The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
Offaly GAA is very fortunate to have a number of fabulous club history publications at its disposal, not to mention a myriad of other book. Clubs such as Clara, Daingean, Edenderry, Kilcormac/Killoughey, Seir Kieran and Tullamore have produced particularly comprehensive and detailed club histories and their value to members is immense.
I started research last year on my latest project, a comprehensive, detailed history of Offaly GAA. It is a very big undertaking with a huge volume of research required before you even consider putting pen to paper. It will be a three year plus project and trying to get a picture of all eras and factors in the growth of the GAA in Offaly is quite daunting.
My aim is to do a proper history of Offaly GAA, one that transcends its mere sporting contribution to the county. To a very large degree, the GAA successes from the 1960s through to the 2000s contributed greatly to the well-being of Offaly and helped give the county its own distinct, unique and powerful identity. Whether you have any interest in sport, GAA doesn’t float your boat or you prefer other sporting codes, the importance and contribution of the national games to Offaly simply can’t be understated.
How did it happen? How did Offaly go from being among the also rans to one of the country’s great and most successful dual counties, winning four All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship and three All-Ireland Senior Football Championship titles in the golden years from 1971 to 1998 as well as national leagues in both codes?
Of course, the seeds for success were sown in the decades before that. Like a lot of counties, Offaly was very disorganised, and quite divided in the early decades. The GAA got off to a tumultuous start with national agendas such as an Irish Republican Brotherhood takeover and the fallout from the Parnell split nearly putting the association under before it got firmly established in the hearts and minds of Irish people. Offaly was very susceptible to all those influences and it was into the 1890s before the County Board was officially formed and official championships began.
Yet there were hugely important developments in the years before that. Clara GAA Club was the first formed in the county, shortly after the foundation of the GAA in 1884 and it regards itself as the oldest surviving club in Leinster. Several other clubs trace their formation back to the second half of the 1880s with more coming on stream from the 1890s on. The decision to expunge the 1880s and the early 1890s from the Offaly GAA record is a very questionable one and perhaps should be re-examined as there was crucially important activity in those years, championships were run and those events helped establish the GAA here.
For decades, Offaly didn’t compete with any success in football and hurling. There were very important All-Ireland junior hurling successes in the 1920s as Offaly defeated Cork and Tipperary in the 1923 and ’29 finals. These, however, were very fleeting rays of light through a very dark tunnel and it was not until the 1940s that Offaly really began to awaken – and it was in football at this stage.
In 1947, Offaly won their first mainstream provincial title, the Leinster Minor Football Championship, and the football success story can be traced back to that. That team didn’t go onto huge adult success but in players such as Paddy Casey (Rhode) and Mick Furlong (Tullamore), it produced a couple of the county’s most revered footballers. It was a sign of the times and one of the major issues facing the GAA in Offaly in those economically depressed decades in a still fledgling independent Ireland that emigration took both of these men to the USA.
Casey played in the 1954 breakthrough O’Byrne Cup senior football success – played in 1955, it was Offaly’s first adult football title while Furlong had played the last of his 37 competitive senior games in October 1954.
On that O’Byrne Cup winning team, Kevin Scally (Ballycommon) and Paddy Fenlon (Ballycumber and later Sean McDermotts in Dublin) had also starred on the 1947 minor team. That O’Byrne Cup success in turn helped lay the foundations for the all important first Leinster senior football title in 1960, followed by the first All-Ireland senior final appearance a year later where they lost to Down by a point in front of a record attendance of over 90,000 people at a thronged Croke Park.
The 1964 All-Ireland minor football championship success provided the backbone of the 1971/1972 All-Ireland senior champions, who provided the inspiration for the great side of 1982.
Hurling came a bit later but equally, there were hugely important stepping stones that built confidence and were instrumental in events to follow. Offaly ran Kilkenny very close in the 1969 Leinster final and two of that team, Damien Martin and Johnny Flaherty played absolutely pivotal roles as the ultimate provincial and All-Ireland breakthroughs were made in 1980 and 1981. A Leinster U-21 hurling success in 1978 provided many of the great 1980s side and the great All-Ireland minor winning sides of the second half of that decade spawned the great successes of the 1990s.
However, it didn’t all happen with a flick of a magic wand or by chance. There were several factors in it and it is my intention to try and find them and piece them together. The importance of Bord na Mona and ESB to Offaly was immense – it brought new individuals and family into Offaly as well as ensuring that a slow boat or plane abroad was not the only option for many young men. It kept people at home as Offaly moved to close to full employment and it is no co-incidence that Offaly’s heyday from the 1960s through to 1990s co-incided with that of Bord na Mona and ESB as great employers in the county. The decline of the bogs and Bord na Mona as they have branched out into new areas and the closure of power stations has also been matched by a decline in Offaly’s fortunes, though again there are several other factors in this.
