One hundred years ago this month the Clare senior footballers contested the All-Ireland final for the first and only time when defeat was their lot against the great Wexford side of the era that would go on and win a four-in-a-row. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh looks back on the biggest day in Clare football history.
When the Clare footballers contested the All-Ireland football
THIS was Clare’s day in the football sun: their high noon showdown against one of the greatest teams in the history of Gaelic Games — then or now — with the All-Ireland title at stake as the spirit of a changing Ireland wrapped itself around a group of players going where no football team from the county had gone before.
It’s December 9, 1917 and nowhere are the changing times more manifest than they are in Clare, with the backdrop to the appearances of the county’s hurlers and footballers in All-Ireland finals that were just three years apart being stark.
Track back three years to October 1914 and the hurlers’ big day — the first ever All-Ireland final played in Croke Park — and it’s a different Clare, a different Ireland and a different world.
The patron of the Clare hurling team is the much-admired Willie Redmond — the East Clare MP of 22 years had done much to foster the GAA in the county since landing in the county for the first time in 1892.
Back then the Banner County was in the grip of the Parnell Split and GAA affairs in the county had ground to a halt — it was Redmond who helped heal that split and get the GAA organisation going again through the creation of the Redmond Cups he donated for hurling and football competition.
It ensured that he was as much revered in GAA circles as he was in political circles as the standard bearer of the Irish Parliamentary Party tradition in the hurling heartland of east Clare — that’s why he was given the signal honour of leading the Clare team out onto the Croke Park pitch ahead of their All-Ireland final date with Laois on 18 October, 1914.
And there was more — Redmond was included in the team photograph and when the All-Ireland was won he was at the top table in Wynns Hotel on Abbey Street as a host of the banquet in honour of Clare’s historic first All-Ireland win.
That victory came just two months after the drums of World War 1 had started to beat — drums that would call thousands of Claremen to the western front and beyond, among them Willie Redmond himself and Newmarket-on-Fergus man John Fox, who was a member of the winning hurling team and beside Redmond in the Croke Park photograph.
However, fast-forwarding three years and everything had changed: other members of the 1914 team were no supporters of Redmond and the cause of war that he supported — through gritted teeth the likes of Willie ‘Dodger’ Considine, Brendan Considine, Jack Spellissy and James ‘Sham’ Spellissy would have celebrated with Redmond in Wynns and toasted his Irish Parliamentary Party and before that would have walked in silent protest behind him out onto the Croke Park field.
Now they marched to a different drum — the Sinn Féin drum of 1917 that swept into the county after Redmond’s death on the western front in June of that year with a man named de Valera, who like Redmond before became a supporter of Clare teams.
“A wave of national enthusiasm is rampant throughout the county of Clare at the present time,” wrote ‘Mount Brandon’ in The Kerryman ahead of the All-Ireland final, “which is noticeable even outside the Gaelic arena. In this frame of mind Clare may be expected to give of their best, especially as it is their first final. I understand the Claremen will get a rousing reception in the metropolis and will be met by de Valera.”
It was football to the beat of the Sinn Féin drum.
CLARE were trained in 1917 by James ‘Sham’ Spellissy from the most successful club in the county in Ennis Dalcassians — as a member of the winning 1914 winning hurling team he was a dual star and along with Tull Considine was one of only two men in the history of Clare GAA to play in senior All-Irelands in both codes.
But apart from playing and training he was also a staunch Republican, who was caught up in the fervour of 1916, de Valera’s election campaign and the open drilling of volunteers around the county that helped kick-start Ireland’s revolution once again.
After the 1916 Rising Spellissy had been briefly interned in Frongoch, the prisoner camp in north Wales that became known as “a veritable political university and military academy”.
Football was also part of the Frongoch curriculum, thanks to its most famous internee, Dick Fitzgerald – the legendary Kerry footballer who won All-Irelands in 1903, ’04, ’09, ’13 and ’14. He also penned the GAA’s first instructional manual, How to Play Gaelic Football. And he practiced what he penned in Frongoch, organising games among the 1,800 internees.
It was there that Fitzgerald and Spellissy became firm friends, something that carried over on to the Clare team in 1917.
Kerry didn’t field against Clare in the Munster semi-final in 1916 and then opted out of competition altogether in 1917.
“Munster football without Kerry competing may be likened to Hamlet minus the Prince of Denmark,” lamented The Evening Herald.
