Charlestown GAA, The Early Years in Co. Mayo

The Gaelic Athletic Association was established in 1884, for the preservation and cultivation of Irish National Pastimes. It was founded to check a grave racial menace in the deterioration of the pastimes of the people through want of organised control, and to combat the influence of other games and customs, which threatened to destroy the surviving cultural inheritance of the Gael.

To Michael Cusack, Maurice Davin and Archbishop Croke must go the greater share of credit for the creation and character of this great national organisation.

Michael Cusack knew that the GAA need not be founded simply to promote and develop physical fitness, to proclaim champions, or to assemble vast gatherings of spectators. These were only the means by which he would have the Association strive to reach an all important end which was the organisation of native pastimes and the promotion of athletic fitness as disciplined factors in the restoration of the historic Gaelic State and institutions. Michael Cusack was a wealthy man in 1884. In 1906 he died a poor man, but left an untold treasure to Ireland.

From the moment the GAA was founded, enthusiasm for it began to spread and in a matter of a few years, clubs began to be formed up and down the country.

In 1887 nationally-minded men in Charlestown and Bellaghy used to gather in Mr George Harrington’s house in Chapel St, formerly Fitzmaurice’s, now owned by Mr Vincent Doherty. There they had a reading room, and lectures were given frequently.

A Total Abstinence Society held it’s meetings there too. Foremost in Mayo the men who used to meet in Harrington’s answered the call to which a legion of great Irishmen gave their affiliations and counsel.

1888 dawned and Charlestown lined up, the first GAA Club being formed by Fr McNicholas, then CC, Messrs, Collins (Foreman in McDonnell’s), George Harrington, Thomas Haran, John Marren, (father of Mrs Coleman NT,) John E Doherty (late well known teacher), Thomas Peyton (grandfather of the Peytons of Lavey), Thomas Coen, John Gallagher, (father of Mr Patsy Gallagher), James Colleran, James Owens (uncle of Mr John Owens), Pat Breen, (Mrs PJ Henry’s father’s cousin), Matt O’Rourke (then assistant in Mulligan’s), and uncle of one of Our Marist Sisters, Sister Peter, Thomas and John Cassidy, (uncle and father of Mr John Cassidy NT,) Thomas Tunney, (father of Mr Thomas Tunney,) Pat Phillips, (brother of Mr Peter Phillips). James Parsons and others not now easily remembered, took on a great task and became eager and pioneering members of the first Charlestown Sarsfields Club.

The colours chosen were maroon and black. It was some time however before they could procure the jerseys, and they had to play without them in one or two matches. On one occasion when they played in a tournament in Swinford, Ballina Commercials (who later changed their name to the Stephenites) loaned the Charlestown players their green jerseys.

It is recalled how in the robust play, one of the jerseys was torn and the Sarsfields paid for it and kept it to be repaired. Afterwards, for quite a while, when the maroon and black jerseys were provided for the team, the captain always wore the green Ballina jersey.

In those days teams were comprised of 21 players a side and the pitch was 100 yards wide by 196 yards long. In 1892 the number of players was reduced to 17 and the pitch area was also reduced. Five points were then equal to a goal, and posts were erected each side of the goal space, for scoring points, these being higher than the goal posts, which were but a few inches above the crossbar.

There was no such thing in those days as the smooth running of the County Championships, as we know them to-day. Instead, the Sarsfields made arrangements with such Clubs as: Swinford, Ballyhaunis, Ballymote, Ballaghadereen and Gurteen, and travelled home and away, and won all their games. They practised on Sundays in Mulligan’s field, behind Mr John McIntyre’s, and had their first challenge match in the town against Curry, whom they beat. Two weeks later they travelled for the return match to Curry and Curry put up a better show, though losing.

In 1890, Castlebar won the Mayo Championship and held the majority of places on the team which represented Mayo against Sligo. Charlestown was selected as a venue, being equally distant for the Mayo and Sligo teams. The game was played before a very enthusiastic crowd in the very field which Charlestown Gaels have improved and turned into the finest pitch in Connacht. On that occasion, a Mr PG Smyth, who was the Editor of the Western People, refereed this match.

In those days, as now, a Courell of Ballina was very prominent in Mayo GAA affairs. Mayo wore green jerseys and Sligo wore red jerseys. Joe Kelly, who worked in the Asylum in Castlebar, captained Mayo and a Mulligan was Sligo’s leader and outstanding player.

Charlestown Sarsfields were at this stage up and coming and their greatest years came between 1890 and 1905. They were then able to travel out and beat all corners. In 1893 the game fell flat in Mayo and for that year Charlestown affiliated in Sligo.

A Mr Dineen, who was a very enthusiastic Gael, presented the first set of medals for the best team in Mayo. Charlestown won their way to the final against the Ballina Volunteers and were beaten in the final at Foxford. Fr McKeown CC proved a great leader for the Charlestown Club, and prominent supporters were : James Parsons, James Morrisroe, Pat Phillips and Thomas Hopkins.

