Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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There has been mounting interest in recent years in the story behind the names of the foremost champions’ cups on the GAA calender. The Irish Daily Mail is sponsoring the 2012 Sigerson Cup and the 2012 Fitzgibbon Cup. These trophies are competed for annually by the top division GAA teams from the Higher Education (ie: the universities, colleges, regional technical colleges and institutes of technology).

Liam McCarthy and Sam Maguire, whose names adorn the All-Ireland hurling and football trophies, were both closely involved with the Irish Republican movement in London before and during the Irish War of Independence.

Dr. George Sigerson and Fr. Edwin Fitzgibbon were of a decidedly more intellectual bent and, until recently, their work and influence has been almost completely overlooked.


Dr. Sigerson, the elder of the two, was a leading light in the Gaelic Literary Revival that swept through Ireland in the late 19th century. He was an archetypical Celtic Renaissance man – an inspired physician, a pioneering scientist, a prolific writer, an honourable patriot, a gifted poet, an unassuming genius and, rather more surprisingly, a fan of cannabis.

When he first presented the Sigerson Cup to the victorious UCD team 100 years ago, this powerfully built academic was a well-known sight in the capital city. He invariably sported a Victorian top hat and a long black frock coat, his thick, snow-white locks spilling over his shoulders. The narrow pointed Royale beard extending from his chin connected him back to the imperial world of Napoleon III’s France, which he had known in his youth.

He was born in 1836 in pre-famine Strabane, Co. Tyrone, the scion of a Viking family who had settled from Denmark a thousand years earlier.[i] W. B. Yeats, whose brother Jack painted Sigerson, recalled how he would ‘become hot in defence of the Danish invaders of Ireland and deny that they had burned churches.’[ii]

His father was an extensive landowner who also profited from a mill that specialized in making spades. Some of this money went towards giving George a proper education, first at Letterkenny Academy and then at a college in France where the young man’s Francophilia was born.[iii]

In 1855 he returned to Ireland and began studying medicine at Queen’s College, Galway (now NUI Galway). The following year he won a scholarship to Queen's College, Cork (now UCC), graduating in 1859.

After college he pursued his postgraduate studies at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, studying under the hugely eminent Jean-Martin Charcot, regarded as the “father of modern neurology”.[iv]

This gave him sufficient clout to become a lecturer and to open his own neurology practice in Dublin, primarily treating stress and other psychosocial illnesses. He frequently returned to Paris to learn more of Charcot’s skills, befriending a fellow student by name of Sigmund Freud. In later life, Sigerson’s patients would include Maude Gonne, Nora Barnacle and a young poet called Austin Clarke to whom he administered electro-shock treatment in 1919.

In 1865, he married the literary minded Hester Varian Sigerson (1828-1898) of Cork (in Marlborough Street, Dublin. They initially lived with on Synge Street, Dublin, before moving to Clare Street. She died in 1898 after a long illness. Upon his death, George was survived by just one of their four children, his daughter Hester. Another daughter Dora Sigerson Shorter (Mrs. Clement K. Shorter), the poet, was much involved in the Irish literary revival, but died in 1918. His eldest son William died as a boy his second son George Patrick, whom he was living with during the 1901 census, died unmarried in 1903 after an attack of meningitis.

One might have expected a man of Sigerson’s genius to have earned a top job in one of Ireland’s hospitals. However, as Ken McGilloway revealed in his 2011 book on the Tyrone man, Sigerson’s political beliefs set him at odds with the imperial establishment of that era.

It was a question of culture. Sigerson’s first and foremost concern was the preservation of the Irish language which he had learned as a young man. During college days, he reputedly befriended Irish radicals such as Charles Kickham and John O’Leary. [v] Ultimately this inspired him to devote his energies to translating works by old Irish poets and writing impassioned articles for Republican journals such as The Nation and the Irish People, as well as liberally minded newspapers like the Freeman’s Journal.[vi]

O’Leary described him as the as the Fenians’ ‘chief of literary staff’ after his most controversial article, ‘The Holocaust’, which recounted the story of the Manchester Martyrs, three Irish Republican Brotherhood members executed for murdering a policeman in 1867.

