John Mitchels of Tralee have come under scrutiny this past week after the Irish republican for whom they are named was outed as a racist. In the third and final article in our Racism in Sport series, Adam Moynihan asks what, if anything, should happen next.
Recent events in the US have had far-reaching effects and it seems like nowhere, not even the Kingdom of Kerry, is going untouched.
The Black Lives Matter movement has gained massive momentum in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death and it has led many of us to re-evaluate (and, perhaps, take more seriously) the racism that exists within our own communities.
Historic racism has also been up for debate as POCs and anti-racists have called into question the need for, and appropriateness of, having statues and streets that celebrate men who were, among other things, ardent racists.
Who would have thought that the English would need to incase a statue of their most famous leader for fears that it might be torn down by their own citizens? If the Englishman who supposedly “beat the Nazis” isn’t safe in England, who is?
Irish historical figures are not getting off lightly either. Tensions flared online this past week when it was pointed out that John Mitchel, an Irish republican who has a statue in Newry and a number of GAA clubs dedicated to his honour, was a racist who openly supported the “sound, just, wholesome institution” of slavery.
The news that Mitchel was a white supremacist has come as a surprise to many and has led a number of observers to call for his monument to be pulled down and for the GAA clubs in question (at least 10 in Ireland, the UK and Australia) to change their names immediately.
This, in turn, has been met with angry protestations from some who say that things have gone too far, and that we are in danger of “erasing history”.
There are arguments to be made on both sides but before we get into the rights and wrongs of the whole thing, perhaps we should take a good look at the individual at the centre of this controversy.
John Mitchel was born in Derry in 1815. He grew up and was educated in Newry, County Down and after graduating from Trinity College and qualifying as an attorney, he later became involved in politics. He was one of the leading members of Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation and his writings on Irish nationalism were hugely influential at the time.
He was convicted of treason in 1849 and sentenced to 14 years in Van Diemen’s Land, but he escaped to America in 1853 where he made a new life for himself. There, in New York, he founded an Irish nationalist newspaper called The Citizen.
It was in these pages that some of Mitchel’s appalling views on race came to light.
As the movement to end slavery in the southern states of America gained strength (the northern states had already abolished the system between 1774 and 1804), John Mitchel vociferously and repeatedly railed in the opposite direction.
He considered those of African descent to be “an innately inferior people” and he strongly advocated for the re-opening of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which had been outlawed in 1804.
Mitchel’s views were considered to be deplorable by many of his contemporaries back home. At one point, Charles Gavin Duffy refused to publish an article of Mitchel’s in the Irish nationalist newspaper, The Nation, as the content was aimed at “applauding negro slavery and denouncing the emancipation of the Jews”.
For his part, Kerryman Daniel O’Connell, a former ally of Mitchel’s, detested slavery and he had this to say to Irish racists who lived in the United States:
“How can the generous, the charitable, the humane, and the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct amongst you? How can your nature be so totally changed as that you should become the apologists and advocates of the execrable system which makes man the property of his fellow man – destroys the foundation of all moral and social virtues – condemns to ignorance, immorality and irreligion, millions of our fellow creatures…?
“It was not in Ireland that you learned this cruelty… Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice saying come out of such a land you Irishmen, or if you remain and dare continue to countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognise you as Irishmen no longer!”
It’s clear that Mitchel wasn’t just another racist during a period when it was slightly more acceptable to be one. He was an extreme racist even for the times he was living in.
With all that in mind, how did John Mitchel’s name end up being adopted by so many GAA clubs up and down the country?
In the early years of the Association, naming a club after an Irish nationalist was not at all unusual. It’s possible that Mitchel’s beliefs on slavery and race were not widely known in rural Ireland. It’s also possible that they were widely known, but were considered insignificant alongside all the things he did to further the cause of Irish republicanism.
Either way, there are ‘Mitchels’ clubs dotted all over Ireland, so it was clearly a popular choice at the time.
Funnily enough, Kerry’s John Mitchels almost weren’t called John Mitchels at all.