The team which played in these matches was comprised of the following players: Johnny, Tim, Tom and Paddy Plover of Bellaghy, whose relations now live at Ballinvoher, Swinford. Thomas Cahill, Thomas Durkin, Martin and Willie Parsons, Mike Regan, Thomas and Pake Doherty, brothers of Willie Doherty, Martin Cassidy (brother of Patk Cassidy NT) John Maye (father of Jack Maye), Dr Eddie Mulligan (brother of the late WE Mulligan), James O’Connor (brother of our Parish Priest, Rev Fr O’Connor), Paddy O’Donnell (uncle of Mr Jack O’Donnell), and Dominick Coen, Captain.

A regular County Championship series was inaugurated after the game at Foxford. Charlestown played Claremorris at Kilkelly and won, meeting Swinford afterwards in Foye’s field (now Willie Parsons), and beating them. The final was played against Ballina Commercials and Charlestown won after a great game. Players who survive tell that Ballina, then affiliated a second team from the Quay, and Charlestown, having to defend their title, did so successfully after a stubborn battle.

Before that the Sarsfields travelled to Foxford and had a walkover in their tie with Westport McBrides. Charlestown were now champions of Mayo. There was no team in Leitrim, and Mayo were drawn against Sligo at Ballaghadereen and Galway were drawn against Roscommon. Galway, with Dunmore McHales holding nearly all the places on the Galway team, then met Mayo, with Charlestown Sarsfields leading Mayo.

And as for that match played in 1904, let the old rhyme speak for itself:

"The Dunmore men then did walk in,
Their colours shining bright,
They wore the orange yellow,
Above the green and white,
They were sadly disappointed,
When the whistle blew for time,
The score for Dunmore was three,
The Sarsfield boys had nine".

Mayo had to meet Cork at Limerick in the All-Ireland Semi-Final. Mr James Morrisroe was Charlestown’s delegate to all meetings of the County Board. When the team to play Cork came to be picked, Ballina objected to giving the Sarsfields nine places, although they had won the County Championship. It transpired that some of the Ballina players refused to travel, and Charlestown with nine players, Claremorris with two, and Ballina with two, travelled to Limerick and were well beaten. They laugh to-day when telling how the Cork men caught the ball in the air, while the Mayo men had learnt only how to catch it after it hopped. This mesmerised the Mayo men and they must have regarded the Corkonians as supermen.

Until 1911, Charlestown and Sarsfields, had varying fortunes, with most of their team going to England. They were often badly hit for footballers, and while always able to turn out a team for tournaments and challenge matches, they had to drop affiliation an odd year. As a matter of fact their numbers were so badly depleted at one time that Mike Regan, Willie Parsons and others played with Swinford. When, however the boys returned from England, they were able to meet and beat the best.

In 1911, Ballyhaunis won the County Championship, and when later in the year, Charlestown’s exiled players returned, a challenge was issued to Ballyhaunis, which was declined. However, a few weeks later, the Sarsfields entered a tournament in Ballaghadereen, and whom should they meet but County Champions Ballyhaunis.

Dr Coen of Ballaghadereen, presented a set of medals, about which the Sarsfields made no mistake in trouncing Ballyhaunis. There were five Captains on the Charlestown team, that is, players who had played elsewhere, and were honoured with the captaincy of the team with which they played. Prominent for the Sarsfields that day were: Patrick Cassidy NT, Willie Parsons, Patrick Hunt, Rooskey, Thomas Marren, Mike Dillon, Bob Thompson, Pat Walsh, Mickey Walsh (father and uncles of the Walsh players of to-day), Mike O’Donnell, now Canon Michael, PP, Bangor Erris.

To touch on all the periods of football in Charlestown would need a book - suffice to say that far away, clubs admit that from the very beginning, Charlestown Sarsfields had good teams and were even great on numerous occasions. In the years : 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1924, Charlestown produced outstanding minor teams.

In the years: 1910 to 1920, Sarsfields helped Mayo year after year and had such well remembered players as Dr Mick Henry, (later of Swinford), Jack Henry, Fred Doherty, Jack O’Donnell, James Tunney, James Haran, Willie Hardiman, Paddy Lynskey, Willie McDonnell, Johnny Haran, Andrew Walsh, Martin Tunney and Paddy Tunney.

A Unique Achievement

It is noteworthy that apart from having other players on the field, Charlestown Sarsfields held the Right half-back position for Mayo for 27 years, a unique achievement for a small town.

Fred Doherty filled that position with distinction from 1917 to 1926, Thomas Tunney took over in 1926 and played up to 1934, when Tommy Regan (Danno) stepped in and kept the position until 1944, winning his All-Ireland medal in 1936.

One whose services cannot be forgotten is Rev MP Philbin, now, 1951, on the Australian Mission, who only failed to figure in the championship because of his occupation with his sacred studies.

