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.
No reform for football championship as Plan B falls short
by Adam Moynihan
There will be no radical change for the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 2022 after a motion to restructure the format of the competition failed at GAA Special Congress on Saturday afternoon.
Motion 19 (also referred to as ‘Proposal B’ or ‘Plan B’) proposed that the National League and All-Ireland Championship should become one competition, with the provincial championships being separated from the All-Ireland series for the first time ever.
The motion needed support from 60% of delegates but, contrary to projections, it fell well short of that majority. In the end, after an hour-and-a-quarter of debate, just 50.6% of voters opted for Plan B.
Plan A – four groups of eight “provinces” plus an All-Ireland series – garnered far less support. 90% of those present voted against that particular proposal, which was down as Motion 18 on the agenda.
The end result of the two failed motions is that intercounty football will revert to the status quo as it was before the Super 8s were introduced in 2018, with a qualifier or “back door” system in place. A second tier competition known as the Tailteann Cup will also be staged.
Introducing Motion 19 to delegates at Croke Park, former GAA President John Horan described the proposal as a starting point.
“If we feel we need to improve it, that opportunity would be there,” he said. “This proposal will mean more matches for our players and a better playing to training ratio.”
CEO of the Gaelic Players Association Tom Parsons said the ‘league as championship’ model would spark life into Gaelic football, before reading the testimonies of some intercounty players who supported Plan B. Among them was current Kerry captain Paul Murphy, who was quoted as saying: “The time has come to try a new structure for our football championship.”
Parsons added that some players are being “laughed at” while wearing county tracksuits after suffering heavy defeats.
Former GAA President and ex-Kerry GAA Chairman Seán Kelly also spoke out in favour of Proposal B, suggesting that it should be trialled for a period of three years.
“If you stand still, you go backwards,” the Kilcummin native said. “This motion should be trialled for a maximum of three years and then reviewed. To turn our backs on the voice of the players does not make sense to me.”
Michael Duignan from Offaly, Colm Collins from Clare, Seán Carroll from Sligo, Kevin O’Donovan from Cork and Declan Bohan from Leitrim all backed the proposal.
Representatives from Mayo, Donegal, Antrim, Cavan, Derry, Monaghan and Armagh argued against.
Mayo GAA Chairman Liam Moffatt raised concerns about the sixth place team in Division 1 not qualifying for the All-Ireland series while teams from lower divisions would.
Tiernach Mahon of Fermanagh GAA said that “this motion has the potential to destroy the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of Fermanagh people”.
Meanwhile, Kerry GAA chair Tim Murphy called for Motion 19 to be voted on at Congress 2022 instead.
“It’s a really strong motion with really good attributes and something we should really consider. But I would caveat that by saying it would be a travesty today if the motion is put to the floor and defeated. All the work of the committee would go to waste.
“The sense I get from the floor is that everybody is for change and for us to grow and evolve as an Association we have to accept that. I do feel the motion has huge attributes, but maybe we should go around to the provinces and invite in county officers and players to have their view. If we come back in 12 or 13 weeks with the same motion, then no-one can say we haven’t discussed it properly.
“Perhaps bringing this motion to Congress 2022 is the best solution to the situation we find ourselves in.”
Bringing the debate to a close, Horan again urged delegates to back the proposal.
His pleas fell on deaf ears, however – at least for 83 of the 168 people in attendance. 100 ‘yes’ votes were needed for change, but Motion 19 received just 85.
A lover of music and song: Jimmy O’Brien RIP
Eamonn Fitzgerald remembers the late Jimmy O’Brien, the eminently popular bar owner, singer and GAA fan who left an indelible mark on the town of Killarney.
Publican Jimmy O’Brien was laid to rest at sunny Aghadoe on Monday last. He wouldn’t want any fuss, but he got his promise from his lifelong friend, Jimmy Doyle. Jimmy was on the button accordion playing ‘Mary from Bonane’, a firm favourite, and even more so in recent weeks when Bonane native Seán O’Shea was kicking points from all angles.
After his love for his family, nothing meant more to Jimmy O’Brien than football, music and song.
Born in the town land of Lyreatough, Kilcummin in 1932, he attended the local Anabla NS and was well inducted in the various stages of getting the turf from sleán to the reek in the haggard. He was of the bog and proud of it. But he knew it was very hard work and headed for town, specifically Culloty’s Garage at Fair Hill (now Killarney Hardware). There he learned his trade as a mechanic. He didn’t boast about it but was very proud of the papers he received to certify him as fully qualified.
