Patrick William (Pat) Nally was born in Balla, Co. Mayo in March 1856 and died a convicted felon, in Mountjoy Jail, Dublin in November 1891. His father, William Nally, had at one time been an agent for the local landlord, Sir Robert Lynch-Blosse, and yet seemed to have developed strong Nationalist leanings. One has to keep in mind just how feared a figure to the local people of that time the landlord was an that the land agent was regarded in even worse light. Yet William Nally seems not only to have developed strong Nationalist sympathies but to have passed them on to his children. Pat worked on his father's land while a leading figure of the Fenian movement and when he organised an anti-establishment sports meeting, The National Sports of Mayo in 1879, the event took place on his father's land and refreshments were provided afterwards at the family home, Rockstown house. The success of the inaugural meeting lead to a repeat fixture the following year.
Both meetings were unique in that entry was open to all. Hitherto such athletic meetings had been under the control of the Ascendancy and admittance was strictly regulated; labourers and people of low economic standing were not even allowed to attend while only those of a certain status in the community were eligible to take part. Added to this, meetings of this sort were always held under the patronage of the local landlord, to emphasise his standing in the local community- Nally broke strongly with custom here having Charles Stewart Parnell, the leading anti-establishment politician of the day as Patron for his fixtures.
Patrick O'Boyle, a prominent researcher of Nally's career, summed the matter up thus. In his day the control of athletics was in the hands of the Ascendancy. At the main athletic venues, only freeholders with a certain financial standing were allowed to compete. The ordinary man in the street was not welcome. This was completely contrary to Nally's idea of an athletic sports body....." Ultimately, the success of these meetings led to the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association, today the largest amateur sporting body in the world. The annual finals of the Gaelic football and hurling championships are the biggest sporting spectacles on the Irish sporting calendar. From its beginnings this body had a strong nationalist bias and as such would have been treated as insurrectionist and hostile by the establishment.
Today a stand at Croke Park, premier stadium of the Association, is named the Nally Stand, in honour of the man whose desire to provide the Irish nation with a means of nationalist expression helped greatly to bring the GAA into being. Yet, he was never a member, never showed any interest in football or hurling and never appeared to have any connection with Gaelic sports.
In the words of historian, Marcus de Búrca:
Pat Nally's place in GAA history is unique. He was not a founder of the Association and took no part in the events leading up to the foundation. When the GAA was founded he was in fact in jail. Since he remained in jail until his death in 1891 he was never even a member of the GAA. Moreover, there is not a scrap of evidence to suggest that he had the slightest interest in either hurling or Gaelic football.
Tales of his athletic prowess still live on around his native Balla, 106 years after his death. Yet he rarely competed in events outside the province of Connaught, or Connacht as it is more commonly spelt today. He seems never to have taken part in fixtures in Metropolitan fixtures- such Dublin based events would have been the most prestigious in the country. Yet in 1878 his feats were highly regarded enough by the editor of "The Irish Sportsman", the leading publication in this field, to have been given its "Sportsman of the Year" award. His sporting career came to an abrupt end in 1881 when the same paper carried a pithy notice to the effect that, due to circumstances outside his control, Mr. PW Nally of Balla would not be participating in any other sporting events, " until further notice." His Fenian activities had brought him to the attention of the police and he feared arrest so he went on the run.
He had for many years beforehand been an enthusiastic member of the Fenians. He apparently joined that movement while still at school at St Jarlath's College in Tuam, Co. Galway. That he was an able and energetic member is attested to by the fact that he had risen to the rank of Head Centre for Connaught by the age of 22. This meant that he was effectively in charge of operations in the province and a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB. (The Irish Republican Brotherhood, or IRB, was another name for the Fenians.)
The IRB lived on in different manifestations until the Easter Rising of 1916 and was the group that provided the impetus for the Irish Volunteers who rebelled, guided by the Fenian ethos. It is known the Brotherhood existed, as a separate, elite sector within the IRA up until at least the 1940's. Changes of name and differing emphases in post-Famine Irish politics- at times veering towards the physical force tradition, at other times veering towards constitutional, agrarian land-reform movements- can be quite confusing to the casual student of the period.
Inevitably, the Famine and its aftermath brought about rapid and radical change. The paradoxes in Pat Nally's career and life were only symptomatic of the confused and agitated times in which he lived. One such paradox was the way in which the local press in Mayo, and nationalist opinion generally regarded his arrest and trial, when he was charged with being the leader of the "Crossmolina Conspiracy", an alleged plot to murder landlords' agents from that area.
It must be stated that the evidence presented against him and his co-defendants was flimsy. The chief prosecution witness, Andrew Coleman, was a paid informer and the defence counsel was able to depict him as a drunkard and a totally unsavoury and unreliable character. The coverage of his arrest and the course of his committal proceedings carried by the Castlebar weekly paper, "The Connaught Telegraph," was indicative of the confused state of thinking of some many people of the time.
Predictably enough, the paper excoriated the character of Coleman and other prosecution figures. No paper today could print what the "Telegraph" carried without libel lawyers rubbing their hands in glee. However, that was the custom of the times; fiery and intemperate language was the order of the day and things were said and written that could not be even considered today.
The very idea that Nally would even consider the thought of murdering anyone left the editorial writers of the paper aghast. Presumably the same applied to all that knew him. Yet, Pat Nally was a leading member of the Fenians, a secret society dedicated to the forceful overthrow of English rule in Ireland. Michael Davitt, himself once a prominent Fenian and Charles Stewart Parnell were like many others dismissive of the idea that Nally could be guilty of the charges laid against him. Both were to give glowing testimonials to character and nobility of physique and spirit.
Was Nally unique in being a Fenian that abhorred bloodshed? Hardly so as the main founder of the Fenian movement, James Stephens has the same paradoxical approach. In the mid -60's he had dithered and procrastinated to such an extent when pressed by followers to organise a rebellion that all realistic hopes of success had vanished before he reluctantly gave his consent and the rebellion, when it finally occurred, was farcical.
Robert Kee, the prominent historian, summed this problem up succinctly:
"Stephens' ego had become so wedded to the business of conducting and managing the conspiracy that he preferred to spin it out indefinitely on one rational excuse or another rather than bring it to a climax."
A story relating to the Cratloe area of Donegal and told to me by an elderly inhabitant of that area some years ago, sums up this spirit of double thinking perfectly. The story may not be true but it does help to explain the classic double thinking so widespread amongst the physical force movement of the time.
A group of disaffected tenants were waiting in ambush one dark night to waylay their most unpopular landlord whom they expected to pass their way shortly. They were armed and quite serious in their resolve to shoot him. As time passed however, and he did not put in his expected appearance they became worried, as it was obvious to them that something must have happened to disrupt his normal routine.
Finally they decided that he would not be coming and they decided to go home. As threy picked up their weapons and went to move away, one conspirator turned to his companions and said in all seriousness," God, something must have happened to the poor man. I hope he is alright."