But Kerry’s absence had a silver lining, releasing the recognised prince of football in Dick Fitzgerald to give some more practical examples of his How to Play Gaelic Football tome to Clare. “He became a type of consultant to the Clare team in 1917,” recalled Fitzgerald’s biographer, Fr Tom Looney.
“His friendship with Spellissy meant he was brought aboard when they were on their All-Ireland run. Fitzgerald knew Wexford football inside out from playing against them in the All-Irelands in 1914 and ’15. Bringing him in showed how serious Clare were about winning the All-Ireland in 1917,” he added.
“Advices from the Banner County are to the effect that they have been putting in all the training possible during the past couple of weeks and under the able tuition of Dick Fitzgerald, the Kerry captain, have improved considerably,” reported The Evening Herald before Clare’s journey to Dublin. “They have made a most judicious selection, are determined to put up a strenuous fight and are most hopeful of taking the championship to Munster.”
The recruitment of Fitzgerald showed how far Clare football had come in ten years – they were now contenders, when they had once been laughing stocks. This metamorphosis is best explained by a series of feature articles carried in the Clare Journal newspaper in 1907. They painted Clare football in a very poor light.
“The crude methods we adopt to playing the game, and outstanding amongst these methods, an ugly blot on the play and players alike is that one know to us by the expressive phrase ‘going for the man’,” said the Journal.
“What have we gained from our unmanliness? Nothing. We have lost everything, and whether we are to go on losing or not depends on ourselves.
“If we are to field better teams than Clare has done hitherto, we just devote more of our time to science than to brute force. We must bury the hatchet like ‘honest injuns’ and come together as Gaels should. These things we can do and we will do, if there is any grit left in our bones, or if our blood has not turned black. These things we will do if we are men.”
The journey to the All-Ireland final in 1917 had begun.
WITHIN five years of Clare football being at an all-time low the tide had turned, with the 1912 Munster semi-final against Kerry in Ennis’ Showgrounds showing how far the team had travelled.
Clare were a match for the Kingdom that day, but two late and controversial refereeing decisions denied them a famous win and they went down by 0-3 to 0-1. The following year they reached a national final, contesting the 1913 Croke Cup decider only to go down to Dublin.
“Clare football is going places,” noted The Saturday Record in 1913, a prophecy that came true four years later when the county finally won a provincial title. Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary, Cork and Kerry had reached the top table before them – now it was Clare’s turn.
“People will never appreciate it now,” recalled Aidan Carroll from Miltown, “but the players on that team put a huge effort in to play for Clare in those days. Winning an All-Ireland is all they wanted for Clare and my father always told me that when I was growing up.”
Aidan Carroll’s father, Eddie played in the half-forward line for Clare in 1917 – he was from that generation of Miltown Malbay footballers who learned how to kick ball in Carthy’s Field near the White Strand.
They learned well – as 1916 county champions Miltown had the selection of the Clare team the following year and six of them were on the panel. “There was a great Miltown team that time,” said Aidan Carroll. “You had Ned Roche, Jim Fitzpatrick, Paddy Hennessy, Michael ‘Puggy’ Malone, Paddy Killeen and my father who was captain of the team that year.
“But when it came to the final they changed the captaincy – he always told me that the Miltown club had a meeting and decided that they should give the captaincy to Jim Foran from Kilkee.”
Clare’s long march had taken in wins over Waterford and Limerick to reach their third Munster final in succession, where they hammered Cork by 5-4 to 0-1 in Tipperary Town.
Then in the All-Ireland semi-final in Athlone, goals by Kilrush’s Michael McNamara and Eddie Carroll helped them score a 2-1 to 0-4 win over Galway.
That meant it was to the captain’s haunt of Kilkee that Clare travelled for special training before the All-Ireland final against Wexford.
“They went down by train to Kilkee for taining,” revealed Carroll, “and I remember my father telling me about Paddy O’Donohue from Fanore. To get to play for Clare he used to cycle to Ennistymon to catch the West Clare Railway. That showed how much he wanted it. Nowadays, lads have to be collected to play games.”
In Kilkee, they holed up in the West End Hotel, owned by panel member Tom Falvey. “The emphasis was on route marching to build up stamina rather than football practice,” noted Raymond Smith in his 1968 edition of The Football Immortals.
However, it wasn’t all stamina work as Dick Fitzgerald took them aside for ball work. “It was all football with Dickeen Fitzgerald,” revealed Fr Tom Looney, “something that made him the outstanding footballer of his day and the game’s first superstar”.