Younger generations of Gaelic footballers remember quite well men like: Willie McDonnell, Jack Henry, Mick Henry, The Tunneys, Martin and Paddy, who played forwards when Tom was in the backs. Tom Tunney toured America with Mayo, as did Tommy Regan later. Peter Tunney played Junior football for Mayo, as well as Frank O’Donnell, and Pat Conboy. Pat Conboy won an All-Ireland Junior medal in 1933 along with Tommy Regan. Eddie O’Donnell, Sean Dooney, Eddy Joe Stenson and Kevin Swords have contributed to Colleges and Mayo Minor teams.

Tommy Moran played Minor, Junior and Senior for Galway. Sean Honan has played Connacht Colleges and is a product of Charlestown Minor football. Pete Regan, Paddy Molloy, Frank Walsh, Anthony Durkan and Sean Walsh played Minor for Mayo. Sean Walsh later played Junior and Senior and played in the 1942 All-Ireland Senior Championship with Galway.

Willie Regan won Galway and All-Army Senior football title with the 1st Battalion. Kevin Swords, as well as being Mayo Minor Captain, became Connacht and All-Ireland Colleges mile Champion, All-Ireland, 1949, Minor Handball champion and University Colleges Boxing champion. Anthony Durkan, as well as playing Minor, played Junior and Senior football for Mayo. Eddy Kilroy played Senior football for Sligo with distinction.

Luke Colleran, Charlestown’s veteran footballer, won every distinction in the game, but never an All-Ireland Senior medal. He played for Sligo and Connacht, year after year, and was picked to represent Ireland at the Tailteann Games in 1932.

Charlestown supplied four All-Ireland Handball Minor champions in three years: Kevin Swords, PJ Doherty, Junior Mulhern and John O’Brien. These are just the names that come to mind, but they show that Charlestown always had sons of athletic ability and football prowess and always produced teams of a winning variety.

They might not be able to boast a string of County Championship wins, but they were always there or thereabouts. For years and years they won the East Mayo title.

And so down through the years, the men of Charlestown have been among the tried and true supporters of our great GAA Organisation, and from now on, with the opening of the new Fr O’Hara Memorial Park, on the 3rd of June 1951, they can look forward to many years of renewed interest and allegiance, to the grand cause of Gaelic games.

Fr Eddie O’Hara - An Appreciation

"Si Monumentum requiris circumspice"
(If you seek a monument, look about you)

"O, wise men, riddle me this: what if the dreams come true? What if the dreams come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell, In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought? PH Pearse.

By their attendance on the occasion of the official opening of the Fr Edward O’Hara Memorial Park, on the 3rd of June 1951, at Lowpark, Charlestown, many thousands will by their mighty presence, take part in a grand finale, and the full-throated shout and slogan - so inseparable from hostings of the Gaelm - will echo to herald to the Gaelic world the consummation of the hopes and ambitions of generations of enthusiasts of one small western town.

At that moment, surely, the people of Charlestown will feel an overflowing pride, modest not haughty, in beholding a scene such as is witnessed in very few small communities, and then, once only in generations, a scene which trusts to the mighty passing of Gaelic thousands to make it vibrate with consciousness of race and tradition, to make it something uniquely splendid with that rumbling noise of people like the undertones of some great organ.

Then the great men of the nation will be cheered as they step into view, the young and the gallant, the flower of the nation’s manhood, the athletic giants of Cavan and Mayo, will step purposefully on to the green sward. The martial music of the band will provide the rhythm to aid the energetic straightening of shoulders and the brisk stepping gate of thirty gladiators.

Round the arena, and then the marchers will pause and a silence, almost audible, will fall over the multitude for that brief few seconds before the strains of the hymn of allegiance to an ancient faith boom out, and a mighty chorus sings the anthem of our land. In those few seconds of silence, hearts will beat the faster, for that great moment of splendour will have come upon us, and, as our eyes stray over the verdurous sod, it seems right that we should, if only momentarily, give a thought to one who "should be living at this hour", And whose dust lies under, indeed, a sweeter sod.

Gaelic enthusiasts from wherever they come, will express one regret on this great day, that the staunch, genuine, esteemed and enthusiastic "Father Eddie" cannot be seen.

The cynosure of those many thousand eyes, but the mind which left it’s indelible impress on Gaelic football in Mayo over thirty years, which inspired the people of Charlestown to take on such a stupendous task in furtherance of our national pastimes, and which gave such an outstanding example of courage and dauntlessness, that the task he commenced has been carried to it’s successful conclusion, will surely, in it’s now familiar way of wise helpfulness, look down upon us from it’s home of eternal bliss with our Divine Master.

He will give a nod of approval for our efforts, praying that in the spiritual as well as the temporal spheres, the children of the Gaelic Ireland he knew, having played the game, will merit the ultimate of trophies, the acme of human endeavour, to enjoy God eternally in heaven.

Go ndeanfaidh Dia trocaire ar a anam.

Cathal Henry 2013

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