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Ballyshannon hurlers defy a ban on Gaelic Games in Donegal during the Independence struggle

Anthony Begley, author of “Ballyshannon Genealogy and History”, recalls a famous game from over a 100 years ago

Ballyshannon hurlers defy a ban on Gaelic Games in Donegal during the Independence struggle

Anthony Begley

One of the most daring events in the history of the G.A.A. in County Donegal, took place during the independence struggle and had its origins in the Aodh Ruadh Club in Ballyshannon. 

Irish people believed that their games and their language were important parts of their national heritage. Efforts by the British authorities to suppress Gaelic games and the language naturally led to peaceful resistance, as Irish people wished to preserve their national identity. 

Hurling/ Shinty has been played in the Ballyshannon area since the early 19th century. Records exist for a hurling match (Camán) played at Tullan Strand, Bundoran between local teams on Tuesday 25th March 1839 which was a holy day of obligation. A

 huge crowd of over 2,000 people attended and rules, unlike in the modern game, were few and far between. Reports of the match reveal that over 300 players were involved in each team and the contest was a show of strength between neighbouring communities. 

The referee was on horseback and hadn’t got the benefits of a whistle and the identification of players must have been difficult, to say the least, as the teams had not got identifiable jerseys. There were no breaches of the peace and the crowds who had gathered for a sporting event had dispersed by about six o’clock in the evening. 

Matches were often tests of strength between different townlands or districts and no doubt the victors were held in high esteem until the next encounter.

Nevertheless a local newspaper “The Ballyshannon Herald” reported that the hurling game was a front for illegal Whiteboy activities. These accusations were roundly condemned by another Ballyshannon newspaper called “The Liberator”, who insisted that the hurling match was a source of entertainment for the people and was a part of their heritage. They also insisted that there had been no breach of the peace and the people should be free to have their own forms of entertainment. 

Both newspapers were reflecting the views of their readership with “The Ballyshannon Herald” an ascendancy paper and “The Liberator” putting forward the nationalist viewpoint. 

The numbers attending showed tremendous local interest but it was to be the early 20th century before the GAA was established in this area with proper rules for games and referees with whistles!  Tullan Strand at Bundoran is today a hub for surfing but in its day it saw some mighty sporting battles with 600 players engaged in a game of hurling in the early 19th century!

Volunteers in Market Yard, Ballyshannon

In 1904 the Ballyshannon Gaelic League hurling team was established and a hurling club had been formed in Bundoran around the same period. By October 1909 the Aodh Ruadh Hurling and Football Club was established in the Rock Hall which superseded the earlier Gaelic League hurling team. The venue for practice in the early days of hurling was Tullan Strand in Bundoran with its dry, sandy base, and one wonders did the players realise that they were following in the footsteps of the players of 1839? 

Venues locally where the hurling club trained included near the Washpool area on the Rossnowlagh road, Cummins field in Ashbrook and the workhouse meadow which is better known as Munday’s field where Gaelic games are still played today. 

The 1916 Annual General Meeting of the Aodh Ruadh Hurling and Football Club was held in the Rock Hall and was presided over by Fr. Cornelius Tierney, whose name is still remembered in the Fr. Tierney Park. He was a great supporter of Gaelic Games and conducted Irish classes for the Gaelic League. Fr. Tierney was curate in St. Joseph’s Church in Ballyshannon and afterwards volunteered for the Columban Missions to China where he died in captivity in 1931. It was fitting that he should be remembered at the Fr. Tierney Park and on a memorial inside the gate of St. Joseph’s Church nearby.

The British authorities in Ireland always had deep suspicions of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League. They believed that the GAA was being used as a front for recruitment and possibly drilling by the Irish Volunteers. The British government intensified their opposition to Gaelic games in the period following the 1916 Rising. 

By 1918 the British establishment had banned all competitions held by the GAA and their pretext was that the gatherings could lead to breaches of the peace and were fronts for political gatherings. To hold a game a permit needed to be granted by the R.I.C. but the GAA saw this as interference with their organization of Gaelic games. 

