Followers of Gaelic games in Offaly will no doubt be familiar with Raheen’s G.A.A. grounds, just outside the village of Geashill. The grounds were once known as ‘The Lawn’ where stood the gate house to Alderborough house. In the early 1900s Alderborough house was the headquarters of the famous Reamsbottom garden nurseries, one of the largest in Europe and renowned worldwide for its anemones, the most famous of which was the St Bridget’s which won numerous prizes in shows such as the Chelsea Flower Show. At that time also a Gaelic football team trained and played their matches on the lawn and other fields in Geashill including P. Finlay’s field in Bawnmore, which became both feared and respected, not alone in Offaly but throughout Leinster.
The Geashill Defenders were one of the first ‘super stars’ of Gaelic football and were spoken of as one of the best teams in the country .Noted for their fitness and scientific way of playing the game, they were nicknamed the ‘Kings County Cracks’ and the Barony men and they dominated football in the period from 1901 to 1910. It was said of them later that they were one of the greatest combinations Offaly knew or ever will know and they played a wonderful part in the development of the G.A.A and its ideals in the county.
First affiliated in the early 1890s, like most teams of the time, their name may have had a nationalist link. Defenders were a Catholic protection organisation founded in the late 1700s in Armagh and later became linked to the United Irishmen and were involved in the 1798 rebellion or the name could have been a reference to the famous defence of Geashill castle by Lettice Digby in the face of a siege by the O’Dempseys.
An interesting obituary from the 1940s concerning Paddy Coughlan from Bawnmore states that he along with energetic Gaels such as Henry and Patsy Mallon, John J Guinan, Peter Dunne were earnest and consistent Gaels and that in a time when Geashill were champions of Offaly. John J. Guinan seems to have been one of the main driving forces of the Geashill club and was a leading figure on the county board of the time and was involved in organising many sports days in the area.
Geashill village was fortunate at the time to have the garden nursery which employed over one hundred workers and also Guinan’s sawmills which also had a large workforce. There was also work available on many of the large farms that surrounded the village. There are records from that period that show that there were many sports available to young people of the time in Geashill such as cricket, soccer and hockey which were played at Geashill castle.
Geashill village and Alderboro are remarked upon many times in reports on the games from the time with one noting the fields of multi-coloured anemones sweeping down to the road, another “prettily situated , the little village of Geashill , with its rose embowered cottages, home of the champion footballers of the Kings county”.
One report from 1904 on a Leinster championship game between Dublin and Kildare held in Geashill where the teams and supporters disembarked at Ard station and made their way to the game describes Geashill as a veritable flower garden in the middle of wilderness. These Leinster championship games which at different times included Offaly, Laois, Meath and most notably a Dublin Kildare Leinster final, must have brought great colour to the area and locals provided cars, carts and brakes to ferry supporters arriving at Ard station to the game on trains especially provided for the occasion. After the games Leinster council meetings would be held.
A report from the Leinster Express in 1908 described a game between Maryborough and Geashill which Geashill lost ‘Without a moments delay after the hurling match the Geashill and Maryborough teams entered the field and certainly they presented a pleasant sight, the green and white jerseys and white knickers of the former mingling with the red and green over white of the latter’.
With the County board being strongly influenced at various times by Killeigh Parish men such as Charles Doorley of Killeenmore and Fr. Maher of Killeigh. Maher was a noted promoter of hurling and often with his Killeigh hurling team went to tournaments to give displays of the scientific and artful game of hurling. Geashill soon formed their club and had both a senior and junior team . Legend has it that the men would assemble for training on the lawn in the evenings and practice until nightfall. People living at that time recalled workers from Alderboro nursery also had a football team and played the Defenders in challenge matches, defeating them on occasions.
Before Geashill affiliated the 1891 county final between Tullamore Volunteers and Rhode Croghan was held in Geashill on land lent for the day by Wm. Adams who at that time had land in Annaharvey, Meelaghans and Clonmore. Offaly G.A.A was in turmoil in the 1890s with many internal power struggles and also for a period not affiliated to the Leinster Council.
When Geashill first affiliated they entered a hurling team in the King’s County championship and the first mention of the Geashill football team was in 1896 in Killeigh at a tournament, where from early morning over 7,000 people arrived to see four matches. A tent was erected at one end of the field where the spectators were provided with food. The teams were led out by the Clara town band and the last event of the day was a football game between Killeigh and Geashill where Geashill scored a duck and Killeigh two points.
