In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, the All-Ireland Football Final was played out between Mayo and Wexford in December. Dr. Richard McElligott tells the story of a unique sporting event.
A bitter dawn broke over Dublin on Sunday, 17 December 1916. As the morning wore on a severe frost stubbornly clung onto the City. Although Christmas was a mere week away the Capital felt eerily deserted except for Sackville Street. Here surrounded by bombed out ruins – the frightening physical testimony to a bloody rebellion just seven months before – hundreds of people began to converge. Gingerly the Mayo and Wexford faithful made their way to Croke Park to watch on as their counties contested the Christmas All-Ireland football final of 1916.
An eventual crowd of 3,000 gathered and huddled together in the cold expanse of the stadium awaiting the throw-in. It was the worst attendance of any All-Ireland final in fifteen years, less than a tenth of the number which had been present to see Wexford beat Kerry in the 1915 decider. The Freeman’s Journal newspaper remarked that many were deterred from traveling to the game ‘owing to the prevailing conditions.’ This was not a reference to the dramatic events of the previous Easter but rather the horrendous weather in which the final was contested.
A mixture of heavy rain, sleet and snow had battered Dublin during the night. When this cleared around 5am on Sunday morning, the temperature plummeted. Journeys through the frozen streets became treacherous. Over 300 people were admitted to hospital that day due to injuries resulting from falls caused by the frost and ice. For some unfortunates the elements proved fatal. While making their way across a nearby frozen pond, three inmates of the TB Sanatorium in Peamount drowned after the ice cracked and gave way.
Among the spectators who had braved the streets to reach Jones Road, rumours abounded that the final would be called off. However at noon a pitch inspection by officials decided that the game could go ahead if both teams consented.
After making their own inspections both captains agreed to play. The Freeman’s Journal felt the decision ‘showed extraordinary hardihood on the part of the Wexford and Mayo players to risk taking the field.’ Nevertheless after the game Wexford’s captain, Sean O’Kennedy, confided to the Irish Independent that ‘the ground was barely playable and I was very anxious about my players.’