Like so many more people of that time, he was taken to America by Patrick Cronin in 1956 and was home for good in 1961. He must have collected a fair fistful of dollars and held on to them because, when Conno Healy’s pub came up for sale in 1959 (across the road from Culloty’s), he bought it. He returned home to open up Jimmy O’Brien’s pub along with his wife, Mary.
The family came along in due course – Siobhán, Ann and Jim – and the business grew. All went well until September 29, 1994, when his beloved Mary passed away aged 61. Too young to die and it hit him hard. No wonder; wasn’t she his life and soul?
His three children, the bar and his twin loves of football and song kept him going. He had no time for soccer, recounting times he would go up to the Friary, say the rosary, and still no score when he returned.
He was an ardent supporter of the Kerry football teams, but even more passionate about club football. Which was his club?
Set the scene in the Fair Hill bar, with a nice crowd inside. That’s the way he liked it – he got a bit flustered if it became jam-packed. It’s summer time and the O’Donoghue Cup draw has been published.
Johnny Batt (Cronin) was the instigator, and his Spa club mates the Herlihy brothers (Dave and William) stirred it further. Who was Jimmy going to support in the forthcoming matches, in which the rivalry would be intense? Mick Gleeson was as philosophical as ever; he knew better than to try and win this one.
The McCarthy brothers from Gneeveguilla, Thado, Joe and Billy, were in fast to lay claim to the boss of the house. After all, wasn’t he reared in the traditions of Sliabh Luachra and one of its finest sean-nós singers? Rosy was far more definite. Gneeveguilla, of course, I have to say.
Kilcummin’s Dermot Moynihan was in no doubt about how the allegiance would stand. After all, Jimmy was born in the parish, went to school in the parish and the parish rule was, and still is, sacrosanct in Kerry football.
The odds favoured the country clubs and were stacked against the townies. Weeshie Fogarty was a regular and he had lined Jimmy up for Terrace Talk.
His daughter, Ann, married Harry O’Neill (Dr Crokes), Tom Long was his gun club friend traipsing around Cock Hill and not a word out of him, but beside him supping porter and watching the scene develop was Mike Cooper, the man who was born just inside the county bounds and was now living in Killarney. The Crokes are the team, said Mike, his chest swelling with pride. He had just returned from Cahersiveen where Dr Crokes had defied the odds to beat the Maurice Fitzgerald-led South Kerry team in the Kerry County Championship. Five of his sons played the full match to secure victory. But I thought there were only four?
“No, I have five, all good, but the youngest is only a slip of a lad. You’d think you’d blow him over, but the foxy boy will be the best of all of them.” How right he was. The boy became a man and won five All-Irelands with Kerry. Crokes went on to win the 2000 Kerry SFC, managed by Harry O’Neill, Jimmy’s son-in-law.
How was the proprietor going to get out of this one before the gallery of rogues? Sure, he was the greatest rogue of all himself, but we loved him for it.
Everyone looked to Jimmy for an answer, but he turned to another regular, the independent voice of Bracker, from the Rock.
Plenty of grimacing and carry on, but no answer to Johnny Batt’s question. Jimmy O’Brien had the knack of not falling out with anyone and he couldn’t win this one, so he carried confirmation of club allegiance with him to his grave.
I’m pretty sure it is Gneeveguilla, in the heart of Sliabh Luachra, which made Jimmy O’Brien a household name in traditional music, especially with his lifelong ‘brother’ Jimmy Doyle. He embraced the greatness of Julia Clifford, Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary, the Doyle brothers and many more.
What’s more, he enhanced that marvellous tradition, not in playing, but in singing. I asked Jimmy Doyle at the graveside about Jimmy on the melodeon. “Oh, he could play… But he was only alright! But for singing he was tops, pure and just outstanding. He could interpret a song so well. You wouldn’t hear a pin drop when he sang unaccompanied.”
Is it any wonder that his pub in Fair Hill was a mecca for traditional singers and musicians? They came to the master’s pub for a session.
Paddy Moloney, chief of The Chieftains, was a regular caller; as were The Dubliners; and the Kelly brothers, Luke of ‘Raglan Road’ and Paddy, who was also a beautiful singer. When Paddy was head of the Trade Unions, they held their conferences in Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel. Business over, they trooped down to O’Brien’s. The pint was much cheaper there and they would have a right session singing, and what are you having yourself, sir?
