By Richard Commins
JUST over 100 years ago the world was dealing with the most devastating outbreak of disease in modern history, and Ireland was by no means immune.
The so-called Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people globally. To put that into context, that’s up to five times the numbers believed to have perished in World War I, which was nearing its conclusion when the epidemic reached these shores.
The disease struck 800,000 Irish people and over 23,000 died when it hit in three different phases, Spring of 1918, Autumn 1918 and early 1919.
Sport was severely disrupted. The GAA season effectively ground to a halt around June and aside from one or two games did not resume until October. Mass gatherings, including GAA games, were put on hold by the (British) government.
Curiously, young adult males were particularly susceptible to the disease and that, coupled with an absence of medics due to the ongoing war, heightened its impact.
The GAA didn’t necessarily take General Shaw’s prohibition on games lying down, and Gaelic Sunday was organised for the 4th of August, with an estimated 50,000 people playing our games across the country in a peaceful act of defiance.
Kildare’s championship was disrupted even before the shut-down intervened. Their first-round encounter with Leix was abandoned after the one ball provided by the Leinster Council burst before throw-in.
Attempts to repair it failed but another ball was procured locally in Maryborough (Portlaoise). Sadly, this one disintegrated after 10 minutes and the match abandoned. Different times.
The game was played a few weeks later on 30 June and Kildare prevailed 2-2 to 0-3 to qualify for a quarter-final against Westmeath.
That game didn’t go ahead for four months. What was described as a large crowd of 3,000 at Croke Park saw Kildare comfortable winners by 4-2 to 0-3.
Kildare thus qualified to play Louth in the Leinster semi-final but the Wee County had other things on their mind as they had been selected to represent Leinster in the All Ireland semi-final on 20 October.
Presumably that was due to Wexford (who were going for four All Irelands in row had already qualified for the Leinster final), being unavailable due to the epidemic.
Louth beat Cavan in the All Ireland semi-final and a week later were back in Leinster action against Kildare. Once more their talented outfit prevailed on a 0-7 to 0-1 scoreline, although it was a sign of the times that Kildare could not field six of their selected 15 while Louth were missing four.
Louth were now in both the Leinster and All Ireland finals but with the second wave of the flu epidemic (the most potent one as it turned out) hitting Ireland, there was another two month gap to the Leinster final played on New Year’s Day 1919.
Wexford’s win by 2-5 to 1-4 gave the GAA a major conundrum. Should they allow Louth to proceed and take on Tipperary in the All Ireland final and deny Wexford the chance to secure a first four-in-a-row in history?
Louth might disagree but fairness prevailed and the Slaneysiders took Louth’s place in the final to be played on 16 February 1919. In front of 12,000 in a tight encounter they prevailed over Tipp by 0-5 to 0-4.
Of course, most Kildare fans will know there were two All-Ireland champions crowned in football in 1919 as the Lilywhites replaced Wexford as Leinster champions that summer and went on to claim the national prize for the second time.
It was actually Dublin who ended Wexford’s six year reign in Leinster though, beating them in the semi-final. By common consent, Wexford were out on their feet by that stage having just clinched the All Ireland a few months previously.
Let’s hope the current pandemic doesn’t cost as many lives as that one did and that the sporting disruption doesn’t last quite so long. That said, there’s a certain attraction in the Leinster champions being selected in the committee room rather than on the field.