Religion And Politics Split G.A.A. In South Armagh

RELIGION and politics have caused division and chaos for the G.A.A. in South Armagh, but especially in the Crossmaglen area. The Association was denounced from the pulpits, while rival Sinn Fein and nationalist teams and supporters engaged in a virtual civil war.

From its birth, Cardinal Logue condemned the G.A.A. for the “demoralising effect it would have on the Catholic population.” Attendance at Gaelic football matches was prohibited, while people were forbidden to play or watch such games on Sundays.

Indeed, the Association was described as “ a curse on society, a cloak for secret societies, whose leaders try to make it into a Fenian organisation.” So stated Fr John Rooney, - in whose honour the Irish National Foresters at Ballyholland, near Newry was named. He attributed the slump in the Holy Family Confraternity to the influence of the G.A.A.

Turmoil was to follow in the wake of the Parnell divorce scandal, which had a grave effect on the G.A.A. in Crossmaglen. Three local priests, Canon McGeeney, Fr Quinn and Fr McNally, were bitter opponents of the Irish parliamentary leader. There were near-riots outside the three Catholic churches in the parish. Clubs went out of existence; all competitions ceased. The Association was dead in South Armagh and Ulster.

Politics raised its ugly head again in 1918, when divisions between Sinn Fein and nationalists led to Crossmaglen Rangers and Cullaville Blues breaking up. They were replaced by two “political” teams, - Crossmaglen Plunketts, supported by republicans, and Clonalig Dillons, favoured by the Redmondites.

“Every confrontation between the two sides over the next two years was akin to civil war. There were running battles between opposing teams and supporters, who attacked each other with potatoes and stones,” stated the late Con Short, vice-president of the G.A.A., and Uncle of the British Minister for International Development, Clare Short, in his book, `Crossmaglen.`

Bitterness reached its peak during the 1918 Westminster elections, when Sinn Fein leaders, Eamon de Valera, Sean McEntee and Countess Markievicz were attacked en route to a rally at Crossmaglen Square. The platform was guarded by men, wielding hurling sticks, while members of the R.I.C, formed a barrier between them and the nationalist crowd. Sinn Fein and A.O.H. bands tried to drown each other out.

Fortunately, the recent conflict has not witnessed similar disruption among members of the Association in South Armagh. The reason could be that the British Army’s actions with regards to St Oliver Plunkett Park and Social Club, as well as their other activities, have provided Sinn Fein and the S.D.L.P with a common cause.

Indeed, there has been plenty to celebrate over the last century. In fact, a form of Gaelic football and hurling was played in this area, even before the G.A.A. was formed in 1884. There were three glorious decades, - the 20’s, 60’s and 90’s, climaxing with triumph in three Ulster and All-Ireland Club Championships. And, of course, the architect was Joe Kernan of Armagh county fame.

But there was drama and tragedy concerning Joe’s uncle in 1929, when the popular Rangers’ player, Jamesy Kernan, clashed with Cavan star, Jim Smith during an Ulster Championship Semi-final at Belturbet. Kernan died of his injuries, and Smith, who was a garda, was charged with murder, - a unique event in the history of Irish sport.

Kernan was examined by a doctor, but his injuries were not though to be serious. So he was left lying along the sideline for the rest of the game. Later, he was removed to a hotel, then taken by train to Cullaville, and finally transferred to hospital, where he died. The Cavan player was charged with murder, at the instigation of the Garda Commissioner, Eoin O’Duffy, later leader of the fascist “Blueshirts.” But the case was dismissed by a judge.

A pall of gloom settled over the Crossmaglen area, in the aftermath of the tragedy. No games were played for six months, and the County Senior Championship was abandoned.

Crossmaglen Red Hands, along with Corlis Mitchells, were officially affiliated to the G.A.A. in 1887, two years before the formation of the Armagh Co. Board! The Red Hands, wearing white jerseys, won their first County Senior Championship title the same year, through default by Keady Dwyers.

Due to the Parnell split, which affected the Cross’ club more than any other, it was not until 1905 that they were re-affiliated. They were drawn against Armagh Harps in the first round of the County Senior Championship. Red Hands objected to a point being awarded, after the referee had blown his whistle, and refused to continue the game. It was awarded to Harps.

But, as Con Short recalled: “What epic games those two sides would participate in, over the next century. They would become the twin pillars, upon which the fortunes of the county teams would depend.” In that year, big Owney Martin would become the first Crossmaglen player to wear the county jersey.

1906 was an historic year for Crossmaglen Red Hands. They won their first-ever League and Championship double. Having beaten Silverbridge Emmetts, they met Whitecross St Killians in the Championship Semi-final. A dispute arose over a score, and Whitecross refused to continue. Cross’ conquered Camlough in the final.

That trail-blazing side consisted of Rob Maguire, Mick McAneaney, Peter McCreesh, Hugh McAleavey, Frank and Johnney McArdle, Pat Farrell, Big Owney and Wee Owney Martin, Frank Rushe, Patrick Quinn, John Rodgers, James Rocks, Martin Kearney, James Conlon, Tom Kieran, Owen Watters, Johnney Moynes, Michael and John McShane, Owen Kirk and Mick Treanor.

A signal honour also came to the Crossmaglen club in 1907, with Owney Harvesy being selected to play for Ulster in the Railway Cup.

Next year, the Red Hands amalgamated with Mobane Emmetts and Crossmaglen Rovers, to form the Creggan Rovers Club. That combination went on to defeat Armagh Harps in the County Championship Final. They also won the McKillop Cup, which was then for league winners, gaining a double over the Harps.

The 20’s were a decade of sunshine and shadow. The brightness came from Rangers’ first-ever record of five Senior County Championships in a row. One of the squad was Frank Short, father of the British minister, Clare Short. But the gloom arose from emigration to the United States, which increased dramatically, including Joe Luckie, Pat McCoy, Mick McKeown, Anthony Murphy and the Hanratty twins.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008