ON THE ROAD AGAIN A group of members from Castlebar Mitchels GAA club, including Mayo News columnist Seán Rice, are pictured outside Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin last week.
IT’S almost sixty years since Castlebar Mitchels donated £105 (€2,500 in today’s money) to the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Fund.
It was the only GAA club to make such a sizeable contribution . . . in keeping with their standing as one of the leading clubs in the country.
The cheque was handed over by club secretary Gerry McDonald on the morning before the All-Ireland final of 1963, just before the Mitchels played Civil Service in a challenge.
A record of the event was only recently unearthed in the club’s annals, and was confirmed by Kilmainham Gaol Archivist Aoife Torpey.
The Gaol, where the 1916 Leaders were shot, had been badly neglected and fears that it would be demolished prompted the formation in the early sixties of the Restoration Society.
A further £350 was donated from the town of Castlebar following the same appeal, and since no record of the donor has been found, it is thought the contribution came from people with Republican interests.
Sixty years on and the generous subscription is still a huge source of pride to Castlabar Mitchels. To mark that moment in history, club secretary Martin Moran and Sean McHale from Mayo GAA availed of the GAA Social Inclusion Scheme to organise a tour to the historical prison. A 50-strong delegation made the journey and afterwards took the opportunity to visit Croke Park.
You can read tomes about 1916, watch footage of the gruesome events, the hardships, the suffering but only when conducted through the prison does the weight of history fully strike home.
A hundred years on and the impact of those terrible years still resonate. The story of the marriage of Joseph Plunkett to Grace Gifford the night before his execution with only British soldiers as witnesses is documented in song and story, and re-awakened when the chapel altar where the ceremony took place comes into view.
From there on a dignified silence was observed by members of the party.
Cathal Reynolds and Pat Samuel mused at the privileges bestowed on one prisoner, Charles Stewart Parnell. Jailed for calling for Farmer Tenant Rights, Parnell enjoyed the comforts of a big room warmed by an open fire. The 1916 leaders were locked in cold claustrophobic single cells.
Never short of words, the great Eddie McHale, a former Knockmore stalwart, who travelled with his brothers Seán and Ray, was lost for words to describe what prisoners went through.
What suffering Robert Emmet endured before being hanged, drawn and quartered, the epitaph he wished for his grave never erected because his re-interred body has never been located.
Paddy Kilgallon, curious and erudite, learned that the original floor-boards in the cell occupied by Parnell were still in place. And wondered how the proposed dropping of history as a subject in schools could be justified.
Testing out a cell once occupied by one of the leaders, Jude Walsh and ‘Senator’ Eamon Joyce tried hard to look as prisoners facing a firing party might look. They were not convincing.
Another former Knockmore football stalwart, PJ King, recoiled from one of the cells with that otherworldly perception that the ghosts of Plunkett and Pearse and Clarke were swirling around the room.
Nobody could access the cell of Grace Gifford who was jailed by the Free-State authorities during the Civil War. But through a hole in the door Mai Moran, Mary McDonald and Mary McHugh captured the mural of Our Lady that she had painted on the wall.
Because it was on a higher tier we did not get to inspect the cell which had been occupied by Westport’s John McBride.
Facing the British firing squad, McBride said he did not wish to be blindfolded: “I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African war to fear death and now please carry out your sentence.”
The door through which condemned freedom fighter Ernie O’Malley, who was born in Castlebar, made his famous escape from the yard where the leaders were executed is still in place.
Croke Park visit
A LESS chastening experience was the visit to Croke Park, yet not without sheer bewilderment at the expanse of the stadium and the facilities available to those who have had the good fortune to reach All-Irelands.
Even Brian McDonald seemed awestruck at the scope of the development. Accompanied by his wife Mary, Brian, who won an All-Ireland medal with Dublin in 1963, did not enjoy the luxury of being conveyed by coach in the glare of television cameras to the door of his dressing room.
His was a much less-publicised access, having walked from his home in Dublin all the way to Croke Park and to the dressing room at the back of the Hogan Stand. Everything had changed, even the turf on which he played.
But you could imagine the years roll back as he gazed across the green sward to bathe for a few moments in the memory of that win over Galway, a few hours after the Mitchels’ donation to Kilmainham.
Little had changed three years later when Gay Nevin stepped on to the hallowed turf to claim an All-Ireland minor medal with Mayo. His eyes ranging around the impressive amphitheatre, images of that momentous win over Down flitting around his mind.
For some members of the party no such fond memories fluttered. Not for Padraic McKeon or Tom Hurst or Jimmy McHugh or Brendan O’Dowd or yours truly or John Melvin, or his son Conor . . . yet.
As he stood close to where a parapet once divided the pitch from the audience, John Hamrock must have lived again the final minutes of the 1996 All-Ireland.
One of the county’s most dedicated supporters, the Castlebar man was about to clear the wall to greet a famous Mayo win over Meath when the dream was snatched tantalisingly from him by an equalising point from the Royal county seconds before the end.
Croke Park museum opened many dreams of enjoyment in contrast to the wretched symbols of suffering that identified Kilmainham.
Scanning the artifacts, old Mitchels’ greats Frank McDonald and Tommy Grier could only wonder what might have been.
On his wrist Tommy sported a gold watch, still ticking the hours away 87 years after it was presented to his father Tommy Grier for a tournament in 1932. Tommy was a member of the All-Ireland winning Mayo team of 1936.
The medal collection of the great Dermot Earley, including one for a Roscommon juvenile championship, was of interest to Dermot’s county man James Rocke.
For Michael O’Boyle and county board vice-chairman, Seamus Tuohy, the football boots worn in the early part of the last century were of interest.
And the vast display of one man’s vast collection of medals too . . . that of Kerry’s great defender John O’Keefe, most of them collected throughout the seventies.
Two great edifices housing contrasting stories of our history.