Gaelic football in Cork has always been strongest in the west of the rebel county while hurling claimed dominance in the city, but in the late 19th century, two football clubs with a West Cork flavour sprung up on the banks of the River Lee and brought football into the city. Pauline Murphy traces the history of the clubs.
Lees Gaelic Football Club was founded in 1886 on the banks of the river it was called after. The club had its grounds on The Marina, right next door to the Lee Rowing club, of which it was closely associated. The football club even adopted the same black and red colours of the rowing club.
The nickname Lees acquired was ‘the collars and cuffs’ because the majority of its members were working in the drapery trade and the majority of those were men from West Cork who had come to the city to work in what was then a booming trade.
Lees had a rivalry in the form of Nils, another Gaelic football club in the city, which was made up mostly of West Cork migrants and whose nickname was also ‘collars and cuffs’ for the same reason as Lees!
Nils was founded as Nil Desperandum Rugby Club in the middle of the 19th century but when the lads from back west started moving into the city to work in the garment trade, Nils dropped the oval ball in favour of the round one and from 1888 it became known as a Gaelic football club with a healthy membership of West Cork footballers.
While Lees had their base down The Marina, Nils HQ was in the city centre at Marlboro Street and for West Cork men moving to the city, either one of those addresses was usually their first port of call.
Jack Lynch’s father Daniel arrived into the city from Bantry and duly joined Nils. Another Nils footballer was Dunmanway’s Jack Young, an All Ireland winner who played with Dohenys before joining Nils when he moved to the city. It wasn’t just West Cork natives who joined Nils, the club even accepted those from over the county bounds! Kerry legend Dick Fitzgerald was an 18-year-old student at Presentation Brother’s College in Cork City when he joined Nils to craft the skills that he would later use to bring glory to the kingdom.
Another famous name to don the Nils jersey was Paddy Walsh who was on the Nils team that represented Cork at the 1894 All Ireland Final. Walsh was considered a quality footballer but Nils lost his talent when he moved to Dublin in 1897 and won an All Ireland football medal in the blue jersey of the jackeens in 1899.
Lees also boasted big names such as Nealie Duggan from Beara who played full forward for the Cork team of the 1950s. Another Beara native to play for Lees was Weesh Murphy, another All Ireland winner with Cork in the 50s. Adrigole’s Murty O’Shea first played for Bantry before moving to the city and joined Lees during the clubs golden age of the early 1900s. Mick Meihgian of Clonakilty also played in the red and black of Lees and so did his brother Patrick who would later gain fame as the GAA journalist ‘Carbery.’
In 1890, the Lee Rowing club along with its football wing asked for financial aid from the Member of Parliament for Cork. That MP was none other than Charles Stewart Parnell and he duly sent a £30 cheque. For his generosity, Parnell was made an honoury member of the Lee Rowing and football club! He never did attend a match or rowing regatta, as he died a year after financially assisting the clubs but his generosity was not forgotten and a contingent of Lees footballers made the trip to Dublin to partake in the large funeral cortege of the uncrowned king of Ireland. From then on Lees became known as a Parnellite club while Nils took the opposing stance of being anti-Parnellite.
Of the two clubs, Lees was the most successful with 12 county titles while Nils claimed six county crowns and both clubs represented Cork in the All Ireland Championship.
A Lees selection represented Cork in the 1911 All Ireland final against Antrim and in front of 11,000 spectators at Jones Road on a cold January Sunday, Cork beat Antrim 6-06 to 1-02. Three of Cork’s goals came from the boot of Lees player Billy Mackessy, the first player to score a hat trick in an All Ireland final. The Cork team that won the county’s second only All Ireland title was captained by Lees Mick Mehigan but there were also three Nils players in the team. Club rivalry was put aside for the sake of hunting All Ireland glory!
A Nils selection represented Cork in the 1894 All Ireland against Dublin, which had to go to a replay when they drew. The replay was going in Corks’ favour and with ten minutes left in the match Cork were leading by seven points but then scuffles erupted between a number of players and then a travelling group of Nils fans stormed the pitch to make it a free for all! The match was abandoned and the GAA central council awarded the match to the Dubs, even though they had been trailing Cork by seven points when the match was abandoned! Afterwards the Cork team were given a reception by the Lord Mayor in the City Hall where the players were presented with medals. The Cork Examiner reported that ‘it is positively certain that the Dublin Gaels always recognise the merits of the Nils and now hailed them as winners of the football championship of ‘94’. Unfortunately for us in the rebel county, the records dictate that Dublin won that All Ireland title.
Up to the 1990s Lees led the roll of honour with 12 county football titles. The first title Lees won was in the first year of the Cork county club championship in 1887. The collars and cuffs beat Lisgoold 0-04 to 0-01 and the following year won another title when they beat Dromtarriff 0-03 to 0-01.
Nils would appear in their first county final in 1891 but lost to Clondrohid 3-05 to 0-02. They reached the county final again in 1894 and on their second attempt Nils won their first county title when they beat Kinsale 1-13 to 0-01. Nils were hoping to win a second county title the following year but Fermoy put an end to their winning ways.
In 1896 Lees reclaimed their county crown with a win over Kanturk. In 1899 Nils tasted defeat again when Fermoy beat them but they would extract revenge a year later and beat Fermoy in the county final 6-08 to 0-04.
In 1902 Lees won the county final when they beat Kanturk 0-10 to 0-02 and the following year they won the county final again when they beat Dohenys 1-07 to 0-02. Lees won a hat trick of county football titles when they beat Fermoy in the 1904 final.
In 1907 Lees made another appearance in a county final where they beat Macroom and a year later beat Fermoy to add another title to their growing list of honours.
In 1911 the two rivals Lees and Nils met in the county final, which saw Lees come out on top. In 1914 Lees won another county final when the beat Youghal but, a year later their rivals Nils would take the title when they beat Fermoy.
In 1917 Corks ‘old firm’ Lees and Nils met in a county final again and it was Nils who came out of the tussle as victors on a scoreline of 0-02 to 0-00. The low scoring reflected the rough antics on the field, which resembled a UFC bout rather than a football match!
While the Civil war was raging throughout 1923, in Cork the more important matter of the county football final took place between Lees and Youghal. The collar and cuffs claimed the crown, even though some members of the team were either in jail or on the run!
In 1924 Nils beat Collegians to claim the county title and a year later, in 1925, Nils made their last appearance in a county final where they beat Macroom 4-03 to 0-02 to win their sixth and last county crown. By the dawn of the 1930s Nil Desperandum Football club quietly faded from the Cork GAA scene.
The Autumn days of Lees football club played out in the 1950s. They made the 1955 county final where they beat Macroom to win their 12th and last-ever county title. The ‘55 final marked a change in team demographics for Lees. Where it was once a team of West Cork men, by the 1950s it was a club of migrants from all over the country. Among those on the last Lees county winning team were Paddy Hare from Waterford, the two Eamons from Roscommon – Eamon Boland and Eamon O’Donoghue while Carney Lyndon from Carlow also lined out in the red and black.
In 1957 Lees found themselves in a county final again where they met St Finbarrs. The result was a draw and in the replay the Barrs beat Lees 0-08 to 0-04. It was to be Lees last appearance in a county final and like Nils before them, Lees also faded from the county football scene in Cork and suffered the same fate of being a defunct club.
As Lees and Nils bowed out, other clubs in the city such as Nemo and the Barrs started clocking up the football honours and today Gaelic football is a strong staple in the city’s GAA diet. In a way, this can be attributed to Lees and Nils – the club’s that brought country football to the city.