By Peter McDermott
IN THE NAME OF THE GAME, by J.J. Barrett. Published by The Dub Press. 196 pp. Available in the U.S. for $12.50, plus 2.50 for postage and handling, by calling (718) 549-7660.
As it neared its end in the early months of 1923, the Irish Civil War took a particularly macabre turn in County Kerry. After five Free State soldiers were killed by an IRA landmine, an estimated 19 prisoners were put to death in a series of reprisals. In one incident, at Ballyseedy, nine men were tied to a mine. Eight were blown to pieces; Stephen Fuller, later a Fianna Fail T.D., survived. Inevitably the county was bitterly divided when the conflict was over, with a majority opposed to the state. In the 1923 general election four abstentionist, anti-Treaty candidates were elected, as against three for the government.
In his fascinating and well-researched book “In the Name of the Game,” J.J. Barrett shows how the passion for Gaelic football in Kerry helped to ease the tensions between political factions. Barrett builds his story, with the aid of 16 pages of photographs, around six Kerry stars of the 1920s and ’30s, a golden era for the county: Con Brosnan, a former Free State army officer; Johnny Walsh, another pro-Treaty supporter; Joe Barrett, the author’s father, a Fianna Fail member; Tim O’Donnell, a Garda, and John Joe Sheehy and Purty Landers, both “life-long Republicans.”
Landers, who was interned in the 1940s, praised his military and political opponent Brosnan, in an 1995 interview with the author: “Con had incredible guts. . . . He was the ultimate peacemaker in Kerry football after the Civil War.”
It helped that the worst of the violence in 1923 was not inflicted by Kerrymen upon Kerrymen. Commandant General Paddy O’Daly of the Dublin Guards had been blamed for the Free State Army’s indiscipline in the county. During the war with Britain, O’Daly was head of the IRA’s Active Service Unit, whose members Michael Collins would refer to as “my Black and Tans.”
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O’Daly would have brought to Kerry the National Army’s antipathy for “diehards.” The ultimate diehard was Austin Stack, Kerry’s most famous republican, a member of the cabinet and a bitter personal enemy of Collins’s. In his superb biography of Collins, “The Big Fellow,” Frank O’Connor, who’d fought on the anti-Treaty side, described Stack’s performance in the Dail debate on the 1921 settlement thus: “Dull, pompous, unutterably futile, the threadbare sentiments string themselves out . . . ”
Barrett’s says that Collins would never have approved of the carnage – the executions, for example – that followed his death. Probably so. But Collins did say that if his former comrades didn’t see reason, he might have to “get a bit rough with them.”
After Collins was gone, his army certainly got rough in north Kerry, creating a bitter legacy that would sustain a tradition of extra-constitutional militancy – a tradition into which ex-Provisional IRA member and Garda informer Sean O’Callaghan was born.
O’Callagan, and many others, would dismiss as both naive and dogmatic Barrett’s view that the GAA could play a similarly healing role north of the border. Overall, though, Barrett’s great devotion for and knowledge of Gaelic games work to his advantage. He has certainly written a very interesting book.