In the history of the GAA, there have been many dual players - those that have excelled at both hurling (or camogie) and football - but only 16 have received All-Ireland winners' medals in both codes. The most famous of these is Jack Lynch. Among the 15 others is the Galway player Leonard McGrath.
Earlier this year, McGrath's descendants decided to sell their uncle's GAA medals, with very little notion of what they might fetch at auction. "They knew that the gold value of the medals was between €3,000 and €4,000," says George Fonsie Mealy, auctioneer. "But they had no idea of the historical value of the collection."
It went under the hammer at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers on May 5, carrying an estimate of €15,000 to €20,000. It sold for €28,500.
Leonard McGrath (1899-1949) was born in Australia to Irish parents. His mother, having fallen on hard times, returned home with Leonard and his sibling, who were reared in Galway. McGrath played for Galway on the team that won the All-Ireland Hurling Championship of 1923. Two years later, he played on the team that saw Galway win its first All-Ireland Football Championship (1925 was a complicated year for football, with both Cavan and Kerry expelled due to ineligible players). In the same year, a second match, known as the Replacement All-Ireland was arranged to generate funds for the GAA. Galway won that too, with McGrath on the team. All three medals were included in the collection.
Given his remarkable success in both codes, you'd think that McGrath would be celebrated as one of our national sporting heroes. Instead, he's almost unknown. McGrath, who also played rugby, was a victim of Rule 27, also known as 'The Ban', which forbade any member of the GAA from playing or watching "rugby, football, hockey or any imported game which is calculated to injuriously affect our Native Pastimes". The rule was in force from 1905 to 1971. During that time, anyone who broke it was barred from the GAA. McGrath had played rugby on the Galwegians team that beat UCG in the 1926-27 season. As a result, he was banned from the GAA and never played either football or hurling again.
Maybe Rule 27 made sense at the time. In retrospect, it seems wrong on more levels than you could shake a stick at. "It was a damp stain on GAA history," says Fonsie Mealy. "The GAA is hugely important in Irish life. If you got that goal or made that save, there'd be glasses lifted to you all around the county. Now how many glasses have been lifted to Leonard McGrath. They had a hero, a wonderful sportsman in their midst, and they excommunicated him and wiped his name from the GAA annals."
McGrath, who lived his life as though he knew that it was going to be short, moved on to golf. He showed all the signs of developing a significant talent at the sport when he died unexpectedly at the age of 50. He was also a singer who used to compete in Feis Ceoil Festivals and the auction included a collection of musical scores, including 'The Rose of Tralee', 'Down By The Sally Gardens,' and 'The Green Hills Of Ireland'.
Professionally, he was a school teacher. "In the run-up to the auction, we got calls from about 10 of his past pupils asking about the medals," says Fonsie Mealy. Eventually, the collection sold to a man from Galway, living in the US, who hopes to make a documentary about McGrath.
"The buyer was like a kid in a candy shop. He was so delighted that he rang me five minutes after we closed the auction. Leonard McGrath was one of his heroes and his legacy had been buried. Now his integrity is protected ever after."
The auction at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers starts on July 7 at 12pm and ends on Wednesday, July 15, at 2pm. It includes a 1954 All-Ireland Hurling Final programme signed by Nicky Rackard of Wexford and Christy Ring of Cork (est €500 to €700). The auction also includes a number of unsigned programmes from the All-Ireland Hurling Finals of 1946, 1949, 1950 and 1952 (lower estimates range from €80 to €150).
"They're all collectable from a nostalgic point of view, but collectors often come looking for a better copy of one that they already have," Fonsie Mealy explains. "Maybe one that doesn't have the ring of a pint on it!"
Bidding on the summer online auction at Whyte’s continues until Monday, July 6, with the nostalgic ‘Claddagh Village’, 1928 (Lot 15: est €40,000 to €60,000) by Paul Henry anticipated as the highlight of the sale.
Other paintings of interest include ‘The Little Harbour, Annalong, Co Down’ (Lot 30: est €10,000 to €15,000) and ‘The Apprentice Clown’ (Lot 32: est €8,000 to €12,000), both by Daniel O’Neill and both from the estate of George and Maura McClelland; as well as the dynamic and unusual sporting scene, ‘Exercising The Greyhounds’, by William Connor, an artist best known for his depictions of everyday and working-class life in Belfast.
The sale includes two black and white illustrations by Harry Clarke: ‘The Sleeping Beauty In The Wood’, 1922 (Lot 152: est €4,000 to €6,000) and ‘Figures In Conversation’, 1914, (Lot 153: est €2,000 to €3,000). Both show his fine attention to detail.
There are several works in the sale by John Butler Yeats, including ‘In A Gondola’ (Lot 148: est €3,000 to €4,000). It is one of two works commissioned by the poet, Dr John Todhunter, and based on Robert Browning’s series of poems, ‘Bells And Pomegranates’; the other, ‘Pippa Passes’, is in The National Gallery of Ireland Collection.
Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers
An incunable, or incunabulum, is a book or document dating from the earliest years of European printing. One such, catalogued as “Duns Scotus Joannes: O’Fihely, Maurice Abp. Questiones subtilissme Scoti in metaphysicam Aristotelis Folio Venice (Octavianus Scoti) 20th November 1497. First Edn” is going under the hammer as part of the timed online July auction at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers (Lot 311: est €8,000 to €12,000). This edition of Duns Scotus’ work on Aristotle is considered to be a first edition of the first book by the first Irish author to write for the printing press rather than the scriptorium. The commentary, the major part of the text, is by Maurice O’Fihely, a Franciscan born in Baltimore, Co Cork.