The first All-Ireland football final was played in 1887 but, it took sixteen years for Kerry to win their first title in 1903. By then, Dublin had won eight finals and within forty years Kerry had surpassed them, and now hold a comfortable lead. For the first twenty years club teams represented their respective counties after winning the county championship in the All-Ireland series. Kerry’s first All-Ireland championship was in 1892 when the Laune Rangers, captained by J.P. O’Sullivan were beaten by Dublin in a controversial final. Football participation in Kerry declined in the 1890s because of economic depression, mass emigration and young men playing “foreign games”. But in 1903 an effort was made in the county to revive gaelic football. Kerry player and secretary of the county board Austin Stack suggested that the county team shouldn’t be just club representatives and said they should select the best players in the county. So the 1903 team comprised of 8 players from the strong Tralee Mitchels club, 6 from Dr Crokes, 2 Castleisland and 1 from Cahirsiveen. For the 1903 season there were 17 players on a team, whereas before 1892 a team had 21 players and in 1913 the number on a team was reduced to 15 players. Kerry began their championship run in June 1903 by beating Waterford, Clare and Cork to win their second Munster final 1-7 to 0-4 in October. In the semi-final Kerry easily beat Mayo 2-7 to 0-4 to advance to the “Home Final”.
July 23, 1905 saw the first of a three game epic All-Ireland final with Kildare in Thurles. Unfortunately this game did not finish after Kerry supporters invaded the pitch before the end of the game and it had to be replayed. These games were an instant success attracting huge numbers to witness fast, skillful, and attractive football. The replay was a titanic battle fought on the hallowed turf of the Athletic Grounds in Cork on August 27, 1905. A record 12,000 fans watched as it ended in a draw. The third and deciding game on the banks of the Lee was played on Oct 15, 1905. The Kerry team was the comfortable winner of the Home Final with a score of 8-2 over Kildare. The game was enjoyed by over 20,000 fans and the GAA was now coming of age. In the early 1900s there was an Away Final. The All-Ireland champions played the All-England champions. The English football representatives were London Hibernians captained by Sam Maguire. The game was played in Jones Road now Croke Park on November 12, 1905. 10,000 watched as John McCarty of Kilkenny refereed the game. Kerry won 11-3 for their first All-Ireland senior football championship. Kerry played four games to get to the final and played four All-Ireland finals to decide the eventual winners. Kerry, captained by Austin Stack, beat Dublin in the All-Ireland championship in July 1906. It was Kerry’s first time beating Dublin in championship football. Kildare won the final in June 1907, taking another two years to run off the championship. In the 1905 final, Kerry wore red jerseys with green cuffs and green collars, the colours of Tralee Mitchels. Kildare, the Lily Whites, wore their traditional all white uniform. They even painted their boots white.
The captain of the 1903 Kerry team was Thady Gorman Tralee and he played along side his twin brother James, they were the first twins to play in an All-Ireland final. J.P. O’Sullivan was the trainer of that Kerry team, which included the great Dick Fitzgerald after whom the stadium in Killarney is named for. Also on that team was Austin Stack whose name was given to the stadium in Tralee and at the Killorglin football field there is a monument dedicated to J.P. O’Sullivan. This is great recognition for three great men who were essential to the team that won Kerry its first All-Ireland title. The Kildare players were recognised by the Central Council of the GAA and were presented with a set of gold medals in recognition of these three encounters with Kerry. Sam Maguire, who played with London in the Away Final in 1903, died in 1927 and is remembered as the eponym of the Sam Maguire Cup, given to the All-Ireland Senior Champions of Gaelic football. Sam was first presented to All-Ireland football winners Kildare in 1928. More about Sam Maguire can be found on his wikipedia page.
No big trophies in 1903 but, your first win is special, so these trailblazers, pioneers and ground breakers take a special place in football history. It is important that we do not allow Kerry’s first All-Ireland victory to be lost in the realms of mythology. Ciarrai Abu!
We salute the team of 1903: T Gorman (Captain), J. Gorman, D. Curran, M. McCarty, J. Buckley, C. Healy. J.T. Fitzgerald, A. Stack, D. Fitzgerald, P. Dillon, W. Lynch, D.McCarty, J. Myers, D. Kissane, D. Breen, F. O’Sullivan and from Renard Point in Cahirsiveen, E. J. O’Neill.
Here is an extract from a poem written in praise of our 1903 team.
They conquered brave Limerick, Tipperary and Clare,Anon
The boys of old Cork and Waterford fair,
And they dealt a hard blow to the men of Kildare,
And to the exiles of London who came.
They are champions of Leinster and Ulster we know,
They are champions of Ireland wherever they go.
“Up Kerry” is true to their name.