With Dickeen’s dig-out, hope floated that Clare could deny Wexford a three-in-a-row.
“This year, the Clare football team has proved to be a dark horse. Clare was supposed to be rather backward in football, but all doubts have been rudely dispelled by Clare’s sudden jump from practical oblivion into prominence of first magnitude,” proclaimed The Clare Champion.
“Will Clare win?,” wondered The Saturday Record. “That is the real question. They have decidedly the material. What are they up against? Wexford, a team representative of a count of glorious traditions, a team second to none in Ireland today; a team with such players as the brothers Sean and Gus O’Kennedy. The Clare team is undergoing a very hard course of training in Kilkee, and will strip very fit. This is the first time the Clare football team has trained for a match.”
It was a startling revelation — no wonder the Record noted that “Clare has been somewhat backward in football always until this year”.
But now all had changed thanks to the collective training in Kilkee, “when the proper stuff has been got and now they have a fighting chance it is hoped they will pull it out of the mire,” said the Record.
“The feeling is generally one of confidence,” said The Kerryman’s ‘Mount Brandon’. “On comparative form there is not good grounds for this confidence, but Euclid’s dogmas do not always hold in the Gaelic field. It must be remembered, too, that the present Clare combination is the best that has ever represented the Banner County and is assuredly the best trained,” The Kerryman correspondent added.
Meanwhile, The Saturday Record’s man tried some sports psychology. “Now boys you are the representatives of the Banner County. You are set a heavy task, but you are capable of doing that task.
“You are in the pink of condition, and in the name of Clare, you will uphold the Banner when the finals whistle blows. You are out to win. You must feel determined to win. You must think of the honour that depends on winning and by doing so prove to your followers that you are worthy of your place and justify the confidence that has been placed in you. I do not see why the Clare boys, who have always led the way, should not take the lead and win,” the Record added.
“We fully appreciate the task which is ours,” said The Clare Champion. “We are out to win; we believe we can win and we mean to leave nothing to chance. We have the best team that has ever represented the county. A lot of young blood has been introduced. Each man is determined.
“The more formidable the opposition, the greater will be the honour attached to victory. Will Clare win and can Clare win are the questions one hears asked in many quarters. The answer is Clare can win and we believe they will win,” the Champion added.
And this confidence was shared by the Freeman’s Journal: “Ever since a rigid and systematic course of training has been undergone at Kilkee reports to hand speak encouragingly of the progress made by each and every member of the team and a very optimistic feeling prevails throughout the county. There is little danger that the players will suffer from stage fright and their fitness and determination will carry them a long way on the road to success.”
SOMWHERE between 7,000 and 8,000 spectators turned up in Croke on 9 December, 1917. Though Clare had much further to travel than the boys of Wexford, the majority of the support rested with the Bannermen.
“The weather was ideal for outdoor games, the sun shone brilliantly,” reported The Evening Herald. “From an hour before the appointed time large crowds were heading for the venue, the Munster men resident in the city being largely represented. The Model County also had an immense following, while large numbers came by car and bicycle from the north and south portions of the capital. Wexford were the first to take the field, followed a little later by the Clare players, who headed by a Republican flag were loudly cheered.”
“Neutral spectators were behind Clare to a man,” recalled Wexford player Aidan Doyle. “To the crowd, the Claremen were patriots all and they wanted it very much to be the Banner County’s day.”
It was the Dev effect – post-1916 Clare was seen to be leading the way for Ireland by electing Eamon de Valera and endorsing the principles of the Proclamation and the blood sacrifice.
This was hammered home on All-Ireland day by the actions of Harry Boland, who had campaigned with his friend Michael Collins and de Valera in the East Clare election six months previously.
Boland was one of the most prominent GAA officials of the day — he was chairman of the Dublin County Board since 1914, the same year that he refereed the All-Ireland football final between Kerry and Wexford, while in 1917 such was his involvement with the All-Ireland winning Dublin hurlers that included Claremen Tommy Daly, Brendan Considine and Pa ‘Fowler’ McInerney that he was an unofficial sub and was presented with an All-Ireland medal.
Six weeks after Dublin’s All-Ireland hurling win over Tipperary he turned to football, carrying the Sinn Féin flag out onto Croke Park as the Clare team marched out — he was to the Clare footballers what Willie Redmond was to the hurlers three years previously, only that he stood for the Republic and Redmond stood for the World War.
