KILKEE is a hurling enclave deep in West Clare football country — an outpost that has its own very special place in hurling history, on what one of the greatest days ever in the GAA’s 130-something years a-growing.
On this day, 4 August 2018 a group of the up and coming hurling generation in Kilkee and its environs have taken to the Strand to puck some ball — these are the youngsters that have great hurling man Mike O’Neill, who was secretary of Bord na nÓg Iomáint when Clare hurling made the huge breakthrough of winning the 1981 Munster minor title, as their driving force.
And the fact that they’re hurling on the beach, as distinct from the club grounds on the Kilrush Road out of town or indeed the other old stomping ground for hurlers up on George’s Head, is historic.
That’s because they’re the bearers of a flame made famous in Clare and Kilkee on 4 July, 1918 — when Gaelic Sunday came to the West Clare town.
Gaelic Sunday was the show of strength by the GAA that 100 years on has been described as “the day the association took on the British Empire” through a “unique display of the popularity of the Gaelic games”.
A show of strength against British rule in Clare that took place in Kilkee — the place ironically known as the ‘Brighton of the West’.
Kilkee got this name during Victorian times as the seaside town became synonymous with tourism, but the ‘west-Britonism’ of the place didn’t stop hurling being alive, well and flourishing on the Strand and in the surrounding local fields.
All because they’d been hurling on the Strand in Kilkee for well over 100 years, with the Limerick Reporter revealing in 1839 that “people are in the habit of gathering on Sunday for purpose hurling and dancing. They usually assemble at 2.30pm and disperse at 7pm”.
The Folklore Commission also recorded that the popularity of hurling on the Strand in the 1800s: “It would be after last mass on Sunday. All the men from the parish would be there. Every man had a branch of a tree — a spaic it used to be called — the same number was on each side starting.
“On the strand it was played. The town was divided in two on O’Connell Street — the town north and the town south, Up Street and Down Street. The Up Street team would be playing towards north side and the Down Street would be playing towards their own area. The Up Street team would be trying to put the ball up in the amusement park and the other team would be trying to put the ball over the wall at Moore’s Hotel at the other end of the Strand. The game often went on to the end of the day. They had a leather covered wooden ball. It was made locally and the same size of a sliotar.”
Gaelic Sunday would show that this tradition was still alive and well and hurling in Kilkee.
GAELIC Sunday had as its starting point a Special Proclamation that was issued by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord French, under the Criminal Law and Procedure Act stating that Sinn Féin, the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Gaelic League were “a grave menace to and are designed to terrorise the peaceful and law-abiding subjects of his Majesty in Ireland”.
It was further stated that these associations “encourage and aid persons to commit crimes and promote an incite acts of violence and intimidation and interfere with the administration of the law and disturb the maintenance of law and order”.
The GAA wasn’t mentioned in the Proclamation, but the proclamation prohibiting all ‘meetings, assemblies, or processions in public places’ without written authorisation from the police meant it was also a GAA problem.
And this was hammered home in the weeks before Gaelic Sunday when matches were curtailed all over the country, the most high profile crackdown being the Ulster SFC semi-final between Cavan and Armagh at Cootehill when armed police and soldiers intervened with 3,000 spectators already gathered and the two teams in the dressing-rooms set to start, while in the Phoenix Park, where Michael Cusack himself used to hurl with friends, nine boys were arrested for failing “go to a policeman and ask leave to kick a football” reported the Manchester Guardian.
The crackdown prompted the GAA to action, with a Central Council decision voting in favour of the Gaelic Sunday event as an act of defiance, with General Secretary Luke O’Toole issuing a circular to Gaels around the country.
He told them that on 4 August “54,000 Gaels will actively participate in our native pastimes all over Ireland” in a coordinated response to the disruption of Gaelic Games. “Under no circumstances must a permit be applied for either by provincial councils, county committees, leagues, Tournament Committees, Clubs or by a third party such as secretaries of grounds etc. Any individual or club infringing the foregoing order becomes automatically and indefinitely suspended,” he stated.
In addition to this he revealed that, “having regard for the abnormal circumstances and to the fact that I have received applications from soccer and rugby players, the Council decided with a view to propagandist work to grant an amnesty to all such persons”.
It meant that everyone who wanted to could take part in Gaelic Sunday, a call to sporting arms that would have been taken very seriously in Clare and received widespread support, even if reports of activity in the county are thin on the ground, principally because the only nationalist minded newspaper in the county at the time, The Clare Champion, was suppressed by the military authorities from April to September of that year.
However, Clare GAA was a highly politicised — with much cross-pollination in the Irish Volunteers, the GAA and Sinn Féin, a state best summed up in the Darragh area of Ballyea with the emergence of a hurling a club in 1917/18 that was a cover for republican activity.
“There was Frank Barrett of the Mid Clare Brigade of the IRA,” revealed Mick Falvey in an Irish Independent interview in 1956. “Frank Barrett decided to start a hurling team as ‘cover’ for IRA activities and that was my introduction to hurling,” he added.