In 1898 a junior and senior football team along with a hurling team were affiliated with the hurling team losing out to Killoughy and the senior football team losing to Philipstown Mandevilles by one point where the play was not conducted very amicably and consequently one of the Philipstown team dislocated his shoulder.
Also in 1898 two tournaments were held in Geashill and Edenderry featuring the senior and junior teams of Geashill Defenders and Edenderry Boyle O’Reilly football teams. Firstly in Geashill ‘there was a large assembly present to witness football contests between the Edenderry and Geashill teams. The weather was all that could be desired and the young ladies turned out in full force to witness a fine display of prowess’. Geashill won the senior game by five points to two and the junior game was a scoreless draw.
For the return game in Edenderry the two Geashill teams along with seventy admirers arrived in Edenderry where they were met by a brass band belonging to the Edenderry Workmen’s club who escorted both teams playing ‘conquering hero comes’ to the club rooms where luncheon and refreshments were provided after which they proceeded to the scene of the contest. Geashill seniors won by four points to two but as light was fading the second game was abandoned.
‘After again being entertained by their friends the Geashill Gaels started for home amid the hearty cheering of their opponents. The utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed throughout the whole day’s proceedings’.
1899 saw Geashill’s first real run in the championship. In Spollenstown they faced Island of Rahan,
‘Between these teams very good play was exhibited. Geashill won the toss and played with the wind and shortly after the ball being thrown up succeded in placing one point to their credit. Two points followed in short time and at the whistle the score stood-
Geashill Defenders 5 points
Island of Rahan Nil
On entering the second half for a time the play was of an even character and continued so for about a quarter of an hour, when with a considerable amount of work Geashill rushed out a goal and followed their gain by keeping the leather in the Rahan territory for about ten minutes eventually succeeding in adding two more points to their score; Rahan then scored two points.
Result:- Geashill Defenders one goal seven points Island of Rahan two points.
Birr Emmets defeated Geashill in the semi-final and despite an objection lodged by Geashill on the grounds that one Birr player also played for Fortal hurling club.
1900 saw Geashill rather surprisingly crash out in the first round of the senior championship to eventual county champions Rhode in Philipstown
‘As usual in that part of the country, the match was viewed by an enormous an orderly gathering of spectators including a large proportion of feminine admirers of the game, but the downpour of the rain soon champed the ardour of the latter as well as their summer finery. The Geashill men seemed to be favourites but the Rhode men, if less scientific than their opponents showed more dash and stamina and all the efforts of the half score good players on the Geashill team were unavailing in averting defeat. For the at the final whistle the play stood
Rhode five points Geashill two points.
The Geashill team was Guinan [capt] Deigan, Kinahan, Warren, Hooper, Geogan, Lynch, Mullin, Gorry, Coylan, Conroy, Burke, Burnan , Forestal, Flattery, Bean, Connolly [goal].
A friendly match was arranged with neighbours Quarrymount Rangers, who were unlucky to lose out to Rhode that year, at Killeigh for silver medals valued at five pounds. This proved a stubborn contest but Geashill came out on top by seven points to two and this game seems to have been the turning point in Geashill’s fortunes.
Geashill hosted a Gaelic games tournament where Clara beat Philipstown in football Killoughey beat Killurin in hurling and Killeen from Laois beat Edenderry in football.
Geashill reached the 1901 senior county final where the faced Quarrymount in Clara. This Quarrymount team were noted for their size power and strength and used these assets well by defeating Geashill two goals and six points to two points and so became the first Killeigh parish team to win the Offaly senior football championship. But the Geashill defenders learned from this defeat and notably, in a tournament game defeated Geraldines of Dublin who were all Ireland champions and now for the next few years were set to dominate senior football in Offaly.
Geashill again met Quarrymount in the championship at Killeigh in 1902 ‘each of whom appeared eager and confident. At 3pm Quarrymount won the toss for the choice of ground which placed Geashill at a disadvantage , they having to play against a breeze with the sun in their face. However, with the skill evidenced at previous matches they succeeded at half time to pile up 8 points. Resuming play for the final Quarrymount pluckily sent the ball rolling, but their best efforts failed to invade their opponents territory. At the close referee Mr. J. Healy announced the score as Geashill 20 points Quarrymount nil. Our correspondent adds that during the day drunkenness prevailed and several exciting collisions occurred as to which more may be heard in Saturday’s court. Joseph Collins had to go to the infirmary owing to injuries to his head’. Indeed, the R.I.C had to be called as the trouble spilled over into the village and the public house.