Between 1888 and 1919, Tralee had one club competing in the Kerry County Championship and they were named Tralee Mitchels, in honour of the aforementioned Irish nationalist who had died in 1875.
In 1927, Tralee (now operating under the ‘Tralee District’ banner) were split into three separate teams that already participated in the town’s street league: The Rock, Strand Street and Boherbee. The Rock became Austin Stacks and Strand Street became O’Rahilly’s (and, later, Kerins O’Rahilly’s).
In 1937, the Boherbee club decided to change their name too. A motion to call themselves Boherbee Parnells was put forward but, in the end, they opted for John Mitchels, a clear nod to the Tralee Mitchels team that had been very successful in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
John Mitchels went on to become a powerhouse of Kerry football, winning an unprecedented five County Championships in a row between 1959 and 1963. That particular record still stands to this day and they are joint third on the all-time leaderboard when it comes to Kerry SFC titles.
The name, it seems, has served them well.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
I think we have to be sympathetic towards everyone currently involved with the various John Mitchels clubs at home and abroad. It’s certainly not their fault that their clubs were named after a racist. These decisions were taken a long time ago, in many cases before any present-day members were even born.
If we take Tralee’s John Mitchels as an example, they probably feel like they’re under attack at the moment and, of course, they shouldn’t be under attack at all. Their officers are under pressure (from people like me) to address an unprecedented and very difficult situation.
It would be unfair, not to mention irrational, for anyone to direct anger or criticism at them at this time, especially when we have to assume that the majority of people at the club knew very little about John Mitchel or what he stood for.
Having said that, it wasn’t a huge secret either. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Clodagh Finn pointed out that Mitchel’s support of slavery was actually mentioned in a biography on the club’s website, although that detail now appears to have been removed.
It would be easy for someone like me (and even easier for someone outside of the GAA entirely) to simply say, “change the name”. It’s not my club. I don’t have any attachment to ‘John Mitchels’. I don’t have a lifetime of happy memories associated with those two words.
I can’t imagine that there will be any real desire from within the club to abandon their name, and I’m sure that some members won’t even want to address the issue in the first place.
I understand why that might be the case.
But that doesn’t mean that the issue should be brushed under the carpet, or that the conversation should be dropped. The fact of the matter is that John Mitchel was a racist who held incredibly horrible views on black people and slavery. When streets and squares and football clubs are named in his honour, what kind of message does that send to POCs living in Ireland?
If the parent of a black child in Tralee wants their son or daughter to play football, could they be forgiven for favouring the clubs named after O’Rahilly or Stack?
Put it this way: if you, an Irish person, moved to London and wanted to play soccer, and one of the local clubs was named Oliver Cromwell FC, would you feel comfortable pulling on their shirt?
As I said, I understand why John Mitchels players, officers and members might be resistant to the idea, but changing your name doesn’t change your identity.
Club names like the William O’Briens, Con Keatings and Daniel O’Connells have come and gone in Kerry GAA, but the clubs in question are still around. In fact, they remain as strong as ever.
If the members do thrash it out amongst themselves and come to the conclusion that John Mitchel’s name no longer sits right with them, it won’t erase their proud history.
And it certainly won’t prevent them from having a bright future.
Live referee mics should be the norm – swearing concerns be damned
by Adam Moynihan
I was disappointed to learn that the GAA are preventing TG4 from using their live referee mic in this Sunday’s Wexford hurling final.
(And not just because I had already written an article saying how great live referee mics are and how they are sure to be implemented across the board. Ctrl + A. Delete.)
TG4’s GAA coverage is superb and they raised the bar once again when they mic’d up referee John O’Halloran for the Kerry hurling final between Causeway and Ballyduff.
Pinning a microphone on the referee is standard practice in televised rugby and judging by the positive response to Gaelic games’ first foray into this territory, I was expecting it to become the norm.
It still might but, explaining their decision to The 42, the GAA said that they were not aware beforehand of the ref mic being trialled in Stack Park on Sunday.
