Life

The GAA, the Rising and 1916: When the 'All-Ireland' was played behind barbed wire - at 'Croke Park' in Wales...

1916 was a momentous year, not least because there were two 'All-Ireland' football finals - with one played behind barbed wire on a field at a POW camp in Wales christened 'Croke Park' by the Easter Rising prisoners held there. This weekend, GAA president Larry McCarthy is in Wales to commemorate the historic match, writes Sarah Mac Donald - whose grandfather Tom Burke captained Louth in the game...

The disused distillery in Frongoch which was converted into a camp for German prisoners at the outbreak of the First World War. Following the Easter Rising in 1916, 1,800 Irish prisoners were sent there. The South camp was based in the old distillery.
Sarah Mac Donald

THIS year the All-Ireland football final will take place on July 24 at Croke Park in Dublin. After the hiatus caused by the pandemic, which saw an All-Ireland final in December, and one set for August which eventually took place in September, the July date seems more fitting.

It also chimes with another 'All-Ireland' final which took place in July 1916 at another 'Croke Park' - in Frongoch, in rural north Wales. That year, the official All-Ireland final was held in December and Wexford easily retained their crown by beating Mayo 3-4 to 1-2.

But 125 miles away at the prisoner of war camp in Frongoch, where 1,800 Irish prisoners rounded up in the wake of the Easter Rising were incarcerated, old rivals Kerry and Louth battled it out in the Wolfe Tone Tournament final. That match, played on a field in Wales, became known as the 'All-Ireland behind barbed wire'.

This weekend, GAA president Larry McCarthy will unveil a plaque at the site of 'Croke Park' in Frongoch to commemorate that famed 1916 match and the involvement of GAA players in the 'University of Revolution'.

Frongoch lies a few miles northwest of the town of Bala. On June 9 1916, the first batch of Irish prisoners captured after the Rising began to arrive in Bala by rail from prisons in England.

The disused distillery in Frongoch had been converted into a camp for German prisoners at the outbreak of the First World War. But following the upheaval in Ireland, the British authorities decided to send Irish prisoners there.

The camp was divided into two sections. The North camp, which was a collection of wooden huts, and the South camp, based in the old distillery.

The prisoners named the lanes between the wooden huts of North Camp, Pearse Street and Connolly Street, after Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, who had both been executed over their role in the Rising.

In this harsh environment, bonds of friendship were formed which overrode inter-county rivalries. These bonds helped develop and ready the republican network for the War of Independence. Recreation played an important part in keeping up the morale and fitness of the prisoners. Gaelic football was the most popular sport.

In August 1916 the Frongoch Leinster Championship saw Dublin beat Wexford. However, the commander of the camp, Colonel Haygate-Lambert ruled out hurling over fears that the hurleys could be used against prison guards.

The Louth and Kerry teams in 1916 at Frongoch. Picture courtesy of the Stanley Collection.

The field used as the football pitch in Frongoch was named 'Croke Park' after the stadium in Dublin on Jones' Road which the GAA had purchased for £2,400 in 1913 using record gate money generated by the Croke Memorial Tournament between Louth and Kerry that year.

Frongoch's detainees, who included Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Terence McSwiney, were notified of the match through posters that announced the Wolfe Tone final would be refereed by Maurice Collins. Tongue in cheek, they were told that the admission was 5 shillings and "wives and sweethearts should be left at home".

Kerry was captained by the great Dick Fitzgerald (1884-1930), who wrote How to Play Gaelic Football. Published in 1914, it was the first handbook of its kind in the GAA. Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney is named after this footballing legend, who won five All-Ireland senior football championship medals with Kerry.

Tom Burke - my grandfather - captained the Louth side. He would later referee the first All-Ireland played for the Sam Maguire Cup in 1928. Maguire, a Protestant from west Cork, was a friend from Frongoch.

Tom Burke who captained the Louth side in the 1916 Frongoch final pictured outside a hut while interned in the Curragh in 1921. He would later referee the first All-Ireland played for the Sam Maguire Cup in 1928.

Former Louth manager, Paddy Clarke, who sadly died in 2018, said that while Harry Boland was the outstanding referee from 1910 until his untimely death in 1922, in the 1920s Tom Burke "was probably the outstanding referee of the day".

