Delayed football and hurling Championships aren’t unprecedented, even if the most recent occurrences came decades ago. Unfinished Championships happened too, though you have to go back close to a century for the last football one, an infamous episode that saw us swindled out of what would have been our first All-Ireland. But only once ever in the GAA’s history was there no Championship played at all.
Before we get to that year – 1888 – it’s worth first taking a gallop through more recent examples of when Championships were delayed or disrupted. This occurred for a variety of reasons, though none bear any resemblance to the current rationale for calling a halt to GAA action as well as pretty much everything else that usually happens in the country besides.
In recent years, the only reason football Championships haven’t been concluded in September has been because of replays. Our 2016 replay with Dublin took place on the first day of October but, of course, with the fixture schedule changed since then, last year’s Dublin/Kerry rematch was played as early as 14th September. The latest a replayed football decider was contested within the last half-century was back in 1972 when Offaly got the better of Kerry in an All-Ireland final replay contested on 15th October.
It was back in 1956 – all of 64 years ago – that we encounter the most recent final which wasn’t a replayed match that was played later than September. The reason that happened – as Siobhán Doyle of TU Dublin, in a very informative piece for RTÉ, explains – was due to the outbreak of a polio epidemic in Cork. The Rebels made it to the All-Ireland final in both hurling and football that year but, arising from a request from public health officials to put both games back, the football final wasn’t contested until 7th October. Cork ended up losing both deciders.
Ten years before that the Kerry/Roscommon final was also held in October. Then, with the world still only starting to emerge from the chaos and carnage of World War II, the reason for postponing the All-Ireland was because of a national drive to save the year’s harvest. When the final was eventually played, on 6th October, it ended in a draw and the replay wasn’t contested until three weeks later, with Kerry finally emerging the victors on 27th October.
The Emergency, as we rather quaintly termed the global conflagration that raged from 1939 to 1945, didn’t affect the scheduling of Championship games. Attendances were impacted, though, with the 1942 decider – involving Dublin and Galway – attracting a crowd of just 37,105 to Croke Park. Two years after that, however, the crowds were back, with more than twice that number assembling to see Roscommon’s win over Kerry.
What the War did put paid to, however, was the National League, which was mothballed in its entirety from 1942 to 1945 inclusive. That’s the most recent time that the GAA has been forced to scrub an entire tournament from its annual calendar.
Here’s a fun fact: assuming this year’s League will now be abandoned (which seems all but certain) you could argue we’re still the League champions. Well, the same happened in the War years, as we won the last NFL to be contested, beating Dublin in the 1940/1 decider in April 1941, before the tournament was placed into dry-dock for the remainder of the War years.
Twenty years prior to the ending of World War II, hostilities of a different kind caused an All-Ireland football title to be awarded by means other than victory on the field of play. That year was 1925 and Galway ended up being handled a title that we had a far greater claim to, as that piece linked above by Siobhán Doyle explains. The nefarious goings-on that saw Galway snatch that title away from us was recounted in detail recently by Sean Moran in the Irish Times – here.
Aside from the we wuz robbed element of interest from our point of view, the 1925 Championship is an extremely noteworthy one from the GAA’s point of view as it’s the most recent year in which a football final wasn’t contested at all. It’s also one of only three football Championships that were started but weren’t properly completed.
In 1910 Kerry refused to contest the football final against Louth, who were awarded the title. The circumstances for what happened there are also covered by Siobhán Doyle in her piece. Way back in 1894 Dublin were awarded the football title when a replayed final had to be abandoned after a scrap broke out between players and supporters. Cork were blamed for the row and Dublin were handed the crown.
Aside from those years – and 1888, which I’ll eventually get to – every other Championship was played to completion. In the early years of the Association, though, and again during the years leading up to Independence and after, the Championships were often delayed and frequently spilled over from one year to the next.
This happened most recently in relation to the 1924 Championship, the final of which wasn’t contested until April 1925. So at least there was one All-Ireland decider played that year even if it wasn’t the one that should have been contested.
Tracing back through those years, the 1923 final was played in September 1924, the 1922 one in October 1923, the ’21 one in June ’23 and ’20 in June ’22. So, when GAA President John Horan was talking recently about the possibility of starting this year’s Championship late in the year and finishing it in 2021, these are the most recent historical precedents for doing this.
Somewhat amazingly, with the Spanish flu pandemic only subsiding and the War of Independence having started, the 1919 Championship was completed in September that year. It was in early 1918, however, that the pandemic first spread and it reached its height late that year and early in 1919. This resulted in the postponement of the 1918 football final until January 1919. We lost, by the way, to Tipperary in that decider, which was the second All-Ireland final we contested.
In terms of scale it’s worth recounting that the Spanish flu pandemic was responsible for an estimated 25,000 fatalities in this country. The total global death toll is reckoned to be at least 50 million souls.
Looking further back, each of the football finals from 1912 to 1917 were played within their proper year but all of them took place in either November or December. Before then, finals played in the correct year were the exception rather than the norm, with this only occurring in 1889 and again in 1909. As we’ve already noted, neither the 1910 nor the 1894 football Championships were concluded on the field of play.
Which leads us, finally, to the fateful year of 1888, just four years on from when the GAA was formed. It was in September 1888 that the SS Wisconsin set sail from Queenstown (now Cobh) bound for New York. On board was a travelling party representing the GAA that comprised fifty athletes and hurlers, as well as officials and others. The group was led by its founding President Maurice Davin and the photo at the top of this piece was taken at some point on the tour.
This was the GAA’s famous ‘American Invasion’, the purpose of which was twofold. The first was to showcase the Gaelic sporting renaissance that had taken root back home while the second – and more pressing – reason was to raise funds for a planned GAA revival of the ancient Tailteann Games.
As the eminent GAA historian Paul Rouse explains in this piece for the Irish Examiner, the Invasion didn’t go according to plan. From a fundraising point of view, the trip was a disaster and further ignominy resulted from the fact that nearly half of the travelling athletes opted to stay in America. The trip did, though, help to forge important GAA links across the Atlantic, a bond that survives to this day.
Back home, the Championship was the main casualty of the Invasion. All of the GAA’s efforts that year went into its American escapade, with the home fires left neglected.
The following year, though, the Championship was back. The decider – in which the records show that Tipperary walloped Laois by 3-6 to 0-0 at Inchicore – was played in October that year.
Maybe that’s a suitably upbeat note on which to conclude this potted history of Championships delayed or otherwise disrupted. After the 1888 hiatus the football and hurling were back in earnest the following year. We have to hope that, following the 2020 Covid-induced lacuna, the same will be true of 2021.