However, the establishment did not entirely disapprove of him. British Prime Minister William Gladstone was a fan and, when developing his solution to the Irish land crisis in the 1870s, he drew heavily upon Dr. Sigerson’s work on the subject.[vii] He made considerable contributions to research on typhoid, the necessity of village hospitals and the treatment of political prisoners.[viii]

He was appointed Professor of Botany and later of Zoology at the University College Dublin. He also lectured on anatomy and physiology at the Catholic University of Ireland. One of his more remarkable works was ‘Cannabiculture in Ireland; its profit and possibility’, published in 1866, which proposed large-scale production of hemp.

The depth and scope of his research earned him membership of many learned societies, including the Linaean Society of London for which Charles Darwin proposed him for a Fellowship.

He was also a poet of some renown, penning, amongst many others, ‘On the Mountains of Pomeroy’ in 1869, which has become something of an anthem for the people of Co. Tyrone.[ix]

In 1892, Yeats founded the National Literary Society, ‘welcoming all classes, creeds, and politics to its membership.’ Douglas Hyde was appointed its first president but when he resigned a few months later to establish the Gaelic League, Dr. Sigerson was appointed president in his stead.[x] He held the office for the next thirty years - the most important period in modern Irish history for the conservation and promotion of Irish culture be it theatre, arts, music and sport. In 1897, for instance, he co-founded the Feis Ceoil (Festival of Music). That same year, he published his seminal tome, ‘Bards of the Gael and Gall’, translating 139 Irish poems including ‘The fate of the Children of Lir’.[xi]

Dr. Sigerson and his wife Hester were by now amongst the dominant figures of the Gaelic Revival. They frequently held Sunday evening salons at their Dublin home, No. 3 Clare St, to which artists, intellectuals and rebels alike attended, including O’Leary, Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Roger Casement and 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh.

He was an active promoter of the cause of the National University, which came into being in 1908. Three years later, the new University Colleges of Dublin, Cork and Galway announced plans for an inter-collegiate Gaelic Football competition to create ‘a feeling of unity’ between them.[xii] Dr. Sigerson rallied to the cause by donating his annual salary from his post at UCD to the purchase of a trophy for the competition.

The cup, which he designed himself, is modelled on a Mether, an ancient Gaelic drinking vessel which symbolised friendship. The spherical cup was supported on four handle-columns, representing the Four Provinces. When he first presented the Sigerson Cup during a banquet at the Gresham Hotel in May 1911, he said: ‘This trophy, symbolic of the unity of our race, will travel round Ireland, visiting the Provinces in turn.’ It was not until 1958 that his prophecy was fulfilled when a winning team from Queen’s University Belfast brought the cup back to his home province of Ulster.[xiii]

In 1922, the new Senate of the Irish Free State did Dr. Sigerson the honour of electing him to chair their first historic meeting.[xiv] However, some months later he received a letter from Republican extremists who threatened to assassinate him and burn down his house if he did not resign from the Senate. Dr. Sigerson claimed he would not have minded being shot but that he could not risk the destruction of his patient’s medical records.[xv]

Ireland’s ‘Grand Old Man’ died, aged 89, at his home in Dublin on 17th February 1925 and was buried in Glasnevin.[xvi] Douglas Hyde opined ‘Ireland will not forget him and cannot replace him’. But forget him we did. Or at least until 2009 when he was named one of the ‘125 Most Influential People In GAA History’.

McGilloway’s book resurrects this forgotten genius, not least his key role in selecting the harp as Ireland's national symbol.[xvii]


In 1912, less than a year after the inaugural Sigerson Cup, a Capuchin monk called Fr. Edwin Fitzgibbon, then Professor of Philosophy at UCC, responded with the presentation of the Fitzgibbon Cup for a similar inter-college contest in hurling.