The GAA ordered clubs nationally not to apply for the permits and to hold their games as planned. Hurling or camán has a long history in the area since a famous game played at Tullan Strand way back in 1839. As can be seen, even back then, the authorities had a dislike of large gatherings of ‘natives’ who wanted to express their identity through their games.

Decoy Hurling Match in Bundoran

A most historic hurling match took place as an act of defiance against a British government ban on Gaelic games in the Ballyshannon-Bundoran area in 1918. The man at the centre of this act of defiance was Joseph Murray, a Bundoran based school teacher, originally from Monaghan, who was Intelligence Officer and Brigadier with the Irish Volunteers in South Donegal during the War of Independence. Murray was also actively involved in the Gaelic League and the GAA. He played for Bundoran and for the county team and was on the County Donegal Board of the GAA.  He was the referee appointed to a famous local hurling match which was held in most unusual circumstances. Kinlough Emmett’s hurling club was a successful neighbouring team. The team used homemade hurleys and wore blue jerseys with two gold crests on the front. This team in their day had victories over all the local sides including Ballyshannon, Bundoran, Belleek, Manorhamilton and Glenfarne. 

Joseph Murray Brigadier with the Irish Volunteers in South Donegal and referee at Ashbrook hurling game. (Courtesy County Donegal Historical Museum Rossnowlagh)

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1911, Kinlough had a home match against Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon, refereed by DJ Crowley which resulted in Emmett’s, Kinlough winning on a scoreline of 0-13 to 0-11. 

The teams lined out as follows: 

Emmett’s Kinlough team: A. Ryan, J. Farrell, P. McGowan, M.Murphy, J.Feely, P. Warnock, A. Auchinleck, P. J. Devaney, M. J. Warnock, P. Gilvarry, E. Connolly, J. Rooney, T. Rooney, J. Ryan J. Gilvarry.  

Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon team: J. Downey, J. Laughlin, M.D. Quigley, J. McCormack, M. Munday, P O’Shea, E. Laughlin, J. Daly, E. Cassidy, M. Gallagher, P. Rooney, H. Gallagher, C.Stephens,  S.Quinn, B.Laughlin. 

No doubt many of these Ballyshannon and Kinlough players took part in the famous hurling match which was banned by the British authorities seven years later in 1918. 

On Sunday 21st July 1918 a match was arranged between Ballyshannon and Kinlough and the proposed neutral venue was the Gaelic pitch in Bundoran. The match had been advertised and was promptly banned by the military based at Finner Camp. They insisted that the game would be stopped by force unless a permit was applied for and granted. 

Posters were displayed by the British authorities in Kinlough, Bundoran and Ballyshannon banning the game. The organisers decided to ignore the warning from the British authorities and to go ahead with the match but to use the venue at Bundoran as a decoy venue. The British authorities would be present in Bundoran to prohibit the match from taking place. It was decided to trick the authorities by having a decoy team from Ballyshannon travel to the Bundoran venue. This they did and there were collectors on the gate with some spectators paying to get in. 

John (Sean) Murray, a well-known Ballyshannon barber from West Port, who was actively involved in the struggle for independence, organised the bogus team that went to the Bundoran pitch. 

Two years later on 31 October 1920, John Murray’s barber shop at West Port in Ballyshannon was ransacked by soldiers, reputed to be from the Black and Tans, who left the scene in a motor lorry, crossing the bridge in the town. John Murray also was interned for a period in the Curragh camp. His son Pat Murray would still be remembered by anglers and local people as he died in recent times.

Ballyshannon and Kinlough Hurlers outwit the Military at Ashbrook July 21 1918

Joseph Murray (no relation of John Murray above) had been appointed referee for the hurling match between Aodh Ruadh and Emmett’s of Kinlough and he proceeded to the ground on Sunday 21st July. Having entered the field in Bundoran, he very quickly left by a different route in the company of two scouts who brought him to the real venue for the match. 

