The Early Years of the GAA in Ballinrobe: Part 1

NUI Galway Digital Collections, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Amateur Athletic Association, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest accounts of Gaelic football matches involving Ballinrobe were a match between Ballinrobe and Towerhill (Carnacon) in 1886 and between Ballinrobe and Balla in 1887. Interestingly, for the first leg of the Ballinrobe versus Balla match, the teams agreed to change sides each half hour and to use foot only for each alternative half hour and hand and foot for the other half. The match, as a result, would have been a hybrid of Gaelic football and Association football (soccer). For the return leg, the teams agreed to play for two hours under Association rules, but the final score was noted as one goal and two points to Balla to no score for Ballinrobe. ‘Football’ and the codes surrounding it were evidentially still in their infancy with much fluidity in the interpretation locally.

Establishing the Club

In November 1888 – just four years after the GAA was established – a group of shop assistants held a meeting in Ballinrobe to set up a GAA club here. Officers were elected and subscriptions paid. The officers elected were: Glynn (captain), P. Browne (treasurer), P. Nealon (secretary), with committee members Forde, Morris, McGinnis, Michael Browne, Martin Browne, Connor and Jennings. The subscription rate was two shillings for a senior member, with an additional six pence to be paid monthly. Apprentices could join as junior members for a reduced fee of one shilling entrance and three pence monthly.

Following the establishment of the GAA club, little mention is made of it in the years that immediately follow. In March 1890, the juvenile team took part in a county competition, then no further reports were found until February 1893 when the juvenile team were again in action, this time against Westport. That match, played in Ballinrobe, was the first match of the season and attracted a large crowd of spectators.

A factor in the apparently slow start for the GAA club may have been the relatively temporary residency of shop assistants in the town, with four of five shop assistants identified in the 1901 census leaving town by 1911. Indeed only three of the founding committee of 1888 appear to still be in the town as shopkeepers in 1901 – Morris, Browne and Jennings. The lack of GAA activity in Ballinrobe over this period was also experienced by other clubs in Mayo. By 1891, the number of clubs in the county had dropped from thirty down to three. The Kilmeena Club history describes the scene at the time:

In the latter years of the 19th century, the GAA was almost extinct in Mayo, and there was little or no coverage in the papers. Much bickering between clubs and individuals, bad organisation and the domination of one or two larger clubs was evident… By the turn of the century, political bitterness was petering out and the influence of the Gaelic League, which was committed to the revival of “teanga ar sinsear”, gave an added impetus to reviving the GAA[1]

Athletic Sports Days

But while footballing activity was scare in the 1890s and early 1900s, another great focus of the GAA – the Athletic Sports Day – was at its peak. Occasional Sports Days had taken place since the 1870s, but became a regular feature during this period. Sports Days were held in September 1895, August 1896, August 1897 and July 1899, under Irish Cricket Association (ICA) and Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA) rules. These events appear to have been much anticipated and well supported, with large entries for races including a number of prominent athletes. Music was provided by the Connaught Rangers band (Castlebar) and the day in 1895 was brought to a close with a fireworks display.

By 1901, the annual Cycling and Athletic Sports day was run under GAA and ICA rules. This was fifteen years after a ruling from the GAA that all athletics meetings should be held under its rules and that any competitor competing under IAAA rules should be banned from competing elsewhere. While the affiliation may have changed, in every other manner the day was virtually unchanged. All but three of the eleven-man committee of 1899 remained in charge of events in 1901. Further Sports Days followed in 1902, 1903 and 1904 but, as seen elsewhere, athletics was overshadowed by the popularity of football and disappeared from the scene in Ballinrobe.

[1] Walter Cox (ed), A history of Kilmeena GAA club, 1889-1989 (Kilmeena, 1990) p. 12.

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