Dolly McMahon, The Wolfe Tones, and the Begley’s all came to sing and play.
There were so many impromptu sessions and you’d get the discreet phone call that the session had already started. “Come, you’ll enjoy it, but ná h-abair focal to anyone.” What an invitation to listen to musical greats from the list above.
“Johnny O’Leary and the Doyles will be here around 10. We have Seán Ó Sé (Poc ar Buile), Johnny Lehane and Diarmaidín Ó Súillabháin will be here from Cúl Aodh. He’ll have the recorder for Radio na Gaeltachta.”
Regular visitors were Mick O’Connell, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Donncha Ó Dulaing and Cíarán Mac Mathúna. Thankfully, Ciarán recorded so many of Jimmy’s songs, preserving this priceless legacy for the Irish oral tradition.
And then there were the American tourists drawn to a real Irish pub. They wanted ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Galway Bay’. They also wanted to know what music college from which the vintner graduated. The prime boys from UCC provided him with the answer for the Yanks question. The University of Sliabh Luachra, with its constituent college in Lyreatough. “Wow, fancy that. Must Google that when we get back to the States.”
My friendship with Jimmy O’Brien goes back a long ways, but specifically to November 1969, when East Kerry won the second of their Kerry SFC titles and the Bishop Moynihan Cup had pride of place.
He introduced me to so many people, including Con Houlihan, sitting in the high seat inside the door, hair well down his back, no pigtail and his hand cupped to his nose. This genius of a wordsmith was a shy man that I met many times later in Dublin.
Just like Paddy Moloney, Jimmy shared his talents with so many young up and coming singers who went on to great things in life. I recall one such case. A very young nervous girl was preparing for her first time on stage, a recitation in Scór. Would he help her out?
Would he what? Bring her along. To this day the now adult woman recalls sitting up on that seat inside the door and this gentle, loving man encouraging her with great tips.
That seat is long gone, but not the bar stand. He splashed out on a magnificent mahogany piece, surplus to the requirements of the Great Southern. “That’s not like you,” says Johnny Batt. “What’ll you use it for?”
“It’ll be a fine bar counter,” Jimmy replied. “And what’s more, when its job is done, won’t it make a fine coffin?”
He was a great Friary man and the highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the singing of the Ár nAthair. Father and daughter, Jimmy and Siobhán, the All-Ireland champion singer unaccompanied in touching harmony. Flawless. Enchanting.
His relationship with his son Jim was more like that of brothers, looking after each other. They got great joy out of travelling to matches in the ageless red Mercedes, certainly the only one in Killarney, if not in Europe. He never got a parking ticket and definitely was never caught for speeding. I’m convinced that the former mechanic set cruise control at 40km and away she went with co-pilot Jim Bob. No need for GPS, Jim Bob in control. God help the poor motorist trying to pass out on the rural roads.
July was his favourite month to live his passions. The Munster final in Killarney on the first Sunday of July was the occasion to meet so many of his friends from afar. It was also the first day of the Willie Clancy festival at Miltown–Malbay and that ran for a week. He never missed it, linking up with Galway hurlers Joe McDonagh and the Connolly brothers and especially their aunts and uncles, the Jimmy O’Brien cultivators of traditional singing and music in Connemara. It was his spiritual retreat. Sustenance for another year.
His nephew, Fr Liam O’Brien, celebrated the touching funeral mass, enhanced by the singing of Maura Reen.
I had the good fortune to spend an hour with Jimmy less than a fortnight before he died. He wanted to know the inside story on Jack O’Connor’s return and then sang ‘The Boys of Bárr na Sráide’ and Garry McMahon’s ‘Kerry’s Green and Gold’.
Pitch perfect. Word perfect. Never a faltering note.
“Not bad for an ould fella,” were his parting words. He knew he could still do it and I was so happy to video live the Master of Songs, treasured recordings for the memory bank.
I wonder if St Peter will listen in on the hop balls between new neighbours, Johnny Batt and Jimmy O’Brien?
To Siobhán, Ann, Jim and extended families, as well as friends from far and near, comhbhrón ó chroí.
Traditional cultural Ireland has lost some great people in recent weeks: Tony Loughnane, Paddy Moloney, Máire Mac an tSaoí, Brendan Kennelly and Jimmy O’Brien. Class acts.
And Jimmy, go gcloisfidh tú na h-aingil ag déanamh ceoil leat ar Neamh.
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