Joe Martin’s parting gift to Tyrone GAA

TYRONE GAA fans, take note: at the annual County Convention on December 12, the fifth and final volume of the late Joe Martin’s acclaimed ‘The GAA in Tyrone’ history series will be officially unveiled.

Entitled ‘Memories: 1900-56’, the book is a miscellany of fascinating stories, historical research and interview material. To say this is a treasure trove would be to put it very mildly indeed.

And a quick trawl through the chapter list (there’s 32 in total) will give you some idea of the range of material here.

Chapter Three is a contemporary match report report on Tyrone’s historic first-ever Ulster Championship triumph by the renowned Omagh-born writer Benedict Kiely, alongside an extract from his memoir.

Chapter Seven is a newly published interview with Tommy Tierney from Donaghmore, who played in the 1906 county final.

Chapter 15 is the story of how Carrickmore man Pat McCartan commissioned and bought Gaelic football’s most revered prize, the Sam Maguire. Then in the following chapter, Beragh architect Des McMahon, who designed the modern Croke Park, draws on his late father’s recollections of the violent events in the same stadium in 1920.

The book reaches a crescendo with one of Joe Martin’s last major pieces of historical research, highlighting the efforts across the county to revive Irish language and sport in the early 20th century.

We could go on and on – it really is a wonder. Then there’s the very fact of the book’s publication, that it’s even seeing the light of day in the first place.

Joe Martin, who was regarded as one of the foremost historians in the GAA, passed away in August after a battle with illness at the age of 84.

He was determined to leave one last parting gift to Tyrone fans having assembled a ream of material over the years that wasn’t included in his previous volumes of the ground-breaking ‘The GAA in Tyrone’ series, the last of which was published in 2021.

Joe himself acknowledged in his first volume back in 1984 that “it has not been possible to record the anecdotes recalled with joy or sorrow, the little incidents on the field of play or at the committee meeting which are the very stuff of history.”

It was imperative that the material wouldn’t be lost to the sands of time and he worked steadfastly to ensure this latest collection would be finished before he met his eternal rest.

That he managed to do so was a monumental accomplishment in the circumstances and his son Ciaran explains that Joe felt a ‘duty’ to get his final work across the line.

“I think he felt a duty to make that one final contribution to the history of Tyrone GAA. He always intended on returning to the material he’d unearthed from the very early years and he wanted to make sure it was safeguarded for posterity.

“He wrote a very fast and furious pace throughout the early months of 2022, he sped up as he knew his condition was going to worsen. He was very meticulous, even when he was too ill to get out of bed it was still very much on his mind.

“By early summer of this year he had it pretty much all done but he still sent members of the family to Coalisland to check up on a couple of facts! But he basically left us a full and complete draft, all we had to do was make a few edits.”

Ciaran continued: “He was enormously proud of this book and he kept asking people close to him in his final months if they’d had a chance to have a look at it – like any writer he wanted to know if they thought it was good.

“Dad was doing something different here – there’s more flair and exuberance than in his previous books and he knew that and was nervous about it. But I think he’d be proud and very pleased that the public will get a chance to read it.”

The book will be officially released on December 12 at the County Convention. It’s a particularly proud moment for his family having promised Joe that the book would hit the shelves before Christmas.

Ciaran said: “He always wanted to get the books out before Christmas so we promised him we’d get it out in time. Ecclesville of Fintona have been incredible in that regard and we couldn’t have asked for more. We gave them a tall order of getting the book out before Christmas and the county board have been very supportive in that regard as well.”

The book captures the soul of the early GAA in Tyrone and the people who sustained it in tumultuous times when its very existence was called into question. At the same time there’s humour to be found, as Ciaran explains.

“There’s a bit about the 1920 county final when a fella was asked why was he playing in goals when he was normally in midfield and he said ‘ach, the goalkeeper was drunk.’

“There’s a real goldmine of stuff there. There’s an interview with the great Eddie Devlin that talks about the time he was kicked off Ulster’s Railway Cup team because they thought he’d been at an Ireland Rugby International at Lansdowne Road at the time of the ban, but he was actually just walking by because he was a student in Dublin.

“It includes all these things that didn’t really fit into the rigid structure of his previous books, he didn’t feel it was appropriate but he recognised that there was some really good stuff that would be lost otherwise.

“He’s got a collection of books that are going to the Cardinal O’Fiaich Library in Armagh, he was Joe’s tutor when he was young, and the papers he has will go to Garvaghey, we’re going to make arrangements for that in 2024. He’s basically summarised all those papers for this book, it’s a miscellany all the way through to Tyrone’s first ever Ulster Championship in 1956.”

In the final chapter, Joe explores the role of the Gaelic League in Tyrone with a particular emphasis on Trillick, which Ciaran describes as “one of the major centres of cultural Irishness in Ireland.”

“Trillick has a history programme that Joe was very keen on and in 2016 they asked him to give a lecture on GAA and the Gaelic League.

“There was a man called Fr Matt Maguire who was parish priest of Trillick from 1906 to 1927 and he was a remarkable figure, he knew all the great Irish cultural figures of his time like Douglas Hyde who founded the Gaelic League and went on to become the first President after the 1937 Constitution. There was a period where Trillick was one of the major centres of cultural Irishness in Ireland and there were some very good festivals in the last decade celebrating this. Dad gave a lecture about this and he included it in the book, it’s never been published and it’s quite a substantive piece.”

The book also draws upon the ground-breaking scholarship of eminent historian Dr Dónal McAnallen on World War One.

Dónal has conducted extensive research on the hidden history of GAA players who served with the Crown Forces during the War – perhaps an uneasy subject matter, but no less fascinating for that.

Take the story of Patrick Holland, the former Tyrone county secretary who left his position to join the RAF late in the war.

Dónal said: “Joe’s bringing Patrick Holland to a wider audience and it’s an extraordinary story. Patrick was associated with the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) at a time when the county was starting to become a lot more radicalised

“He was the county secretary and the main referee in the county at the time. He was also part of the Craobh Rua club in Dungannon, the newly formed Dungannon Clarkes were a coming force and were more radical.

“It all came to a head for Patrick when there was a rally in 1918 in Dungannon and he was assaulted by Irish Volunteers who were sent up from the south armed with sticks.

“In general people were becoming more radicalised and he probably found that many of his peers didn’t approve of him, you must imagine how that must have felt for him.

“So he probably felt aggrieved and he ended up joining the RAF. It was quite a strange thing to do but I don’t over-analyse it, maybe he just wanted to learn how to fly. It’s a fascinating story though as it was a microcosm of what was going on at a local level, that one movement or body was being eclipsed by another.”

As a leading historian, McAnallen is perfectly placed to assess the impact of Joe’s body of work. He describes Martin’s contribution to the annals of Tyrone GAA as “an immense achievement” and his fifth and final volume is a particularly special addition to the canon.

“Joe’s was one of the most authoritative and comprehensive county histories of the GAA. Doing what he did when no digital copies were heard of was an immense achievement. He wrote it all himself. Many other such tomes were collaborations with gaps in narrative whereas the ‘GAA in Tyrone’ was consistent and relatively seamless – indeed, some counties have never published a history book.”

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