Historian, Dr Dónal McAnallen

Historian revisits turbulent time in Ulster football

LECTURE Dónal McAnallen examines Ulster GAA from 1920-22

A historian will give a talk on aspects of how the turbulence of the revolutionary period impacted GAA in Ulster, and informed Cavan’s dominance of the successive decades.

Historian Dr Dónal McAnallen returns to Cavan to deliver a lecture titled from ‘Fields of Battle to Breffni Opening: Partition, The War of Independence, Civil War, and the GAA in Ulster 1920-1922’ at Cavan County Museum, Ballyjamesduff this week.

The talk promises to be both wide-ranging and fascinating on the basis of our conversation. For example, he refers in passing to a match played in Co Cavan between two IRA companies in May 1922, with a Thompson machine gun as the prize up for grabs.

“This was advertised in The Anglo-Celt,” he says with a hint of incredulity.

“That’s an infamous incident, because I’m not aware of any other GAA match being advertised with a deadly weapon as the prize, and it was very much reflective of the times.”

A more significant incident of the era became known as ‘The Monaghan Footballers Episode’. It occurred against the backdrop of partition and the Ulster final. A number of the Monaghan players had guns in their vehicles and were lifted and detained by the ‘B Specials’ in Tyrone as they travelled to Derry the day before the game.

Dónal describes the circumstances around the match as “a completely unusual sequence of events” in the history of GAA in Ulster.

“The Ulster final first of all was fixed for Derry City, the Brandywell in January 1922 - when did you ever hear of an Ulster final in January? Or Derry City? Or the Brandywell?

“And they were playing Monaghan - when did you ever know of Monaghan men to give up their home venue?” the Tyrone man joked.

The strength of Derry GAA had been “very up and down” in this time. This year it was up as an amnesty for former soccer players in 1920, permitted them to return to football, bolstered their ranks by circa 300.

Revolutionary times can cause havoc with normal life. For example, the reason they were playing in January was because the season had been interrupted. Do unusual circumstances necessarily mean a GAA conspiracy?

Ulster GAA, who included senior IRA leader Eoin O’Duffy as the provincial secretary at the time, denied there were any ulterior motives to all this. However Unionists, including the North’s Prime Minister James Craig, were certain.

“Looking at it today, I think it’s an extraordinary sequence of events if there wasn’t ulterior motives,” McAnallen says, before laying out some compelling facts: a large number of the Monaghan team were in the Fifth Northern Division of the IRA, including senior republican Dan Hogan who captained the team.

Partition had been imposed by this stage, so when the B Specials found weapons in the players’ cars, the excuse that they were members of the newly created national army and needed them for personal protection didn’t wash.

“They contended they were going to rescue three men sentenced to death for a failed prison break in which they killed a prison guard. The chloroform they had used to try to knock him out inadvertently killed him.”

The unionist authorities suspected some of the Monaghan players were intent on rescuing the condemned prisoners, or undertaking reconnaissance for a future prison break.

“I think in the circumstances it happened in, it’s very hard to see that there wasn’t something going on like that,” he ventures.

The footballers’ detention led to a lengthy stand-off involving Craig, Michael Collins and Winston Churchill. After much debate, even in the House of Commons, and negotiations, the footballers were eventually released.

And as for the original three prisoners, they later had their death sentences commuted. The Ulster final didn’t actually take place until October 1923, and with significantly different squads.

This era signalled the copper-fastening of the border, which saw a large influx of gardaí and other civil servants into the three ‘southern’ Ulster counties, some of them very fine footballers. There’s reason to suspect O’Duffy was targeting good footballers for public sector jobs in Monaghan.

Dónal notes that the big three in Ulster football before 1920 were Cavan, Monaghan and Antrim.

“If you consider Antrim went from having won five-in-a-row up to 1915, and didn’t win another one until 1946.

“Cavan and Monaghan won every single Ulster final in football between 1914 and 1945, which is extraordinary when you think about it. The reality of it is that partition and the different circumstances of playing either side of the border really exacerbated the gulf,” he contends.

“Circumstances did enable Cavan to strengthen their grip in Ulster football,” he says noting the club games progressed with very little interruption, compared to say Fermanagh where between 1920-23 it was “lights out”. During this period, too, Cavan county board succeeded in building Breffni Park for the county team, which generated significant funds for development of the game.

The occasion of the opening had political significance too.

“The very fact that during this chaotic period of Irish history they managed to fundraise and develop this ground [was remarkable].” He contends it was “one of the first if not the first county ground” in Ireland.

“On the opening day they had people from both sides of the Treaty division on the platform - the first time that leading political figures from the two sides appeared together anywhere in Ireland, that is Eoin O’Duffy and Frank Fahy TD,” he said.

Dr Dónal McAnallen’s lecture ‘From Fields of Battle to Breffni Opening’ will be at Cavan County Museum, Ballyjamesduff on Thursday, October 27 at 7pm.