To coincide with the release by Offaly History Archives of a collection of Offaly GAA minute books and records (1906-1980), Dr Paul Rouse takes us through the history of the GAA in Offaly from its establishment in the county in the 1880s to the present day.
Without Gaelic games, there is nothing that unites Offaly. The county boundaries were first laid out in 1557 during the plantation of Leix-Offaly – but this was effectively a nominal administrative division that did not translate from maps, bore no relation to the divergent customs of the region and was largely ignored by the populace. Offaly sprawls across five Catholic dioceses and includes within its area, the ancient fiefdoms, or parts of fiefdoms, of a host of Gaelic chieftains. Even among the Anglo-Irish families there was no autonomous unifying force. The traditions in the Pale-influenced east of the county most likely varied from those of the more westerly parts. More recently, the manner in which the county has been sliced and re-sliced for the making and re-making of political constituencies for electoral purposes has underlined the manner in which the boundaries of Offaly are subject to alteration. Ultimately, there is little to bind together the county in terms of unifying history or geography. Indeed, even the name of Offaly has not been a constant: the original title of King’s County survived until the 1920s.
With borders of such artificial design, the importance of hurling and Gaelic football in shaping the identity of the county and in inspiring county loyalty is immense. On the one hand, there is the battle between the clubs of Offaly for supremacy within the county; on the other there is the communal banner that draws those clubs together in representing the county at provincial and national level.
It is, of course, more than a little ironic that it is Gaelic games that should have done so much to inspire county loyalties, given the artificial and alien influence on their creation. In Offaly – as in counties across Ireland – the potency of this loyalty is such that county boundaries are rarely breached in terms of affinity.
Gaelic games have prospered in Offaly since the 1880s. It is true that the initial decades brought repeated struggle to establish a solid structure for the development of the Association across the county, but there is no denying the passion for play which characterised competition for the county championships in hurling and in football – and the passion for representing the county on the inter-county stage.
For much of the GAA’s history, Offaly has not been successful on the national stage. A small county with a small population, for most of the first 80 years of the GAA’s history, Offaly stood far removed from the elite who dominated. Hurlers and footballers of the very highest order were routinely produced, but never enough at the same time to defeat the traditional powers.
Two junior hurling All-Irelands were won in the 1920s and an O’Byrne Cup (a secondary senior football competition in Leinster) was won in 1955, but before the 1960s no Leinster senior title was won.
This changed in the 1960s when two Leinster senior football titles were won, as was an All-Ireland minor title.
Then in 1971, the great dam burst: Offaly won the All-Ireland senior football title on a wet and windy September afternoon. As he raised the Sam Maguire in the Hogan Stand, the team captain Willie Bryan said: ‘This is the happiest moment of my life.’ Out on the field, Offaly men and women sang and danced in the rain.
The title was retained the following year, with victory over Kerry in a replay. Some of those players were still on the team in 1982 when Kerry were again beaten to win Offaly’s third and last All-Ireland title. That final – one of the most famous in history as Kerry were denied the five-in-a-row – marks the highpoint of Gaelic football in Offaly and is surely the most important one-in-a-row ever won!
By the time of that 1982 victory, Offaly had already won an All-Ireland hurling title the previous year. That 1981 success turned the hurling world on its head. Offaly had always been dismissed by hurling’s dominant counties who guarded their sanctuary with zealous devotion. But 1981 saw the overthrowing of that orthodoxy and that success was followed by another All-Ireland championship in 1985.
Both of those successes inspired a new generation of Offaly hurlers – now celebrated as one of the most stylish ever to play the game. They claimed further All-Irelands in 1994 and 1998.
If the last three decades of the twentieth century marks Offaly’s golden era, the new millennia has brought retreat to the margins. Offaly GAA has not managed to keep pace with the manner in which other counties have marshalled their resources. The county’s success was rooted in the development of an unrivalled underage structure and this can no longer be said. Nonetheless, the passion for play runs deeply in the county and while this passion survives, dreams of future glories are not unrealistic.
Paul Rouse, Sport and Ireland: A History, Oxford (2015)
Ciarán Reilly, Faithful Pioneers Offaly’s football breathrough 1960-1961, Naas (2011)
Paddy Fenning, Offaly The Faithful County, Sporting Memories, Ferbane (1993)