Mayo’s ‘lost’ All-Ireland
The 1925 championship was a fiasco
IN 1925, the Irish Free State was still coming to terms with the devastating impact of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. Like the nation itself, the GAA was also struggle to cope with the disruptions caused by the incessant violence which had plagued Irish life between 1919 and 1923. As a direct consequence, 1925 witnessed what was perhaps the most bizarre Senior Football Championship ever played.
In the immediate post-Civil War period, the GAA remained in a vulnerable state. Though obstinately neutral during the recent, bitter conflict, the leadership of the Association had in fact been supportive of the ruling Free State Cumann na nGaedheal government.
Its continued financial weakness for much of the 1920s meant it operated at a significant loss throughout the first half of the decade. This shortage of income forced the Association into an even closer relationship with WT Cosgrave’s government, which bankrolled a large loan of £6,000 to help keep the GAA financially viable.
Furthermore, due to the casualties and interments of the previous eight years of unrest during the struggle for independence, the GAA had become deprived of many seasoned officials. This disruption to its administration had led to a notably poorer calibre of officials operating at all levels by the time hostilities had ceased. As such, by 1925 the Association had a significant amount of new and inexperienced men in charge.
Of those experienced veterans who remained, many now held local and national political offices, which began to divert their attention more and more. The inexperience of its administrators and the continued tensions which simmered within the organisation between pro and anti-Treaty officials would lead to a range of objections and counter-objections within the national GAA in the first years after the Civil War. The most serious was the debacle of the 1925 All-Ireland Football Championship.
Having beaten Tipperary and then Cork in the Munster championship of 1925, Kerry, the reigning All-Ireland champions, were nominated to represent Munster in the All-Ireland semi-final in August as their Munster final with Clare was delayed until September due to a backlog of fixtures. In Ulster, Cavan had continued their recent domination of the province and annexed their sixth title in eight seasons. On August 23, the Kingdom welcomed Cavan to Tralee and after a close contest, Kerry emerged victorious 1-7 to 2-3.
Immediately after the game, however, the Cavan County Board sent an objection to the Central Council stating that Kerry’s captain, Phil O’Sullivan, had made himself ineligible to play for his county, having already played competitive matches with two separate clubs in Dublin in 1925, which was illegal. Cavan claimed Kerry’s officials knew that they were prohibited from playing O’Sullivan, but had approached members of the Cavan Board before the match and asked them not to protest if they played him. The Central Council upheld the objection and Cavan were duly awarded the match.
Aggrieved, Kerry responded with a counter-objection of their own stating that a member of the Cavan team, JP Murphy, was guilty of a similar offence having played with the Keatings club in Dublin during the same year as he played with his own club in Cavan. As a consequence, Cavan were also disqualified.
A week before the matter had come before the Central Council, Mayo played Wexford in the other All-Ireland semi-final. In a tight and tense game, the Westerners had emerged victorious on scoreline of 2-4 to 1-4. As both Kerry and Cavan had now been thrown out of the competition, the GAA awarded the crown to Mayo, and so it looked like the All-Ireland football title would be heading across the Shannon for the very first time.
But the Central Council’s decision caused uproar. The Cavan Board protested at the slander to which the Cavan GAA was allegedly subjected, stating that Pat McGrath, the Munster GAA Secretary, had referred to Cavan as a ‘crowd of beggarmen’. The Anglo-Celt newspaper also claimed that Dick Fitzgerald, Kerry’s legendary ex-captain and then-current Munster Board representative, was alleged to have remarked that ‘[James] Craig (Northern Ireland’s then Prime Minister) was not rubbing it in half hard enough to us’. According to the paper, Fitzgerald was in need of a serious geography lesson considering Cavan was very much part of the Free State’s territory!
The Central Council’s handling of the situation drew scorn from many. The popular newspaper Sport claimed the ‘prestige and administration of Gaelic games has been shaken grievously by these revelations and objections … that this should occur at the most crucial and popular stages of the games is the devastating aspect of the whole business.’ The Kerryman was similarly scathing about the decision made by the GAA’s new president, Patrick Breen, who ‘went one better than old King Solomon, for he allowed the All-Ireland infant to be cut in two, and he can now distribute the medals to Mayo at the wake. His actions have reduced the 1925 championship to a fiasco, and made the GAA a laughing stock.’
However, the farce was not yet complete. Like Kerry, Mayo had contested the All-Ireland semi-final, despite not yet being provincial champions. The following month, they lost to Galway in the Connacht final by two points. The Central Council then controversially awarded the championship to Galway, making them the first county to officially win the title from Connacht. This was despite strong protests from Mayo, Cavan and Kerry, who all demanded that a special congress should be convened to investigate the debacle.
The GAA tried to save face, by organising a substitute competition between the four provincial winners for a set of gold medals. The Kerry GAA Board unanimously decided not to enter it in protest at how the All-Ireland was handled. The GAA’s substitute competition was a comparative failure that attracted poor attendance for its two games, with Galway beating Cavan in the final in January 1926.
The fallout from the 1925 championship was a serious, if temporary, setback to the prestige and image of the GAA; an episode which highlighted some of the animosities still rife within the organisation and the inexperience of many of its leading officials, such as Breen, who would only serve two years as the GAA’s president.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Richard McElligott lectures in modern Irish history in UCD. He is also the chairman of the Sport History Ireland Society. His first book, Forging a Kingdom – The GAA in Kerry 1884–1934, has just been published by The Collins Press. It is available in all good bookshops priced €17.99 and also from www.collinspress.ie.