When the R.I.C. and military arrived at the Bundoran venue to put a stop to the match they quickly discovered that they had been tricked as no match was taking place. The outwitting of the police was looked upon in a local newspaper ‘as the joke of the season,’ with a large force of constabulary keeping watch on an empty field for two to three hours.

The ruse of pretending the hurling game was going to be played in Bundoran was an ingenious plan which tricked the military based at Finner and the R.I.C. from Ballyshannon and Bundoran. The game had been secretly rearranged to take place at Ashbrook in Rathmore, just off the old Kinlough road to Ballyshannon. The Ballyshannon hurlers had frequently used Cummins’ Field and other fields at Ashbrook for their games. A local field at Ashbrook called Tobar Phadraig was used for matches from time to time. The ruined walls of the house where the Montgomery family had earlier resided are still to be seen today at Ashbrook.  Both the Kinlough and Ballyshannon teams were ready to play and indeed a large number of spectators were also present.

Joseph Murray, the referee, introduced special rules for the game so that the authorities would not locate the venue. He indicated that a whistle would not be used as this could be heard over a wide area along the Moy. Fouls were to be called by the waving of a white flag and the referee would indicate with his finger which direction the free was to be taken. 

The game was played in a good spirit and there was little concern for the result. At the end of the game the crowd gave a loud rousing cheer. The arrival of the military fully armed and equipped to back up the police, after the match had been played, was a source of great satisfaction to the players and the organisers of the game at Ashbrook. By that stage the venue at Ashbrook was deserted.

This event proved counter-productive for the military and police as it would have deterred some locals from enlisting in the British army at Finner and would have led to extra recruits for the Volunteers. As Joseph Murray later said: “We all had a happy feeling that, once again, we had outwitted the British forces in their attempt to quell our national spirit and outlook”.  

Needless to say there is no report available on the team selections, scorers or outcome of the game as this game carried serious consequences for the players and organisers if they were apprehended.

Later in 1918 a famous guerilla fighter Ernie O’Malley arrived in Ballyshannon as part of a plan to organize local republican units in County Donegal. He arrived on a Saturday night and by midnight local supporters had assembled outside the gates of the Workhouse on the Rock, quite close to the Workhouse meadow, (now Munday’s field).  Many of those who were there to meet him were members of the local hurling club

After the War of Independence Joseph Murray, a native of County Monaghan, joined the Garda Síochána, rose to the rank of Superintendent, retired in Cavan in 1958 and came to live with his second wife Peggy at Portnason in Ballyshannon where he is still remembered. 

Superintendent Joseph Murray donated two of his military uniforms from the independence struggle to County Donegal Historical Society Museum in Rossnowlagh where they can be seen on display. He is buried alongside his wife Margaret (Peg) inside the railings at St. Joseph’s graveyard on the Rock, just across the road from the modern Fr. Tierney Park with the following inscription: “A chroí ro-naofa Íosa Déan Trócaire ar anam, Seosamh Uí Mhuirí Port Na Sonna a d’éag 11ú d’Eanar 1975. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam”.

Gaelic games continued to grow in the Ballyshannon, Bundoran and Kinlough areas in the 20th century but few remember the courage of the early players who developed the games despite opposition from the military and police during the independence struggle. The local hurlers faced arrest and imprisonment if they had been apprehended at Ashbrook near Ballyshannon on 21st July 1918. 

Two weeks after the game at Ashbrook the GAA organized a series of events all over Ireland and up to 100,000 club players participated in matches as an act of defiance to the British authorities whom they saw as trying to stamp out Gaelic culture. 

A tribute to the early hurling days in Ballyshannon was written in the 1920s and was sung to the air of O’Donnell Abú, a verse goes as follows:

Grasping the leather quick, 

Swiftly each swings his stick, 

Straight through the up-rights the ball whistles thro’ 

Hurleys are thrown on high,  

Cheers nearly rend the sky, 

Health to our Hurlers-Old Aodh Rua Abú. 

Munday's Field and Fr Tierney Park - picture Andrew Fenton

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