Originally know as Tom Fitzgibbon, Fr. Edwin was born in 1874 to large Irish-speaking, farming family from Ballynona, Co. Cork.[xviii] He was educated in the hurling stronghold of Dungourney, home of his cousin Jamesey Kelleher, the most famous Irish hurler of his age.

Fr. Edwin is said to have wielded the camán with such dexterity that he would have been selected for the county team. However, in 1893, he chose religion over sport. He entered the Franciscan order at small Capuchin college in Rochestown, Co. Cork, taking ‘Edwin’ as his religious name.[xix] (Father Mathew, the celebrated Apostle of Temperance, was probably the most famous of these Capuchin friars.)

His first Mass back home prompted considerable whisperings amongst the flock who were unfamiliar with the hooded Capuchin habit. ‘Poor soul, God love him,’ remarked one woman, ‘I’ll knit a nice pair of socks for him tomorrow’.

After graduating from Queen’s College, Cork, with a BA, he was ordained in Dublin in 1902 and went to study philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium.[xx]

In 1906, the monk returned to Cork as Rector of Rochestown College where he became a passionate supporter of the college’s football team. From just 38 students, he created a first-rate team who held their own against the biggest and best Gaelic football teams all the other Munster colleges could offer.

In December 1908, Queen’s College, Cork, became one of the constituent colleges of the new National University of Ireland. Fr. Edwin was one of the first appointees to the new University College, Cork (UCC) staff. He became a philosophy lecturer in 1909 and, two years later, was appointed Professor of Scholastic Philosophy.

At UCC, the shrewd but down-to-earth Capuchin continued to foster the growth of Gaelic games, gradually eroding rugby’s monopoly on the college.

In 1912 the 38-year-old was elected President of the U.C.C. Hurling Club. He promptly donated most of his paltry annual wage to a splendid trophy, known as the Fitzgibbon Cup, to be contested by the various colleges within NUI.

One of the oddest moment in the cup’s history occurred on 13th May 1919 when three members of the victorious University College Galway team were on board the same train as IRA man Seán Hogan who was being escorted to jail by a party of the Royal Irish Constabulary. When the train chugged through Knocklong, Co. Limerick, it was attacked by a Republican force led by Hogan’s ally, Dan Breen. As the bullets whizzed, killing two policemen, the students jumped from the train, cup in hand, and fled.

That same year, the Very Rev. Fr. Thomas Edwin Fitzgibbon was elected Provincial Minister for the Irish Capuchins, an office he held on four occasions.[xxi] In this capacity, he visited the Capuchin friaries in the USA and attended the Chicago Exhibition.[xxii]

Dogged by ill-health, this modest, kindly soul resigned the Philosophy chair in early 1937.[xxiii] He died the following year and was buried in the Capuchin cemetery in Rochestown.[xxiv] Thousands attended his funeral, including the Lord Mayor of Cork, the general secretary of the GAA and the Bishop of Cork. Like Dr. Sigerson, he is listed on the ‘125 Most Influential people in GAA history’.[xxv]


The original Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups are now on display in the Croke Park Museum. The present trophies are replicas, made in 2000 and 2001 respectively.[xxvi]


With thanks to Ken Mc Gilloway, the Strabane Historical Society and Brian Kirby, MA, PhD, of the Capuchin Provincial Archives.


‘George Sigerson. “Poet, Patriot, Scientist and Scholar by Ken Mc Gilloway (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2011).


[i] George Sigerson was born at Holy Hill, near Strabane in County Tyrone on 11 January 1836. His father William Sigerson was born in Co. Derry. The farm at Holy Hill came into the family through George’s mother Nancy Nielson.

[ii] ‘His family had come to Ireland in the ninth century with those invaders, and had no other connexion with Denmark,’ added Yeats. Ken Mc Gilloway remarks: “He was always reluctant to talk about his own life and, although he had spent many years researching the history of the Sigerson family in Ireland, he resisted all requests to write his own memoirs. It was said that because of his Nordic reserve his personality was seldom revealed, even to family and close friends.”

Sir John Lavery painted him circa 1918.

