‘They have done us proud’. The words of an 85 year old, soon after news reached him of the defeat of Athy’s senior team in last week’s Leinster Championship semi final. The young men who comprise the Gaelic football panel for Athy Gaelic Football Club have indeed brought honour and pride to the South Kildare town. Their success in the Kildare Senior Championship, the first for Athy in 24 years, brought to mind the glory days of the 1930s and the early 1940s when the Athy club strode like a colossus through the rough and tumble of the short grass county footballing scene.
The first senior county final contested by the Athy club, was the 1923 final which was played in Newbridge on 4th May 1924. The opposing team was from the county town of Naas and the injury hit Athy team failed to score, leaving Naas to run out easy winners.
I had the privilege of interviewing in 1990 the last surviving member of the 1923 Athy team, Castledermot native Tom Forrestal when Tom was 93 years of age. His team mates on that day included the legendary Eddie ‘Sapper’ O’Neill who later emigrated to New York where he captained the New York team which defeated the 1926 All Ireland champions Kerry in the first ever international Gaelic football match. The emigration boat also took to America some other members of the Athy team, including Mick ‘Myra’ Grant, Mick Mahon and George Dowling. Mick Mahon is the only Athy club player ever to win an All Ireland medal which he got as a sub on the 1927 team when Kildare defeated arch rivals Kerry.
Athy G.F.C. lost two senior football finals in 1927. The first defeat was inflicted by Caragh, to whom Athy lost by one point in a high scoring game. This was the 1926 senior final which was played on 27th March 1927. Just six months later Athy lost the 1927 final to Kildare town. Six years would pass before the club which was founded in 1887 would have the opportunity to win its very first senior title.
That win came in 1933 and was followed a year later by a second senior title. The Athy team featured such great players as Paul Matthews, Tommy Mulhall and Barney Dunne. Three years later Athy won the 1937 senior title, with Paul Matthews and Tommy Mulhall again to the fore. Several newcomers were included on the team, including Tommy Buggy, Jim Birney, the Murray brothers Matt and Lar and the man regarded as the finest footballer ever to have played with Athy, George Comerford.
The success of the 1930s was not quite matched in the following decade when Athy’s only senior final success came in 1942. The peerless Paul Matthews who had captained the Kildare county team in the 1935 All Ireland was still a playing member of the Athy team which was defeated in the 1941 senior final. The victors on that occasion were Carbury against whom Athy exacted revenge when winning the following year’s final. That was the last Athy winning team until 1987, and signalled the final appearance in a county final of long serving players such as Paul Mathews and Barney Dunne.
The success of this year’s team has given an enormous boost to the South Kildare club and the young stars of the team give hope of further continuing success over the next few years. The townspeople responded wonderfully to the team’s successful run in the Kildare championship and the subsequent Leinster club championships. The celebrations in the flag bedecked streets of Athy contrasted with the public’s apparent indifference to the club’s success in the 1930s. I remember Barney Dunne once telling me of the championship winning teams returning home to Athy, and the absence of any public acknowledgement of their success as county champions. It was I felt a matter of regret, not just for Barney, but also his team mates who would have wished to share their success with the townspeople whom they represented on the playing fields.
This year’s team can have no such regrets. Their success has brought glory and honour to Athy and to their club. In years to come someone else’s pen will no doubt write of the footballing exploits of the men in red who in 2011 blazed a trail of success across Kildare county before venturing further afield into the hitherto unknown realm of Leinster football.