Finding all the different elements of the GAA in Offaly is a very challenging project. It is also a very exciting one. Local newspaper archives will be one invaluable source but the many club histories published are also throwing up a wealth of great information. Bit by bit, they help provide a picture of what the GAA was like in Offaly in early decades. The clubs that provided its bedrock – those that lasted the distance and the many that enjoyed short lived existences, including some on the championship rolls of honour.
My thanks to the clubs and individuals who have provided club histories to me. I am greatly enjoying going through them. Jimmy Blake’s history of Seir Kieran GAA Club, “The Music of the Ash” is one of the best sports books I have read, a riveting publication that gives a great insight into both club and county.
Similarly, there is a treasure trove of information in the histories of long established clubs such as Clara, Daingean, Edenderry and Tullamore. One factor seeping through their pages is the clerical influence on the GAA at both club and county level for several decades. The books by Seir Kieran, Clara, Daingean, Edenderry and Tullamore are the holy grail of club histories in Offaly.
There are, however, many other fine books. Apart from the Kilcormac/Killoughey GAA history published a few years ago, there are also excellent publications by their predecessors, Kilcormac and Killoughey with Sean Nevin providing a great analysis of the formation of the GAA at national and local level in the Kilcormac one.
Carrig/Riverstown have their history well detailed in a club and pictorial history and Ballycumber, Birr, Rhode and Tubber have all produced very good publications. Many other clubs have done a history of sorts in programmes for official openings of pitches.
There are fine county publications. The official Offaly GAA history produced in centenary year in 1884 provides plenty of great information. Paddy Fenning’s pictorial history of Offaly football provides a fabulous insight into players and teams. The late Paddy was also instrumental in the excellent pictorial history of Tullamore GAA.
Offaly is fortunate to have many people with a great passion for history. The late John Clarke was a GAA historian par excellence and the work he has produced on national and local level will remain invaluable for a long time to come. With his daughter Vivienne, they wrote a series of hugely informative articles on the history of Offaly GAA in the 1980s/1990s, published in the Leinster/Offaly Express and they are a fine source of information. [His sports programmes were gifted to Offaly History Centre by Mrs Anne Clarke and Vivienne Clarke.]
The county has a fantastic Historical Society based in Tullamore and the work of Michael Byrne and many others in detailing all aspects of history in Offaly, including sport, deserves the gratitude of all who care about the past and its role in our development as a county, country and individuals. The county library in Tullamore has archives of all local newspapers, now available in digital format as well as stocking many of those club histories. The staff there are always willing to help and make the library a very welcoming place. So to does Offaly History Centre and Offaly Archives. The county is rich in research resources.
The county is blessed to have Paul Rouse, a historian of national eminence based at UCD, who has written several very distinguished histories of the GAA and sport in Ireland. A former Tullamore footballer and the interim manager for Offaly senior footballers a couple of years ago, his passion for the GAA is infectious.
There have been number books and autobiographies/biographies on individuals and specific events that are great sources as well as very enjoyable reads. Edenderry men, Padraig Foy and Ciaran Reilly brought out a great book, Faithful Pioneers on Offaly’s big football breakthroughs in 1960/1961 in 2011, Michael Foley’s book on the 1982 All-Ireland football wins, Kings of September is one of the best GAA publications you will get anywhere. Eugene McGee’s “The GAA in my Time” has intriguing tidbits about his time in Offaly, as he addresses a variety of subjects of national interest. Pat Nolan’s The Furlong’s and Michael Duignan autobiography and P.J. Cunningham’s autobiography on 1982 folk hero, Seamus Darby give fascinating accounts of those families and individuals.
I am also trying to get my hand on histories from other clubs and programmes of official openings etc – even histories in other publications would be an immense success while I am very open to ideas and suggestions about a history of Offaly GAA.
Anyone who can help or has anything they think is of interest should contact me on [email protected] or 087 7609950 – alternatively if you have anything you can post to me, please send it to Kevin Corrigan at Killina, Rahan, Tullamore, County Offaly (R35HP60) or contact me to arrange collection. Even photocopies of relevant articles would be a great assistance.
Pics supplied by Offaly History from a large selection of club histories in its library at Bury Quay, Tullamore. Our thanks to Kevin Corrigan.