[iii] From the local Glebe school, George went on to Letterkenny Academy where the headmaster was the half-French, half-Irish Dr. Grenand. His father then sent him to France to finish his education at Collège Saint-Joseph in Auteuil where he won a prize for a Latin translation of ‘The Exile of Erin’. Through his education in France, he retained something of a link with the Irish exiles, the Wild Geese of the previous century. In 1860, for instance, 24-year-old Sigerson was a member of a deputation that presented a sword of honour to General Patrice de MacMahon, a marshal of France who was destined to become the first president of the Third Republic (1875–9).

[iv] In later life he would translate Charcot’s book, ‘Lectures on the diseases of the nervous system’, adding important notes of his own. He also studied under the renowned French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne.

[v] In their obituary to him in 1925, The Times of London rather awkwardly described how ‘… his associates in young manhood were his friendship with the high-minded and beautiful personalities of the Fenian movement - the mild and saintly [Charles] Kickham was one of his friends and patients, and John O'Learv, the old Fenian Chief, was to be found at his fireside till the day of his death. All these people were literary.’

[vi] Sigerson’s first and best-known work was the second series of The Poets and Poetry of Munster, a translation which appeared in 1860. Under the pseudonym ‘Erionnach’ he also contributed numerous poems and essays in Irish periodicals and journals such as The Harp, The Nation and Freeman’s Journal. Readers of the liberal Daily Chronicle in England were also familiar with Dr. Sigerson’s writings, the best of which were collated into ‘Modern Ireland: its vital questions, secret societies and government in 1868.’

[vii] Sigerson, George, History of the land tenures and land classes of Ireland (1871). As McGilloway outs it, ‘Sigerson had in-depth knowledge of Irish political history and wrote an important chapter in R. Barry O’Brien’s Two centuries of Irish history, 1691–1870 (1888). Sigerson later expanded this very considerably into a book – The last independent parliament of Ireland, published in 1918.’

[viii] In 1879, the Dublin Mansion House Relief Committee appointed him to the post of medical commissioner. This coincided with another famine and an outbreak of typhoid in Co. Mayo. Dr. Sigerson later published a paper entitled ‘On the need and use of village hospitals in Ireland’.

In 1884 he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Prisons and given the task of improving both the health and social management of prison inmates. His report on the treatment of political prisoners – Political prisoners at home and abroad – would go on to be championed by Suffragettes seeking to draw attention to the uses and abuses of force feeding.

[ix] His poem was first published in ‘The harp of Erin: a book of ballad-poetry and of native song’, edited by Hester’s father (I believe), Ralph Varian and published by M'Glashan & Gill in 1869. See here

[x] “His mind was so broad and his genius so varied, and the elements so kindly mixed, that science, economics, history, and poetry all through his life appealed to him with almost equal force, though I have a suspicion that the appeal of poetry was strongest.” – Douglas Hyde on Dr. George Sigerson.

[xi] ‘The fate of the Children of Lir’ formed the basis of ‘The saga of King Lir’, which Sigerson published in 1913. When Ernest Boyd read ‘Bards of the Gael and Gall’, he stated that it ‘substantiated the claim of ancient Ireland to be the mother of literature.’

[xii] On 8th April 1911, at a meeting of the Leinster Colleges Council in the O’Connell Hall, Dublin, letters were read from the new University Colleges of Cork and Galway in which they offered to send teams to Dublin to play UCD in a series of football matches. This was the first time that the University Colleges had decided to take their place in the national games. A week later, the UCD club announced its plans to inaugurate a competition to ‘create a feeling of unity between and to link more closely together the disjointed sections of the National University.’

[xiii] The first Sigerson cup matches were played at Croke Park (then Jones’s Road) between May 10 and May 12 1911.

[xiv] ‘If our nation is to live, it must live by the energy of intellect, and be prepared to take its place in competition with all other peoples’ – George Sigerson, 1894.