Now victory for Clare in the All-Ireland final would have been another huge boost to a revolution that was gathering momentum once more.
However, a huge task awaited the Bannermen — a Wexford side that were already labelled the team of the decade, appearing in a fifth successive All-Ireland final and going for an historic three-in-a-row.
They were the team of all the talents — captain Sean O’Kennedy, who was a member of the All-Ireland hurling winning side of 1910, was the driving force of the team and this generation.
“He was a giant of a man, like,” his nephew Phil O’Kennedy revealed. “He cycled from New Ross to Wexford, about 22 miles, every night for training and back again,” he added.
Other stars were Ned Wheeler, Tom Mernagh and Aidan Doyle as the Slaneysiders eclipsed Kerry as the greatest of the era.
After final disappointments to the Kingdom in 1913 and ’14, after a replay, they finally reached the mountaintop in 1915 when beating their great rivals. The game drew 30,000 to Croke Park and was billed ‘The Game of the Century’ as Wexford prevailed by 2-4 to 2-1.
The following year they retained the title with a 3-4 to 1-2 win over first time finalists Mayo and were confident of putting three titles back-to-back when faced by more first time finalists in Clare.
“A perfect understanding exists amongst all the players in all the divisions on the field,” noted the Freeman’s Journal ahead of the contest. “But this is not to be wondered at in a team that has been so long together — it is in Wexford’s favour that nearly all the players of last year’s championship team are still available.”
Against this backdrop, despite all Clare’s confidence, it looked ominous for the underdogs, but still when it was all over and the Banner County had slipped to a heartbreaking 0-9 to 0-5 it was a case of what could have been.
“With a little bit of luck Clare might have emerged victorious from the football final against Wexford,” reported The Clare Champion, as Wexford’s Sean O’Kennedy became the first player in the history of the GAA to captain three successive All-Ireland winning team, exactly 100 years before Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton would match the feat.
“Given the quality of the combination that opposed them, the Clare representatives put up a magnificent fight,” continued the Champion. “They played the experienced Wexford team all over the field, had the best of the contest the most of the time, but the forwards lost a good deal of opportunities and also sent in a lot of erratic shots,” the report added.
“The Claremen gave their best display in the opening period when playing against the breeze, being only two points in arrears at the interval,” said The Irish Independent in a report headlined ‘Plucky Fight by Clare’.
“Their supporters at that stage entertained strong hopes for their success but in the second half Clare’s display was disappointing. The work of their forwards was most erratic,” the report added.
Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, who trained Kerry to eight All-Ireland title wins from the 1920s to the ‘60s, laid blame for Clare’s defeat at the door of the backs in his book The Art and Science of Gaelic Football.
“The winners secured seven of the nine points from close-in frees. Unnecessary fouling by the backs by the defeated team resulted in their loss of this All-Ireland championship,” he said.
Still, according to the Record “the defence of Clare was really splendid, Jim Foran in particular playing a great game throughout. Connole in goal was also very reliable, and saved a couple of well-directed shots in masterly style. Paddy Hennessy and Noel McNamara were likewise very sound; Martin McNamara and Paddy O’Donohue did yeoman service in midfield, especially the former who never failed to place the ball to best advantage. Joe Marrinan and James ‘Sham’ Spellissy executed some clever movement, while Michael ‘Puggy’ Malone, Eddie Carroll and Ned Roche did well against a formidable back division.”
Instead, there were other factors that contributed to Clare’s defeat. On the day, they had 1-1 disallowed, while another great goal opportunity was spurned by Tull Considine, then an 18-year-old who lined out at corner-forward.
“Considine was far from being a success,” said The Saturday Record, “as he was held from the start by Quinn and Mernagh”.
It could have been so different for Considine – in the last ten minutes he had a goal opportunity that could have turned the All-Ireland decisively in Clare’s favour.
“Considine succeeded in beating all the backs,” said the Record, “and was off on his own with the goalkeeper to beat, but was tripped from behind when nearing the posts. The ensuing free was splendidly placed but after a scramble around the posts was sent inches wide of the net”.
It was the story of Tull Considine’s life in All-Irelands – 15 years later he had the chance to score the goal that could have helped Clare win All-Ireland hurling title.
He missed and Clare had to wait 63 more years for an All-Ireland hurling win. They’re still waiting for a first football All-Ireland.
After 100 long years.