It’s funny the way things go.
Earlier this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic had wiped all live sporting activity, as well as so much more besides, from the map, I went scrabbling for the record books to see if I could find a comparable year, one in which the Championship hadn’t been contested.
I had to go back all the way to 1888 but, although it wasn’t a perfect fit, that year sufficed for my purposes, as the GAA’s official records show no Championship took place at all that year. I wrote about that here.
I was, though – as I often am – wide of the mark. The Championship did get going this year, albeit very belatedly, and as it has developed another year of historical significance has come into view. That year is 1920.
It’s hugely appropriate that both Dublin and Tipperary would make the last four in the year in which the centenary of Bloody Sunday is commemorated. You wouldn’t, though, have put money on this happening even a few short weeks ago and the notion that this year’s final four would be the same as a hundred years ago was even more fanciful.
But that’s where we’ve ended up. Not only that but the semi-final pairings are the same too, with Leinster champions Dublin facing Ulster kingpins Cavan, while Tipperary, top dogs in Munster, are paired with ourselves, the main men in the west.
So to celebrate this eerie historical parallel, it’s worth looking back at the 1920 Championship, in particular from our perspective, if only to doff our metaphorical hats at those long-gone ancestors of ours who once graced the playing fields representing their counties as they strove for national success.
Our 1920 Championship run started in Castlerea in July that year when we faced Galway in the Connacht semi-final. Castlerea was a popular venue for Championship matches in those times, which is explained by the fact that the town was – and still is – on the rail line and that’s how most supporters got to matches back then, with the rail company laying on special trains for the occasion.
We beat Galway in that semi-final by 2-4 to 0-3. The brief report on the game in the Irish Independent the following day stated that “after a wet morning the afternoon turned out ideal” and the game was played in front of “an immense crowd of supporters.” Playing against the wind in the first half we led at the break by 2-1 to 0-1 and then, with the wind at our backs in the second half, we “won readily” to qualify for the Connacht final.
That provincial decider took place a month later at the same venue, with Sligo providing the opposition. This was another low-scoring encounter – as matches tended to be in those times – which we won by 2-3 to 1-4.
According to the Irish Independent match report, the final was played in “fine weather” before “a large crowd” and it was “an exciting one from start to finish.” We took a four-point lead into half-time but there was only two points between the sides at the finish.
So we were in the All-Ireland semi-final but we were left to kick our heels there for close on two years. Delays in completing Championships were common in those times and the situation was exacerbated by the turmoil created by the War of Independence. That match against Galway, by the way, was played the same week that Tuam was torched by Crown forces after two RIC men had been shot dead in an ambush near Dunmore.
The following weekend in front of what The Freeman’s Journal headlined “huge crowds” at Croke Park, where the attendance was described as “under or over 30,000”, Dublin dethroned All-Ireland champions Kildare to win their first Leinster title since 1908 on a scoreline of 1-3 to 0-3.
Cavan had by then been crowned Ulster champions. They beat Armagh in the provincial final at Cootehill on 8th August and a decisive victory it was too as the Breffni County won out by 4-6 to 1-4. The match report in the Anglo-Celt newspaper noted that the heavy rain the previous night “left the roads in anything but tempting form for cyclists” and that because of this very few “knights of the wheel” showed up for the game, which the home side won with plenty to spare.
Tipperary, meanwhile, took three runs at Clare that summer before finally getting by them on the 15th of August but it wasn’t until the first half of 1922 that the 1920 Munster final was eventually concluded. Tipperary beat Waterford in the semi-final in February that year, winning by 3-4 to 0-1 at Dungarvan, before accounting for Kerry in the final, where at the Cork Athletic Grounds they won by 2-2 to 0-2.
This meant that Dublin were left waiting for over eighteen months before finding out who they’d be paired with in the 1920 All-Ireland final. Their semi-final, against Cavan, was played at the Navan Show Grounds on 26th September 1920 where Dublin emerged with a 3-6 to 1-3 win. According to the Irish Independent, the victors “played a right good game throughout, always held the upper hand and won by a good margin.”
1921 was an extremely turbulent time in the country, as the War of Independence raged on until the Truce was declared in July. Then, following the Treaty negotiations, independence was achieved via the formation of the Irish Free State, but at the cost of the partition of the island as those on opposing sides of the Anglo-Irish Treaty drifted ever closer to the Civil War that would break out the following summer.
We only played one inter-county match in the whole of 1921, a Connacht Championship clash with Roscommon in November that we won handily. That was in the 1921 Championship, which wasn’t concluded until 1923. Indeed, in that 1921 Connacht Championship, as well as the game against Roscommon (played in 1921) we played Galway in 1922 and then played Sligo in the final in 1923.
We reached the All-Ireland final of the 1921 Championship, having been given a walkover by Tipperary in the semi-final. Dublin beat us in the final of that Championship, a match played in Croke Park in June 1923. The photo at the top is of that 1921 Mayo team.
But that’s all by the by. Let’s get back to the 1920 Championship but it’s 1922 we’re getting back to, as Tipp were now the Munster champions and we had a Croke Park date with them on 7th May that year in the All-Ireland semi-final.
We were no match for them in that game, as the Premier County – who lined out in white with a green hoop, as they also did in the final the following month – beat us by 1-5 to 1-0. According to the Freeman’s Journal, “speed and stamina” decided the contest in Tipperary’s favour.
The Munster champions got a glowing write-up in that match report, where it was stated that “as the game progressed, their supremacy grew more and more marked.” Our performance drew a less flattering description as it was said that we “fell away palpably – losing speed and combination in every department.” Ouch.
So that was the end of the line for us in the long-running 1920 Championship, which eventually reached its conclusion at Croke Park on 11th June 1922. That final was contested by Dublin and Tipperary, the same two counties who’d lined out to play a challenge game at Croke Park on 21st November 1920, a day known forever since as Bloody Sunday.
Tipperary came out on top in that 1920 decider, winning by 1-6 to 1-2. It was their fourth All-Ireland title success from just five final appearances. It was also the most recent time they’ve made it to a football Championship decider.
Tipp have already closed a long gap this year by winning the Munster football title for the first time in 85 years but when they face us on Sunday next they’ll be bidding to reach their first All-Ireland final in a full century. Well, a bit over 98 years if you count from when the 1920 final was actually played.