[xv] In 1922 he published his final work, an English translation of ‘The Easter song of Sedulius’, considered the first epic of Christendom. In September 1922, he was appointed a Senator of the new Irish Free State by William T. Cosgrave. He even chaired the chamber’s first historic meeting but resigned in February when he received a letter from Republican extremists threatening to shoot him and burn down his house. ‘While I have not minded being shot,’ he said, ‘this is a thing which concerns my family, my property and my practice. If my house is burned down, my practice would suffer very much and I have to consider my patients. Of course that is even apart form the loss of my books and literature,’

Dr. Sigerson retired from university teaching in the spring of 1923. The National Literary Society closed down the following year.

[xvi] The Irish Independent mourned the passing of ‘Ireland’s Grand Old Man’ who was buried in Glasnevin. Lord Acton, the eminent English Catholic historian, maintained that this unassuming genius was the greatest Irishman he had known. The day after his death the entire Senate rose to their feet during a meeting in tribute to him. ‘Every Gael who suffered for Ireland or who did good work for Ireland had a roof and a home in Dr Sigerson’s house,’ said Hyde.

[xvii] As McGilloway says, ‘The harp is the outstanding symbol of the nation - A symbol recognised throughout the world. It is on every passport and on every government paper and Sigerson's hand was on that.’

Strabane GAA named their Gaelic football team Strabane Sigersons in his honour.

[xviii] Ballynona lies to the north of Castlemartyr and Middleton, Co. Cork. The big house was owned by the Wigmore family.

Fr. Edwin was one of eleven children, nine boys and two girls, born to John Fitzgibbon, an Irish-speaking farmer, and his wife Eliza (nee Desmond). He was baptised on 26th January with William Desmond and Anna Griffin as sponsors.

[xix] Tom Fitzgibbon went to the Clonmult National School in Dungourney, a whose team won the All-Ireland championship in 1902. His cousin also hailed from the village. When he had completed his sixth grade, the school master persuaded him to stay on, before introducing him to two Capuchin priests who were seeking likely students for their small college in Rochestown, five miles from Cork. He entered the Capuchin Franciscan order in March 1893, taking ‘Edwin’ as his religious name.

[xx] He was ordained in the Capuchin friary of St. Mary of the Angels on Church Street, Dublin by Dr. Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin. He obtained a degree of Doctor of Philosophy from Louvain, with distinction.

[xxi] The official title is Provincial Minister for the Irish Province of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. His four terms as Provincial were 1919-22; 1926-28; 1934-34 and 1934-37.

[xxii] Irish Independent, Tuesday, October 03, 1933, p. 11. In 1933, taking a years leave of absence form UCC on account of ill-health, the lightly-bearded Capuchin visited the House of the Irish Province in America, as well as the Chicago Exhibition. He returned to Ireland on the Brittanic in October 1933

[xxiii] His colleague Alfred O’Rahilly, the Registrar of U.C.C., wrote to him afterwards, saying that he would be forever recalled at U.C.C. as ‘a modest, very kindly man who did his work conscientiously & without fuss & never indulged in charitableness. In April 1937, UCC conferred upon him the title of ‘Emeritus Professor of Philosophy’.

[xxiv] He died at the Bon Secour’s Home in Cork on 24th June 1938, the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

[xxv] Hailed as ‘a priest, an educationalist and a patron of the national pastime’, he was known as a practical, down-to-earth, robust man, ‘ who brought his native shewdness and determined judgement to bear on the affairs of the Order as well as the University’. He also evidently had a sense of humour as, in 1928, a colleague from St. Benedict’s Priory applauds Fr. Edwin’s re-telling (or possibly another version) of the anti-prohibition poem ‘Four and Twenty Yankees’:

“Four and twenty Yankees, feeling very dry,
Went across the border to get a drink of rye.
When the rye was opened, the Yanks began to sing,
"God bless America, but God save the King!"

[xxvi] In about 1977, the Fitzgibbon family retrieved the by then rather unkempt looking cup and had it polished up and restored. At that time, as relative Fr. Brendan O’Mahoney OFM Cap relayed, the vase and lid were both missing.