Newry’s deep GAA roots, by Seán Ó Sirideán
Newry’s deep GAA roots.
Newry and the surrounding heartlands of south Down and south Armagh have and always will be a hotbed of Gaelic culture and tradition. From the famous footballers of Mayobridge and John Mitchels to the ever successful set dancers of Carrickcruppen, the Newry district stands out in its rich vein of talent within the association. It would be well to recall the fact, that fifty years ago, the pastimes of the Gael were threatened with extinction all over the country. The Statute of Kilkenny passed in 1367 which decreed that “the land of Ireland use not henceforth the game which men call hurlings, with great clubs at ball upon the ground.”
Perhaps not recognised fully throughout the island the social importance for the GAA remains curiously understated in general histories of modern Ireland but, not in Newry. The GAA has some 2,600 affiliated clubs dispersed across the island of Ireland with a further 242 clubs among the Irish Diaspora overseas. Its active adult membership was estimated in 2004 at circa 300,000, with more than twice that number estimated as membership and active supporters combined.
It has a larger membership than any other Irish sporting organisation, and its spread of membership across age groups and social classes is broader than any other sporting body. Over 40 per cent of all sports volunteers in Ireland are GAA volunteers, with a relatively high percentage of active women volunteers, not only in the separate organisations concerned with camogie and ladies football, but in the core organisation dealing with male sports. The GAA has played a vital role in keeping the tightly knitted communities of Newry together during some of the most harrowing years in our island’s recent past. Out of this background rose a strong, vibrant and energetic Gaelic spirit.
Looking back to the foundation of this rich heritage of Gaelic games in our frontier town we can trace that initial seed back to 1885, found on the Clanrye banks where we find a Gaelic football tournament that was arranged, the trophies being a set of crosses. Several districts presented teams including Newry with two teams – “the Emmett’s” and “the Stars,” – Sheepbridge, Edenmore, Warrenpoint, Mayobridge and the Lenish district near Kilcoo. Each team fielded 21 players. Although this tournament was “unofficial” in its organisation, it seemed to have been well conducted, though there were no rules to govern football at that time and such games were often dangerous.
The Warrenpoint team travelled by sidecar accompanied by a band
Edenmore and Warrenpoint teams qualified for the final as they finished the league with an equal number of points. The final was arranged to be played at Mayobridge, and the match resulted in a draw. The replay was fixed for the following Sunday – again at Mayobridge, where Warrenpoint emerged victorious by a five point margin. The Warrenpoint team on that occasion travelled by sidecar, and were accompanied by a band. On leaving Mayobridge the band played “The Boys of Wexford” and the team and supporters joined in the singing the chorus to the chagrin and discomfiture of the Boys of Edenmore.
A team was also functioning in the Burren district about this time also, and was known as “The Dreadnoughts” and for a number of years were as formidable as their name implied, although we can find no record of them participating in this tournament as a team, but some of them were assisting other teams during the competition. A team was also formed in Corrags and Ballyholland about 1887 and was known as the “Wolfe Tones.” Another combination formed in the same districts about this time was known as the “Hedge of Rats.” How they gave themselves such a title nobody can tell, but local tradition relates that their manner and methods were as unpleasant as the rodent after whom they were “christened.”
So, there you go folks. An insightful but brief history of our national pastimes in the Newry area. Get involved in your local club and keep the spirit of the Gael alive in the Newry area!
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