GAA Editor @BrianGBarry
Michael Collins and the 1921 Leinster Hurling final: 100 years on from when The Big Fellow graced Croke Park
As Dublin and Kilkenny face off in the Leinster hurling final on Saturday evening, Brian Barry looks back to the sides' meeting 100 years ago in the 1921 provincial decider, on a significant day in Irish history when Michael Collins threw in the sliotar to start the contest.
Last Updated: 17/07/21 9:02am
Last year threw up notable Gaelic football results aligning to 1920, on the 100-year anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
And there is another centenary nod to Ireland's revolutionary period this weekend in the GAA, as Dublin and Kilkenny face off in the Leinster Hurling Championship final.
The sides also met in the 1921 provincial decider, on a day when Michael Collins graced Croke Park in a dignitary capacity to throw in the ball.
It was a significant day for 'The Big Fellow'. Having played an integral part in the War of Independence as a somewhat-mythical figure, the aftermath of the truce allowed him to step out of the shadows and into the limelight.
Ten months on from that fateful Sunday in November 1920 when the GAA was rocked to its core after 14 civilians were murdered on Jones' Road, the Gaelic games community was still reeling. But there was a desire within the association to push on and continue in the face of adversity.
"There's no doubt that Bloody Sunday had a dramatic impact on the GAA, and in particular on the GAA in Dublin. But there was a determination to continue playing as much as possible, to try and make their way through championships and that's what they ultimately managed to do," explains Paul Rouse, professor of history at University College Dublin.
"What's crucial about that Leinster hurling final is it's after the truce. The fact it was after the truce was fundamental to the nature of the occasion itself."
The match is of particular interest to this writer, as my great-grandfather Joseph Coyne lined out for Dublin that day, and was at the front of the throw-in for when Collins started the contest.
Unfortunately, Coyne's small-ball prowess was not passed down through his genes, with his great grandson firmly confined to the ranks of 'Junior A' hurling 100 years later. But my position as a GAA journalist does provide a platform to delve into this moment in Irish history.
Coyne was born in Kilkenny city in 1894. Having spent three months in Wakefield Prison for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising, his trade as a baker brought him to the capital where he represented the Faughs hurling club. The club's success saw them go on to represent Dublin on the intercounty scene, winning the All-Ireland title in 1920 with a 4-9 to 4-3 final win over Cork.
Incidentally, due to the War of Independence, that 1920 final was not held until May 1922.
Therefore, although the 1921 Leinster final was held in September of that year, the Metropolitans had not yet sealed the All-Ireland title from the previous season.
Gaelic games were widely regarded as 'country' sports within the capital at that time, but there was nonetheless significant interest in the 1921 Leinster final as 15,000 packed into the Croke Park to view the contest.
Dublin won the match on a score-line of 4-4 to 1-5, but the day holds an enduring legacy due to the presence of one of the most prominent leaders in the push for independence.
With the ceasefire called two months previously in July, Michael Collins was no longer persona non grata in the eyes of the authorities.
"It was nothing new to see Harry Boland in Croke Park with his camán. Many a time has his unerring stroke brought victory to the Faughs. But when Michael Collins had a few preliminary shots before he started the match yesterday we realised that he, too, had handled a hurley before," read the match report in the Irish Independent the following day.
"That left-handed flying double of his drew a cheer as hearty as the ovation he received when he set the teams going. For five minutes, the fifteen thousand spectators saw him no longer a hunted fugitive or a Minister of Finance, but a schoolboy at play. And at half-time we saw him once more "on the run" - to his seat on the sideline, when the ball came flying in his direction after he had restarted the game."
Match report, Irish Independent September 12, 1921
"For five minutes, the fifteen thousand spectators saw him no longer a hunted fugitive or a Minister of Finance, but a schoolboy at play."
With the game staged in a window after the cease-fire of July 1921 and before the signing of the Treaty that December, Collins' popularity was at its peak.
"The word celebrity is used, but it does matter that it was Michael Collins. His stock was never higher," Rouse outlines.
"From the time of the Roman Empire and probably before it, but definitely from the time of the Colosseum, politicians of all stripes have sought to use sport to present a very particular image of themselves.
"It happens the whole time, in every culture that politicians seek to use sport. Now there are politicians of all stripes who are genuinely interested in sport, who do not seek to milk it for their own politics. And it's up to people themselves to decide who is genuine and who is not.
"He (Collins) understood what was going to happen on that day. With cameras there, he knew this would be big news. He knew how to exploit his status and create a very particular picture.
"You don't agree to throw in a ball at a match like that, sit on the sideline and have your photograph taken, knock around with one of the leading figures in Dublin GAA, without understanding that this is going everywhere. And that's what he did. He used the occasion and he used the game to create a particular picture.
"[But] this was no mere act of propaganda on his behalf. This was a man who loved hurling and who played hurling. Collins emigrated to London in the early 1900s where he worked in a post-office. And when he was there, he did play hurling and he was the secretary of the GAA out there.
"So I think that really mattered. He had a love of the game. He wasn't just somebody who was using this as a photo opportunity, in the wake of the truce when things began to open up. It was a natural place for him."
Collins' nous with a hurl and sliotar was met with surprise.
"He was there with Harry Boland. Harry Boland was himself an intercounty hurler. He was Collins' close friend. He was hurler of some distinction, he was an official of Dublin GAA, and the two of them were pucking around the ball," Rouse continues.
"As the report of the Irish Independent said at the time, they were surprised that Collins was able to hit the ball the way he was, not knowing his past in the game in London. But with Boland there was no surprise that he was able to play. He was a fine hurler.
"It was a recasting of Collins in a different environment. This shadowy gunman, an elusive legend of Collins as a central person in the Irish War of Independence, that changed then."
A 'country' sport in the city
Those were heady days for Dublin hurling. Of the county's six All-Ireland hurling titles to date, four fell between 1917 and 1927.
Dublin's return to the sport's top table over the last decade or so has yet to yield a Liam MacCarthy Cup success. Mattie Kenny's charges are looking to correct that. And such a breakthrough in the coming years would be a Dublin victory achieved by Dubliners, in contrast to a century ago.
Playing against the Nore-side county from which he hailed in that 1921 Leinster final, Joseph Coyne was not alone on that team as a non-native of the capital. Remarkably, not one of the 1920 All-Ireland winning team was born in Dublin.
And that highlights the sport's journey in Dublin over the last 100 years.
"In the 1890s, the spread of soccer in the city was enormous. And rugby already held the middle classes, particularly in elite schools and certain commercial establishments," Rouse details.
"So the GAA was creating its own space in the city, and it was in a constant battle to do that. But to give you idea of the relative powers of the city, if you go back as far as 1902, there were more than 20 soccer pitches in the Phoenix Park and only two GAA ones. That was a consequence, not of any prejudice that anyone held, but of demand.
"[Hurling] was a 'country' game...I'm not saying that in a dismissive or derogatory way. There were plenty of Dublin people involved in hurling and Gaelic football at the time. Just the county team, the way it was at that elite level, involved country people living in the city.
"It's why Cuala's win in the [2017 and 2018] All-Ireland Club Championships was such a stunning one. It's why the great challenge for the current Dublin hurlers is to be a group of Dublin men to win an All-Ireland Hurling Championship. That has to be their challenge and has to be everything they're about."
100 years on from Dublin trumping Kilkenny in a Leinster final best remembered for reasons away from the action itself, the men from the capital will be hoping to repeat the result on Saturday evening to kickstart a new era of Sky Blue hurling success.