Wednesday 7 December 2016

Even in the most dire circumstances a young golfer was honing his swing

Historical records show that amidst the mayhem of the Easter Rising, golfing life continued

Dermot Gilleece

Published 28/02/2016 | 17:00

'As the only future head of Government in the first 44 years of this state's existence not to have played a prominent role in those momentous events, [John A] Costello is reported to have been playing golf when the Rising broke out' Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images
'As the only future head of Government in the first 44 years of this state's existence not to have played a prominent role in those momentous events, [John A] Costello is reported to have been playing golf when the Rising broke out' Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

When Joe Richardson hosted his captain's lunch at Howth GC last November, thoughts turned towards the club's centenary this year. It was the cue for guest speaker, Tim Nyhan, the captain of neighbouring Sutton GC, to draw charming word pictures of historic golf shots being struck on Easter Monday 1916, while shots of a more menacing nature reverberated through the streets of our capital city.

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At that early point in a momentous week, the golfing pioneers of Howth would have had no reason to suspect anything unusual, despite their elevated position on a peninsula eight miles north of the city. Indeed one could imagine their later bemusement at the antics of a would-be golfer observed in what is now O'Connell Street. A newspaper report of Saturday, April 29 informed us: "A boy with a hockey stick was seen playing with a golf ball in Sackville Street. When the ball disappeared, he searched the thoroughfare for it with a pair of field glasses. Each of these articles had been looted."

Though no store was identified, the varied nature of the sporting items suggests they were probably purloined from Elverys of Elephant House on the corner of Middle Abbey Street. Another report, titled "A Ragged Golfer", described the event as having happened at "the height of the revolt".

It informed its readers: "A young street arab in the usual ragged apparel, appeared from one of the looted premises with a pair of field glasses in case, flung across his shoulders and carrying a hockey stick."

It went on: "Taking a ball from his pocket, he, after the approved professional style, gave a few preliminary swings of the hockey club and then drove the ball along the road. Immediately whipping the field glasses from the case, he proceeded to coolly follow the course of the ball with their aid, much to the amusement of those who witnessed the incident."

Meanwhile, more orthodox golf from Easter Week 100 years ago, has been attributed to John A Costello, then a young man of 26. As the only future head of Government in the first 44 years of this state's existence not to have played a prominent role in those momentous events, Costello is reported to have been playing golf when the Rising broke out.

The scene of his activities is thought to have been Finglas GC - "within 10 minutes' walk of the Glasnevin tram" - which closed down at the end of 1916, owing to a greatly depleted membership. In the event, he apparently remained aggrieved some years later at having had his journey home interrupted by a roadblock.

This was the John A Costello who became captain of Portmarnock GC in 1947, a year before being installed as Taoiseach from 1948 to 1951. In fact he was a member of the club's committee for the staging of the British Amateur Championship in 1949, an event which became highly controversial after Costello had chosen to declare this country a Republic the previous autumn. He was also Taoiseach from 1954 to 1957.

An editorial in Irish Golf noted that he "never played golf except for the fun and exercise of it". The magazine then paid him a rather back-handed compliment by observing "when one has seen a golfer miss a shortish putt without thinking the world was collapsing, then one can have confidence in the new Taoiseach".

We're told that every Sunday for years, Costello played in the same fourball at Portmarnock with an old school friend, Dick Browne of the ESB, Dick Rice of the Revenue Commissioners and Seamus O'Connor, the Dublin City Sheriff.

In his seminal book, Early Irish Golf, Bill Gibson noted the general mood in Dublin a century ago, with young Irishmen heading in their thousands to do battle on the European continent. "No man feels exactly comfortable walking through the city with a big bag of clubs slung across his shoulder . . ." reported the magazine Irish Life.

Gibson, a retired Irish Army colonel, further reports that among the buildings destroyed in Sackville Street was No 7, where W Lawrence ran a photographic business. Many Irish golf clubs featured in the company's collection which is now in the National Library. We're told that Lawrence also dealt in golf equipment and that a hail of golf balls was seen coming from shop windows following an exchange of gunfire along Sackville Street.

Amid this mayhem, golfing life went on at Curragh GC where the club captain was Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Paget. Interestingly, Paget presented a silver cup which was left in a local jewellers for engraving before the British departed in 1922. It is now the only trophy which survived from that period and is played for annually by the current Royal Curragh members.

Meanwhile, in a more positive vein, Irish Life reported on a victory by an Irish golfer, albeit some distance from these shores.

The issue of August 25, 1916 informed its readers that Lt J Fielding of the 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers had won the Michelham Open Cup . . . "a valuable silver gilt trophy offered by Lord Michelham to British officers at the Michelham Convalescent Home at Cimiez, France . . ." Fielding was a 10-handicap member of Clontarf GC.

On the home front, it seems that the only rebel leader to have been killed in action during Easter Week was a golfer. From extensive research, Gibson is led to the conclusion that Michael Joseph O'Rahilly was a member of Castle GC when he was fatally wounded by machine-gun fire in Moore Street on Friday the 28th.

The minutes of a committee meeting at Castle on February 5, 1916 named "O'Rahilly" before continuing: "After some discussion, it was proposed by Mr Sinclair and seconded by Mr Grandy that an ordinary notice of renewal of subscription be sent." Michael O'Rahilly (1875-1916), was a prime mover in the formation of the Irish Volunteers in late 1913 and subsequently became Director of Arms of the Volunteers. He was in the GPO from the outset of the Rising.

By way of explaining "some discussion" by the committee, Gibson suggested: "They may have had information regarding his subversive activities but decided to permit him to renew his subscription."

Against this background, our Sackville Street "arab" apparently oblivious to events around him, has to be viewed as a source of welcome relief in otherwise dire circumstances.

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