clare were “all white, red band” while Donegal’s were green with a white hoop.

It is believed Tyrone had actually worn the white and red as far back as 1927 (when the county won its first provincial title, the 1931 Ulster Minor Football Championship, they wore those colours) but obviously changed for some reason for a short time.

Their branding was said to signify the red hand of Ulster against a white field, which was a traditional symbol of the Uí Néill dynasty synonymous with the county.

It appears the county certainly dropped the white and red for a time in the 1930s. The first Ulster provincial convention for camogie was held in Armagh in 1934 and at the meeting, a Miss O’Neill represented Tyrone and signalled the county’s intention to enter a team in the Ulster Championship. The colours she registered were green and gold.

By the time Tyrone won their first Ulster SFC crown in 1956, it was reported that The Anglo-Celt Cup was bedecked in red and white ribbons when presented to winning captain Jody O’Neill. The tradition by then was long established.

By contrast, the Mayo colours of green and red, for example, were used from the early days of the association. One of Mayo’s most famous clubs at the time was Tower Hill, whose motto was ‘The Green Above The Red’, taken, it is believed, from a Thomas Davis poem: “Full often when our fathers saw the Red above the Green/ They rose in rude but fierce array, with sabre, pike and skian/ And over many a noble town, and many a field of dead/ They proudly set the Irish Green above the English Red.”

During the 1880s, the colours were debated on at a county board meeting in Castlebar. According to an Irishman’s Diary column in the Irish Times in 2000, penned by Tomás Ó Duinn, “After a long debate, one delegate stood up and announced: ‘Well that’s settled, the Mayo colours are red and green’.

Dick Walsh, the county secretary, quickly rebutted the speaker.

“Not so,” he is reported to have said. “The Mayo colours are the green above the red. God forbid that Mayo should ever have red above the green.”

All these years on and each county’s GAA colours are now synonymous with the county itself. During Leona Maguire’s triumphant homecoming last week, royal blue and white flags and Kingspan-emblazoned jerseys were everywhere.

The future may well be blue, as the Cavan social media maxim a few years ago had it, but thanks to a decision at a county board meeting all those years ago, the past and present surely were and are too.