There was also a football club in the Ennis area called Craobh Rua that was as much a training ground for Irish Volunteers as it was for footballers, while in 1917 when the Clare football team trained in Kilkee ahead of the All-Ireland final it was famous Kerry footballer and Frongach-internee Dick Fitzgerald that led the preparations.
And famously during the East Clare by-election in 1917 a group of up to 250 Irish Volunteers were billeted at various posts around Ennis under the terms of the ‘Report of Measures for Protection’ devised by Commandant Patrick Brennan who ordered his men “to be armed as far as possible with sticks and hurleys”.
Hurleys that in most cases were wielded by hurlers.
These were the conditions that would have ensured Gaelic Sunday was taken up with gusto in Clare, especially with a Clare County Board chaired by Fr Michael J Crowe, who would have been keen for the association to play its part in this mass show of GAA strength and strike against British rule in Ireland.
After all, Fr Crowe had already played his part in the struggle — he was the man who helped spirit Liam Mellows out of Clare and Ireland after the Easter Rising. The leader of the 1916 resistance in Galway had evaded capture by taking to the Slieve Aughty Mountains and was holed up in a farmers cabin in the hills near Tulla for nearly five months before being brought to Fr Crowe’s house in Roslevan where he was dressed as a nun and from where he started his final escape.
There would be nothing undercover about Gaelic Sunday, however, because this was the day when everything had to be done in the open and in full defiance of the requirement that permits be sought to play Gaelic Games.
“The 4th of August will be remembered in the annals of the GAA forever as one of the greatest days in its history , because it was a day in which every GAA club throughout the length and breadth of Ireland took part in our national pastimes as a protest against the unjust ban put on them, and so celebrated what the Central Council appropriately called Gaelic Sunday.”
‘Hurler’, The Limerick Leader
BY deciding on this very public action the GAA authorities nationally were following the political and policy line of the Irish Volunteers to carry out their business out in the open and in the full public glare, a policy that had been kickstarted in Clare in the summer of 1917.
This is when the Volunteers were being reorganised for this first time since the Easter Rising, with the Volunteers led by Michael Brennan taking the unilateral decision, before receiving any imprimatur from headquarters, on radical action when it came to drilling: rather than go undercover to drill, they came out and did it openly and at once threw the gauntlet down to the authorities.
It was the same with Gaelic Sunday — by declaring two weeks in advance about what was going to happen the GAA had come out in the open. And at once the authorities blinked. “The authorities in Ireland have decided not to prohibit Gaelic matches in future unless they have relation to politics,” reported the Dublin Evening Telegraph a few days before the event. “It is understood that the new circular to be issued to the police throughout the country will contain instructions to that effect.
“The exact terms of the circular are not available, but they will probably be issued tomorrow. Matches arranged throughout the country for next Sunday will not, it is believed be interfered with, in view of the circumstances,” the report added.
“The 1,500 odd games can now be played on Sunday without fear of such occurrences as took place in the Phoenix Park last Sunday when three boys were carried off in military motor wagons because they did not go to a policeman and ask leave to kick a football,” noted The Manchester Guardian, while The Daily News said, “Happily a circular has been sent out to the police in time to prevent the wholesale stoppage of football and hurling next Sunday, when 1,500 unlicensed matches are to take place in all parts of the country”.
And so it happened — in all parts of the country, and in huge numbers with the coordinated response to bring Gaels out to puck or kick ball being an unprecedented power play by a GAA organisation that 34 years after its establishment was still just in its infancy.
“The temper of the people was excellent,” reported The Freeman’s Journal on the day’s events, “and while there was an amount of demonstrative enthusiasm as the teams took the field at the appointed hour the great crowds were as orderly as spectators at the games which had not come under the ban,” it added.
It was no different in Kilkee, with a challenge game between the clergy, made up of the holidaying priests and Christian Brothers capturing the imagination. “Visitors and locals were much delighted that this Western popular resort got an opportunity of celebrating ‘Gaelic Day’ on Sunday,” reported The Saturday Record. “It was truly a Gaelic revival. Instead of the usual cricket, tennis, golf etc. a splendid and keenly contested game of hurling was enjoyed on the strand.
“The competing teams were made up of the visiting clergy, The Priests v The Brothers. After a well fought out contest, the former were declared winners by 11 goals 3 points to 3 goals 2 points. It would be an invidious task to specialise any of the players and it was freely admitted that there were exhibitions given in driving, tackling and passing, which certainly were on a level with our Champions’ best displays. The enthusiasm of the hundreds of spectators, as either side scored and led, gave much evidence that the “game of the gael”, notwithstanding present trying times, is coming into its own,” the report added.
The Nenagh Guardian went further when saying that the events of Gaelic Sunday were “certainly a matter for a congratulation that the gentlemen who have all to do with the spiritual side of our nation have set a headline in Kilkee on the memorable ‘Gaelic Day’ to encourage much the cultivation and furtherance of the ‘Games of the Gael’”.
It was the Brighton of the West no more. It was Gaelicville on a great day to be a Gael.
And it’s why the young hurlers of Kilkee made sure to mark that historic occasion 100 years on.