Smith, James (‘Jim’) (1901–70), Gaelic footballer, was born 7 April 1901 in Gola, Killinkere, Co. Cavan, the third of nine surviving children of James Smith, a small farmer of Gola, and Susan Smith (née Tully), from the adjoining townland of Derryhum. He was educated locally before being sent to Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, to attend a Latin school in readiness for joining the priesthood. In 1915 he entered St Patrick’s College, Cavan, where he became fluent in Irish and excelled at athletics, handball, hurling and Gaelic football. Playing senior club football for the Virginia Blues, he won his only Cavan county championship medal in 1919. In 1920 he entered the seminary of All Hallows College, Dublin, and studied at University College Dublin (UCD), graduating Bachelor of Arts in 1924. He played for the UCD football and hurling teams and was selected for the UCD athletics team in middle distance running. In 1923 he won a Sigerson Cup medal with the UCD footballers.
Abandoning his religious vocation, he joined the Civic Guards (latterly An Garda Síochána) in 1924. He was based in garda headquarters in Dublin and played hurling and football for the Garda club, winning five Dublin hurling championships (1925–9) and two Dublin football championships (1927, 1929). During 1929–33 he served in various stations in counties Meath and Louth; in Meath he played club football and hurling with Erin’s Own, winning three Meath hurling titles (1930–2). While based in Kells, Co. Meath, he met a local woman, Nancy McEntee. They married in 1932 and had two sons. He was transferred back to Dublin headquarters in 1933 and resumed playing for the Garda club.
Having been selected for the Cavan senior hurlers as early as 1917, he was first picked for the Cavan senior footballers in 1920. He would play senior football for Cavan for almost eighteen years, winning eight Ulster championship medals and two all-Irelands. A forward in his early years for Cavan, he was normally selected at midfield from 1924. In the 1930s he drifted back to the centre-half-back slot before ending his career at full-back. He was an automatic selection for Ulster for a decade and played on the Ireland team that participated in the Tailteann Games of 1924, 1928 and 1932. At 6ft (1.83m) tall, he was powerfully built, possessing tremendous stamina and a massive kick; it was said that no one could outfield him at his peak. All regarded him as a gentleman on the field of play. He was loyal to Cavan, spurning approaches from other counties.
An emerging Cavan side first came to national prominence when they lost the All-Ireland semi-finals of 1923 and 1925 to Kerry, both times by a single point and latterly to a highly questionable one. The objections and counter-objections arising from Cavan’s 1925 defeat led to both counties being ejected from that year’s All-Ireland championship, which was eventually declared void. A substitute championship involving the four provincial champions was held that winter, but Kerry’s boycott destroyed its credibility; Smith played as Cavan lost the ‘final’ to Galway in January 1926. Cavan did reach the All-Ireland final proper in 1928, losing to Kildare thanks to a disputed goal.
During the 1929 Ulster semi-final held in Belturbet, Co. Cavan, Smith collided with Armagh’s James Kernan, who suffered a perforation to his intestine and died two days later in Armagh Infirmary. While most witnesses at the ensuing inquest maintained that there was nothing untoward about the incident, statements were read out from some Armagh supporters accusing Smith of raising his knee dangerously. The jury at the inquest did not take a view on whether Kernan’s injuries were accidental, which fuelled wild rumours. To scotch any suggestion of a cover up, Garda Commissioner General Eoin O’Duffy (qv) ordered that Smith be prosecuted for murder. Smith was charged at Cavan District Court (11 July) and cleared upon the hearing of preliminary evidence.
Cavan then lost the Ulster final to Monaghan in a replay held at Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, mainly because Smith, who was roundly barracked by the opposing fans, performed poorly. When the 1930 Ulster final, also involving Cavan and Monaghan, was scheduled for Carrickmacross, Smith declared he would not play there again. Cavan objected unsuccessfully to the venue before withdrawing, though in the end a weakened selection played and lost. Kernan’s death poisoned relations between Cavan and Armagh for the next decade. Following the end of the 1931 Ulster final between the two counties, an Armagh supporter with a gun approached Smith on the field but was tackled and disarmed.
In 1933, in what was regarded as Ulster’s greatest footballing day up to that time, Cavan beat a highly fancied Kerry side in the All-Ireland semi-final. In the final, Smith scored a goal direct from a forty-yard free kick as Cavan won its first All-Ireland senior football title by defeating Galway 2–5 to 1–4, making him the first man to captain an Ulster side to All-Ireland success. That same year, however, the former Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy became leader of the quasi-fascist Blueshirt movement, following which Smith’s presumed association with his old boss disastrously politicised Cavan football. Matters were not helped in 1934 by separate speeches made by O’Duffy and a prominent Cavan Blueshirt, claiming that their movement had the support of members of Cavan’s football team. Smith refused to play in the 1934 Ulster final against Armagh after being heckled by a section of the crowd during the pre-match parade. He was then surprisingly dropped for the All-Ireland semi-final, which Cavan lost to Galway; overcrowding had brought large numbers of spectators onto the pitch in the second half, turning the match into a farce, but the result stood – an inexplicable decision in purely sporting terms. Thereafter, the political controversies swirling around Smith and the Cavan team subsided, as O’Duffy and his Blueshirts faded into irrelevance.
Smith sat out the 1935 Ulster championship before returning for the All-Ireland semi-final and starring at full-back in the All-Ireland final victory over Kildare. There had been questions about his eligibility to play in that year’s championship, as he had been suspended by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) for barracking a referee while spectating at a Dublin club football match; it had required a special meeting of the Dublin county board held on the day of the 1935 All-Ireland semi-final to lift his suspension. Smith played his last championship game in the All-Ireland final replay against Kerry in 1937, retiring with a facial injury in the first half, as Cavan lost to a disputed goal.
His injury caused acrimony between the respective county boards, and Kerry refused to travel to the USA with Cavan on the 1938 tour. This tour was Smith’s swansong as a player, and his third American tour – he had been a member of the 1934 and 1936 touring Cavan sides. Jim Smith was one of the great Gaelic footballers of the 1920s and 1930s and undoubtedly the most versatile.
Promoted to the rank of sergeant in March 1927, he served in Tipperary, Dublin, Meath, Louth, Wexford, Sligo, Leitrim, Monaghan and Roscommon in a garda career lasting twenty-eight years. In 1945 he separated from his wife, who moved away; he raised their two sons. Fed up with the deplorable living and work accommodation endured by members of An Garda Síochána, he resigned in 1952. He worked for a year in a factory in London before getting a job in the Department of Agriculture as a shipping inspector at Dublin Port. He died 20 July 1970 in St Kevin’s hospital (later St James’s hospital), Dublin, and was buried in Gallon graveyard, Killinkere, Co. Cavan. The GAA ground at Killinkere was named in his memory. Both of his sons played minor football for Cavan. Jim junior graduated to the Cavan seniors while Gearóid was on the Meath senior panel that won the 1954 All-Ireland title.