Of the 10 years he played for the Louth county team, he missed seven matches because he was detained at his majesty's pleasure. He served time in a total of 10 jails including Frongoch in 1916 and the Curragh in 1921 after he was arrested while attending GAA Congress.

The Frongoch match was recorded by Joe Stanley, who printed the War News from the GPO during the Rising. Stanley ensured that a report of the match was published in the July 22 1916 edition of his newspaper, The Gaelic Athlete.

Kerry narrowly won, beating Louth by a point. It was Joe Stanley who kept notes of other football games and events in the Welsh camp including Michael Collins's successes in athletics. Joe Stanley, Dick Fitzgerald and Tom Burke were all part of Frongoch's Games Committee.

Interned German prisoners at the disused distillery in Frongoch during the First World War. The south camp was located at the distillery and there is now a school built on this site, while the north camp's location is now farmland.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's unveiling ceremony in Wales, GAA president Larry McCarthy told The Irish News: "The Association has been involved in marking sites of historical significance to the GAA for the last number of years."

He recalled that in 2016, a ceremonial football match was played in Frongoch to mark the centenary of the Louth v Kerry match. The holding of the commemorative match was led by the then president of the GAA, Aogán Ó Fearghail, and saw the final of the British inter-county shield contested by Hertfordshire v Yorkshire on June 18 2016.

It "revived our link to Frongoch and brought the story to a new generation," Mr McCarthy said. In a tribute to the Wolfe Tone Cup final captains, Dick Fitzgerald and Tom Burke, he said they "were great players who had a major impact on the GAA on their return to Ireland" and he underlined that "visitors to Frongoch who learn about the history of the camp will also be able to learn about Gaelic games".

"Commemorating this GAA link to Frongoch is something that has been driven by the GAA Provincial Council of Britain and in particular its chairperson, Noel O'Sullivan," said Mr McCarthy.

"We are very grateful to Alwyn Jones and the local history committee for the interest and care they have taken in preserving the Frongoch story and are delighted that they have included the 'Croke Park' field in this work."

Tom Burke winning the 440 yard open in Croke Park, 1915. Picture courtesy GAA/Croke Park Museum.

Alwyn Jones, a local councillor whose family now owns the land on which 'Croke Park' was located, has been central to keeping the memory alive of the Irish presence in Frongoch. He explained to The Irish News what became of the internment camp in later years.

"The distillery was demolished in 1934 and the site remained derelict for many years. From 1956 to 1965 it was taken over by Liverpool Corporation as a static caravan site for the workers on the Celyn Reservoir, which would provide water for Liverpool," he said.

"Following the completion of the reservoir, which involved the drowning of the village of Capel Celyn and the closure of its school, a new school was built on the site [at Frongoch]. The school covered half the site of the distillery while the other half was rented to my father, who served on Merioneth County Council. My father eventually bought the land, and it passed to me."

Pictured left to right, Fr Tom Looney, grand-nephew (by marriage) of Dick Fitzgerald, Kevin Stanley, grandson of Joe Stanley, and Cllr Alwyn Jones, who owns the land on which 'Croke Park' is located in Frongoch, Wales who participated in the RTE Radio 1 Documentary: The All-Ireland Behind Barbed Wire. Picture by Sarah Mac Donald.

Mr Jones later built a house on the land and now lives there with his wife Bethan.

It is perhaps surprising that the small museum in Frongoch, a place of such symbolism in Irish history, and a place where so many GAA players were interned, has received no financial support from the Irish State.

It has been built and funded by Mr Jones himself with a few small donations. Though admission to the museum is free, Jones does accept donations to help cover the insurance costs.

"The museum is not always open as I am still working part-time," he explains and adds: "People have asked me if the museum has a website - but that is another hurdle cost-wise."

The Frongoch museum set up by Councillor Alwyn Jones on whose farmland 'Croke Park' is located.

'Croke Park' in Frongoch, north Wales ahead of the final of the British inter-county shield between Hertfordshire v Yorkshire on June 18 2016. Picture by Alwyn Jones.

The disused distillery in Frongoch. Picture courtesy of Alwyn Jones.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access