“They believe such a development will require more discussion and education if it is to be implemented on a more regular basis in live TV coverage and could possibly need a policy change,” Fintan O’Toole reported.
The image of the Association is surely the primary concern here.
Players and managers – usually the worst behaved participants when it comes to things like swearing – will be among those who get “educated” on the subject. Some verbal abuse that might otherwise be muted for television viewers will, in all likelihood, be picked up by the referee’s microphone. You would imagine that the teams involved will be reminded of this the week of a televised game.
It also makes sense from Croke Park’s point of view to speak to referees and give them guidance on how to conduct themselves when the mic is on.
In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if senior GAA figures are currently fretting over the possibility of an agitated ref making headlines for something they say in the heat of the moment. And make no mistake about it, some match officials can eff and jeff with the best of them.
A friend of mine (a Wexford man, funnily enough) recalls an incident when a teammate was unceremoniously taken out of it by an opponent.
“Ah ref, for f***’s sake!” the victim complained.
“I gave you the f***ing free,” the referee replied. “What do you want me to do, slap him in the face with a wet fish?!”
The GAA might think that a referee swearing like that would leave all of us red-faced. In reality the clip would be a viral sensation and the general public would probably call for the official in question to run for Áras an Uachtárain. (He’d get my ****ing vote.)
The odd swear word from someone involved is bound to sneak through every now and then but you’d hear the same – and plenty more – at any match you attend from Cahersiveen to County Antrim.
Implementing the referee mic on a wider scale is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t appear to take a huge amount of effort or expense for the broadcaster to set it up and, more importantly, it offers a wonderful insight into the unknown.
Listening to referees explain their decisions in real time will clear a lot of things up for commentators, analysts and the media. We will no longer have to speculate about what they did or did not see, or what specific rule is being cited, or why.
Viewers, especially those who might be casual followers of the sport, will appreciate it too and become more educated; I know that’s how I feel when I watch rugby, for example.
It just leads to greater transparency and understanding.
Well done to TG4 and the Kerry County Board for being the pioneers. I’m sure others will follow their lead – as soon as the GAA allow them to do so.
Popularity of Ladies Gaelic Football on the rise
According to official TAM Ireland figures, 491,000 tuned into TG4’s coverage of the TG4 Ladies Football finals on Sunday with an average audience of 204,900 people watching the live broadcast […]
According to official TAM Ireland figures, 491,000 tuned into TG4’s coverage of the TG4 Ladies Football finals on Sunday with an average audience of 204,900 people watching the live broadcast of the Senior Final between Meath and Kerry.
The match had a 30.6% share of viewing among individuals. Viewing peaked at 5.10pm with 279,800 viewers as Meath closed in on the two in a row to retain the Brendan Martin Cup.
A total 46,400 attended the match in person in Croke Park on Sunday, the first TG4 Ladies Football Final to have full capacity allowance since 2019.
Viewers from over 50 countries tuned into the finals on the TG4 Player with 14,000 streams of the game from international viewers. Over 20,000 streams were also registered from Irish viewers.
TG4 Director General Alan Esslemont said: “My deepest gratitude to all the counties especially Wexford and Kerry who battled to the end through this season’s Championship, hearty congratulations to both Laois and Meath and I am really looking forward to the re-match of Antrim and Fermanagh which will be carried live on TG4. A special word of thanks goes to the huge crowd which travelled to the Finals from all the corners of Ireland. County Meath especially have become a role model for other counties in how to build huge attending support for LGFA in both genders and at all ages. Sunday’s massive expression of Meath ‘fandom’ in Croke Park brought their county the greatest credit.
Sunday’s broadcast was the 22nd edition of the TG4 Ladies Gaelic Football Championship, a unique history of a sport minoritized by society being championed by a language media minoritized by the state. By consciously standing together we have grown together. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the LGFA in 2024 let us all hope by that time that we are even further along the road towards true equality of opportunity for both Ladies Gaelic Football and Irish language media.”
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