Twelve years ago I interviewed Tom Forrestal of Castledermot who at 92 years of age was then the sole surviving member of Athy’s Senior Football team which lost the 1923 County Final to Naas. That final, played in Newbridge on 4th May 1924, was the first contested by an Athy team and resulted in a victory for Naas on the score of 2-5 to 0-0. The scoreline probably justified the report of a local newspaper which noted :- “The performance of the Athy Jazz Band which paraded in fancy dress before the match was more memorable than that of the injury hit Athy football team”.
Tom Forrestal was one of two Castledermot men on that team, the other being Paddy Hayden. Also players with Athy were Rheban brothers Tom and John Moore, while the “townies” included Eddie “Sapper” O’Neill, Chris Lawler, Dan “Comprey” Nolan, Jim Clancy, “Little” Johnny Kelly, Pat Brogan, Tom “Golly” Germaine, George Dowling, Mick Grant, Mick Mahon and Mick Byrne.
The Senior team of 1923 was not the first of Athy’s footballing heroes. That honour went to the Athy Junior Football team which won the 1907 final when it was re-played on 14th February, 1909. The Junior Cup was the first piece of silverware won by the Athy Gaelic Football Club but even in victory the junior players were to be disappointed when told that the County Board finances did not extend to the purchase of medals. That omission was finally corrected in 1927 when the Kildare County Board gave the outstanding medals to the Athy Club. They were later presented to the members of the 1907 final team at a function in the Urban District Council Offices in the local Town Hall. The team captain, John Lawler of St. Martin’s Terrace, was the first to receive his medal and he was then followed by those of his team mates who had survived the Great War, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Robert McWilliams was not there. He had enlisted in the Leinster Regiment during World War I and was killed in action in France on 9th September, 1916. Jim May had died as a result of a fall from a roof and his eight year old son Tom received his medal. Christy Farrell was also dead, while Mick Gibbons had emigrated to America. Mick “Major” Toomey stepped forward to receive his medal and was visibly affected by the occasion. Everyone in the room that night could not but be moved by the sight of the man who since his days of glory on the football field had lost a leg in a World War I battlefield. Now he walked with the aid of two wooden crutches.
I have attempted for years to positively identify the members of that successful 1907 Athy Junior Team and while I have collected the following names I cannot be confident that the list is accurate. Maybe my readers can help in confirming the composition of Athy’s first successful Gaelic football team from the names which I have noted as Ned Harkins, Jim May, John Lawler, Ned Lawler, Jack Kelly, Michael Malone, Christy Walsh, Dan Harkins, Mick Gibbons, Jim McArdle, Willie Mahon, Mert Hayden, Christy Farrell, Robert McWilliams and Mick Toomey.
Another presentation was made on a Friday night in October 1927 when Athy Gaelic Football Club members gathered to honour a prominent club member who was emigrating to America the following day. Mick Mahon was an outstanding minor footballer who had few equals on the field of play. He progressed to the senior team and played for Athy when it lost the 1923 senior championship final. He also played on the losing Athy team in the 1926 senior final and just a week before he emigrated to America he again featured on the Athy team which lost the 1927 senior final to Kildare town. Mick Mahon later played for New York and with him on that team was another former Athy player Eddie “Sapper” O’Neill. Mahon subsequently returned to Ireland and played for the senior county team, winning a Leinster final medal in 1931. It has been suggested that he was the first Athy club player to win an All-Ireland medal, but I have been unable as yet to confirm that fact.
Emigration took a heavy toll on Athy Gaelic football teams during the 1920’s and apart from Mick Mahon and Eddie “Sapper” O’Neill, other fine players to emigrate included Paddy Farrell, Myra Grant, George Dowling, Tom Blanchfield and Frank Lambe. I recall the late Ned Cranny recounting the “send off” given to Eddie “Sapper” O’Neill and Myra Grant in 1924 as they started the long journey to America. Eddie and Myra were star players for the local club and as they set out from home hundreds of local people turned out to wish them well as they paraded behind the local band which played them to the railway station. Eddie O’Neill would later return to Ireland but Myra Grant I understand lived out the rest of his life in America. Another former club player who never returned to Ireland was Frank Lambe whom I believe emigrated in 1923. Last week his daughter Anna Marie Lynch from New York called on me with her son Sean and daughter Colleen to check on her late father’s family. With her she brought an old silver medal which had been her father’s treasured possession . On the reverse side of the medal was an inscription “Senior Tournament Athy G.F.C. Frank Lambe”. This was a medal won by Frank as a member of Athy senior team in a club tournament held before 1923. It was the oldest local GAA medal I have yet seen and I had the pleasure of showing it at a recent club presentation to the two oldest members of Athy Gaelic Football Club.
More about those two men, one a remarkably successful Club player, the other a Club administrator for over 60 years in next weeks Eye on the Past. Incidentally I would like to hear from anyone who can give me background information on Frank Lambe and his family.