He was at different times in his life a footballer, a balladeer, an actor, a public representative, a political activist and a guest of the nation. To the people of South Kildare George “Mossy” O’Reilly was as local as one can become. Yet he was a man apart, defined by his allegiances as were many others who took the same path at different times in Irish history.
About four years ago, conscious of Mossy’s unique talents as a balladeer, I encouraged him to put on tape the ballads which he had composed over the years. It was obviously a task he was reluctant to undertake but I persevered and gave him a tape recorder to encourage him. Time passed and as the years added up Mossy, possibly embarrassed at my persistent enquiries as to how the taping was progressing, eventually got down to the task. Just three months ago the completed tapes were given to me by Mossy. As I listened again last night to Mossy singing his own compositions I could not but smile at his spoken introduction where he claimed, “I would like to say that I have been forced at gunpoint to make this tape.”
I mentioned at the start of this piece that Mossy had once been a guest of the nation. If you are not familiar with the title of one of Frank O’Connor’s stories, it may be necessary to explain that Mossy spent time in prison for membership of the I.R.A. This was something which was well known to those who knew Mossy. Less well known however was the fact that he was imprisoned in Mountjoy for 31 days as a result of a conviction arising out of the aftermath of a football match between Athy and Castlemitchell in 1970. I had forgotten this and was only reminded of it when listening to Mossy’s tape. The first ballad he sang on tape concerned “the wrong I was done by a club called Athy”. Clearly the matter rankled with Mossy and throughout the ballad it was obvious that he felt he had been unfairly treated, both by officials of Athy G.F.C. and the courts.
“As I look back now I think once again
Of the games that we played against Grange and Rheban
Against Sarsfields and Towers how the fists they would fly
But still no one ever was sent to Mountjoy.”
Concluding the ballad Mossy named individuals he blamed for his incarceration in Mountjoy and expressed the view:
“Oh, as long as they live they’ll not look back with joy
On the day they swore lies to send me to Mountjoy.”
Perhaps the most famous and best known ballad associated with Mossy was “The Row in Athy”, the opening lines of which read:
“Oh one night in October in the streets of Athy
Sure a battle took place as I chanced to pass by
Some say that this battle started off in a pub
But sure I know it started in Athy Social Club.”
The narrative goes on for fourteen stanzas as the row progressed down Duke Street as far as Crom-a-boo Bridge where my late father features in the lines:
“So then Sergeant Taaffe leads his men up the street
And you’d swear it was Bulganin with his old Russian fleet
And they got into action with batons held high
But this mob beat them back down to Duke Street Athy.”
The year of the big row was 1957 and some, but not all of the participants ended up in the local District Court where:
“The Judge takes all in and he sits like a mute
And then passes sentence you can hear not a sound
Once he opens his mouth its six months or ten pounds.”
Perhaps one of Mossy’s earliest forays into the world of ballad making was the ballad he composed to mark Castlemitchell’s victory in the intermediate football final of 1953. Mossy was a member of that team which brought the first county championship to the Castlemitchell Club fourteen years after its foundation. Played in Newbridge on 18th October 1953 against Young Emmets the Castlemitchell team won on the score of 3-4 to 0-4. Their victory was marked by Mossy’s ballad in which he played tribute to his teammates. I’ll quote just one stanza from the 1953 victory song.
“Here’s to our three half forwards they starred on the day
Ed Conway was outstanding and a star was Paddy May
If they were in trouble they always thought to cross
To O’Reilly on the other wing who’s better known as Moss.”
Joe Bermingham was Secretary of Castlemitchell Football Club in that year, having taken over from founder member Jim Connor who had been club secretary from 1939 to 1952. Following a dispute Bermingham resigned from the club and started up a rival football team, St. Michael’s, which however was short-lived. Mossy O’Reilly took over as club secretary in 1954 and he remained in that position for the following nineteen years. As club secretary and a playing member of the club, Mossy played a vital role in the continuing success of Castlemitchell G.F.C. His footballing abilities were acknowledged by the County Board mentors when he was chosen to play for the County Kildare senior team which at different times featured his club teammates Jimmy Curtis, Peadar Dooley, Paddy Wright and Ned Conway.
Mossy was a long time member of the Republican Movement and for several years was on the run. This coincided with his time as a member of Athy Urban District Council and because he was unable to attend meetings he subsequently lost his seat on the Council. However, he was re-elected at the following local elections and fulfilled his role as a public representative for many years thereafter.
Mossy devoted his life to the cause of Irish Republicanism. In time that part of his life story may be told but for now we remember the man whose name in so many ways was synonymous with the small but vibrant community of Castlemitchell. Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.
Colm McNulty, back in Athy for a sabbatical year, from his teaching position in Wellington New Zealand is planning to lead a World War 1 battlefield and cemetery trip to France and Flanders next August. The seven day trip will take place from 6th to 12th August and presents an opportunity for Athy folk to visit the sites associated with the men from South Kildare who were involved in the 1914-18 war. Research has shown that more than 2000 men from Athy and district enlisted to fight in the First World War and I have identified 219 men from the same area who died during that war. In war graves throughout France and Flanders are buried the remains of many of those men. However, for many more the only record of their involvement are their names carved on memorials such as the Menin Gate and Thiepval memorial which records those killed in battle but whose bodies were never found.
There will be a maximum of 45 places available on the August trip so anyone interested should contact Colm McNulty immediately at Ph. (059) 8631089 or by logging on to his website leinsterww1tours.sitesled.com. I am told bookings will be made on a first come basis so prompt booking is essential if you would like to make this trip.