Analysis: there was controversy and sledging galore when the two heavyweights met for their very first All Ireland clash 126 years ago 

By Richard McElligottUCD Access and Lifelong Learning Centre 

On Saturday, Kerry and Dublin will clash for the 31st time in championship football. These behemoths have produced a long litany of epics in a rivalry that spans GAA history, but their first encounter in 1893 was set against the backdrop of the Association teetering on extinction.

Within five years of its foundation, the GAA numbered 777 affiliated clubs, a testament to Michael Cusack's boast that his organisation had swept Ireland "like a prairie fire". But by 1891, the GAA was imploding. A harsh economic depression, caused by a collapsing agricultural market, had a devastating effect on a sport where over 61% of members worked the land. In turn, this triggered a tidal wave of mass emigration that swept away the lifeblood of parish teams.

From RTÉ Archives, Breandán Ó hEithir takes a look at the life of Michael Cusack for Pobal in 1976

By 1892, 438 GAA clubs had vanished. Compounding these outside forces, the political downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell as the leader of Irish nationalism threatened to shatter the Association. The GAA's leadership, under notable IRB influence, publicly backed their patron, yet many clubs and members now severed their links in disgust.

The GAA’s actions also aroused the ire of the Catholic Church whose clerics began to denounce the Association’s politics. The newspaper Sport bemoaned the grave effect on the GAA which caused "our people to devote all their attention … to politics and to fighting one another".

Despite all this, the 1892 All-Ireland went ahead, although only six counties were able or willing to put forward their county champions in football. The final, played on March 26th 1893 at Clonturk Park, Drumcondra, pitted Kerry’s Laune Rangers against the reigning All-Ireland champions, Dublin’s Young Irelanders. Rangers, who had begun life as a rugby team, were captained by J.P. O’Sullivan, one of Ireland’s most celebrated track and field stars. Their opponents, led by Jack Kennedy, were founded by Guinness workers and would become the most successful team in the early history of Gaelic football, capturing three All-Irelands between 1891 and 1894.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, John Burke reports on the contrasting challenges facing GAA clubs in Dublin and Kerry

One notable aspect of the final was that it was the first played under a new scoring system. Until now GAA matches, similar to soccer, were decided by goals. In the previous year’s final, the Young Irelanders had infamously taken advantage of this. Having scored a second goal against their Cork opponents, they simply packed the goalmouth for the reminder of the game preventing any possibility of a concession. As a consequence, the GAA quickly amended its rules to make a goal now equal to five points.

A beautifully mild spring day encouraged a large crowd to converge on Drumcondra where a hectic first half saw the sides stalemated at 0-3 each. The press lauded the skill of Rangers' kick-passing, but as the game entered its second half the Dubliners gained superiority and the Kerrymen were unable to match "their grand discipline, combination and unsurpassed tactics". Tellingly, several of their attacks were broken by the stout Dublin defence. After a sustained onslaught, the Irelanders sent home the critical goal, later adding another point. Dublin retained the title, 1-4 to 0-3. The Freeman’s Journal declared "probably there has never been a more brilliant football match played in Dublin".

But when the game was over, the controversy began. The Kerry press were quick to highlight the unfair advantage the match venue had conferred. While their opponents could easily have walked to the ground, the Kerrymen had endured an exhausting eight hour train journey the evening before. There were also accusations that Young Irelanders’ supporters had congregated outside the Rangers team hotel that night, creating a din to keep their players awake.

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From RTÉ Archives, how the Dublin and Kerry teams prepared for the 1976 All Ireland football final

However. what most offended Kerry sensibilities was the behaviour of the partisan home crowd. The Kerry Sentinel lamented "that they acted towards the Kerrymen in a scandalous and utterly un-Irish fashion … they did not content themselves with cheering for the Dublin men, but actually indulged in vigorous hooting and groaning at the Kerrymen, the inevitable result of which was, of course, to take the spirit out of them." 

To onlookers, it was obvious that Rangers were visibly shaken by the crowd’s vitriol. Some match reports suggested that spectators had also invaded the pitch forcing the referee to end the game prematurely. The Sentinel concluded that the final was not ‘fairly fought out as every impartial person will admit’.

J.P. O’Sullivan certainly agreed and was left extremely frustrated with the result. He sent an open letter to the press on April 5th challenging the Young Irelanders to a rematch for a set of gold medals, valued at £20, to be played in either Limerick or Cork. These terms he considered "acceptable to any Gaelic team in Ireland professing to have any spirit of manliness and fair play".

O'Sullivan bitterly observed that the Dublin men "have proved themselves dogs against all the teams they ever yet came in contact with."

The opposing captain was not impressed. Writing to Sport to accept, Jack Kennedy mischievously wondered why a side which managed "the remarkable score of nothing" in the second half felt entitled to a replay. Kennedy went further, comparing Rangers to a beaten dogfighter whining about how they would have won "if it hadn’t been for the other dogs". He rejected the idea of playing the match in Munster, suggesting Athenry as an alternative venue.

O’Sullivan’s indignant reply accused Kennedy of "shirking" his challenge as Athenry was a logistically impossible location for a team travelling from south Kerry. Retorting to Kennedy’s slur, O’Sullivan bitterly observed that the Dublin men "have proved themselves dogs against all the teams they ever yet came in contact with." Kennedy, however, did not bite. The rematch came to nothing and the Young Irelanders were left to celebrate their victory.

All the while, the GAA lurched closer to disintegration. Within a year. club numbers had fallen to 118 nationally and only seven counties still had a functioning county board. Even in Dublin, the GAA was said to be in turmoil and, by 1897, Kerry GAA had itself collapsed. How improbable it must have seemed then that the next meeting of Kerry and Dublin would be for the 1904 All-Ireland final, when Kerry would secure its second ever title. 

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While the Young Irelanders soon disappeared into history, Laune Rangers remained a famous name in Kerry GAA. In May 1936, the Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney was formally opened and J.P. O'Sullivan's son, Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, was the driving force behind its construction. Even though 11 Kerry teams had subsequently captured All-Ireland titles, the survivors of that Laune Rangers side led the ceremonial parade around the pitch. Illustrating that the passing years had dissipated any acrimony, their old adversary Jack Kennedy marched proudly behind them.

Dr Richard McElligott lectures in modern Irish History at UCD Access and Lifelong Learning Centre. He is the author of Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry, 1884-1934.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