Geashill reached the county final against Ferbane and this was played in Gurteen [Killeigh] along with the senior hurling final between Cadamstown and Gurteen. Cadamstown claimed the hurling title. Geashill beat Ferbane Rovers to claim their first senior football championship . This also enabled them to play in the Leinster championship. They were drew to play Mullingar young Irelands in the first round in Clara and the Westmeath Examiner’s report states that ‘On Sunday the Westmeath men left Mullingar by special train at 12 noon en route to Clara to meet the famous King County cracks. Our destination was soon reached and we were met by the band of the national foresters which led the way to the field of action about two miles distant. Each note of the music seemed to announce our coming defeat “as the march of _ “sounded the death knell of Napoleon’. Geashill won eight points to nil and defeated a fancied Bray Emmets team and then went on to lose to Louth in the semi-final.
They entered a Mountmellick Bazaar tournament in aid of repairs to the local church . In the semi-final they beat a Queen’s county team where Geashill’s superior training and skilful management secured victory. In the final they faced Killeen and with a few minutes remaining were leading when Killeen walked off the pitch and the referee awarded the game to Geashill. Killeen accused a Geashill player of kicking a Killeen player on the head. The result was upheld with Geashill now hailed as the best team in the King’s and Queen’s counties. The Geashill team were J. Guinan [capt], P and H Mallin ,J. Mulpeter , Connell , Cleary , P. and J. Coughlan , J. Hooper, J. Daly, J. Flaherty, J. and P. Dunne, J. Mahon , J. Lynch, J. Flanagan , J. Downes. And another player M. Corcoran broke his leg in a previous round.
In 1903 Offaly football championship Geashill faced Clara in the North Offaly final and ‘play commenced at four o clock, Clara playing with the wind. Up and down play was the rule of the game each scoring in turn what looked certain scores. Up to half time it was a pretty even match, Geashill turning over a couple of points ahead. On resuming play Clara lost all hope it would seem and but few of them gave their running, the remainder throwing up the sponge and a slow uninteresting half hour followed leaving Geashill easy winners . A strong Cloghan combination won the South Offaly championship and beat Geashill in the county final after a replay. Interestingly the gate receipts from the replay were given to the new church in Tullamore.
The Goodwin Cup
In 1904 Mr. G H Goodwin of the Provident insurance company donated a cup for competition for clubs from the counties of Longford, Meath, Westmeath, Offaly, Galway, Roscommon , Leitrim and Cavan . The cup and silver medals were said to be of artistic design. To enter the competition teams had to have represented their county in the provincial championships for three years out of five. This competition proved to be very popular this year with some clubs like Geashill deciding not to send players to the county teams . Geashill players were not present when the Queen’s county beat King’s in the Leinster championship by one goal and five points to two points. The majority of the matches for the Goodwin cup were to be played in Athlone and Longford.
Geashill defeated Galway in the competition and then faced Roscommon’s Elphin William O’ Brien’s in Mullingar where Geashill easily won by one goal and seven points to three points.
Cavan won the other semi-final and this Cavan team were also expected to do well in the Ulster championship and ‘in the horse show grounds in Mullingar the final was decided before a very large group of spectators. The Mullingar brass and reed band and Ballinagh brass band were in attendance. Cavan won the toss and played with a good breeze. King’s county was first away and pressed for some time. From a throw in King’s County put through a goal. Shortly afterwards Cavan with a good run on the right wing, sent in a minor. The game was now midfield till Cavan getting an opening again registered a point and each scored a further minor before half time. On resumption of play King’s County pressed and kept the ball in the Cavan territory for most of the period and scored thrice, during the remainder of time Cavan scored a minor.
Final score King’s County one goal and four points Cavan three points’.
The Anglo Celt reporter remarked that ‘After the match the King’s county men declared that they never played a game against a better set of backs . The feature of the game was the absence of argument or roughness notwithstanding that at times the play was of the fastest description, and it must be said of the Kings county men they took their victory very modestly, no bragging or boasting which so often gives rise to ill feeling. Some are of the opinion that a team could be got in the country to beat them but I doubt it’.
Mr G.H. Goodwin presented the cup and medals to Geashill which added to ‘an already significant haul of medals for the little country village team’.
The Geashill Defenders team on the day were H. Mallin, [capt.] P. Mallin, J.P. Mahon, J. Mulpete, R. Fitzpatrick ,B. O’ Neill, J. Dunne , P. Dunne , J. Dunne, P. Coughlan, J. Coughlan, P. Conroy , J. Flaherty , J. Hoey , J. Scully, M. Brazil, P. Bowe [ goal].
Our thanks to John Malone for keeping the flag flying in Ballinagar.