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Sam Maguire & Liam MacCarthy – For Whom the Cups are Named

Sam Maguire, the Protestant from Cork, for whom the GAA’s football cup is named.

London, 1909. ‘In the presence of God, I, Michael Collins, do solemnly swear that I will do my utmost to establish the independence of Ireland, and that I will bear true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’.

Amongst those gathered to watch the future Commander-in-Chief, then 19 years old, take his oath at Barnsbury Hall, Islington, was Liam MacCarthy, the London-born councillor for Peckham, and Sam Maguire, a Protestant farmer’s son from West Cork. [1] Indeed, it was Maguire who took the momentous step to introduce Collins to the IRB in the first place.

Over the next two decades, all three men were to dedicate their lives to the cause of Irish liberty. Their reward was not bountiful. Collins was gunned down at Beal na Blath, while both MacCarthy and Maguire died prematurely and bankrupt.

Today, MacCarthy and Maguire are household names on account of the All-Ireland cups for hurling and football which are named in their honour. But few know just how intricately both men were linked with the meteoric rise of Michael Collins.

London has long been a city to which Irishmen of every political and religious persuasion have been drawn. From the 1880s, the London branch of the IRB had played a vital role in keeping tabs on correspondence between the government in London and the British authorities in Ireland. Occasionally they attempted a direct assault. In 1883, for instance, IRB member and future Easter Rising leader Tom Clarke was dispatched to blow up London Bridge. The mission failed, Clarke was sentenced to penal servitude for life and the London Metropolitan Police swiftly formed a Special Irish Branch to monitor IRB activity in the city.

In the first decade of the 20th century, both MacCarthy and Maguire joined the IRB in London. The Brotherhood’s president at this time was the Tipperary born poet John O’Leary, immortalized after his death by W.B. Yeats famous lament, ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone; it’s with O’Leary in the grave’.

MacCarthy was the older man by quarter of a century. Born in London in 1853, he was the firstborn child of Eoghan and Brigid MacCarthy, an Irish-speaking couple who had emigrated from the famine-ravaged village of Ballygarvan, 10km south of Cork City, two years earlier. The MacCarthys formed part of an Irish community who settled on the South bank of the Thames near Lambeth.

As well as his work with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, MacCarthy was Vice-President of the Gaelic League, a member of the London Irish Volunteers and chairman of the London (GAA) County Board.

Sport was an important aspect of daily life for the MacCarthys. As a young man, Eoghan had been a notable athlete and wrestler, nicknamed ‘McCarthy Capall’ (MacCarthy the Horse). By the age of fourteen, Liam and his hurley stuck were a regular sight on Clapham Common. His day job wielding a blacksmith’s hammer on the railways ensured his arm muscles were in excellent shape. He was active in the London GAA from its foundation in 1886, having being a member of the Exiles of Erin Club. When the London County Board was formed following a meeting at Kensal Rise, North West London, on Whit Monday 1896, the 43-year-old was elected its first treasurer. He became President of the Board in 1898, holding the position until 1907 when succeeded by Sam Maguire. MacCarthy returned to the post in 1909 holding it until 1911.

In 1875, the 22 year old married Alice Padbury, the daughter of a ‘Fancy Box’ factory owner from Southwark. Liam joined the family firm but later fell out with his in-laws and set up a cardboard box making business of his own. Together with Alice and their eldest son William, they constructed the boxes on the kitchen table of their home in Peckham.

By the close of the 19th century, Liam was extremely active as a leader of London’s ever expanding Irish community. The MacCarthy home was a popular meeting place for Irish emigrants arriving in the British capital in pursuit of a job and a place to stay. In 1900 he was elected as an independent Councilor to the Borough of Camberwell for North Peckham and he was subsequently elected to many sub-committees including those dealing with Public Health, Libraries and Sick Benefit. He kept his Council seat for 12 years.

MacCarthy did an enormous amount to promote Irish sport and social gatherings across the city. As well as his work with the IRB, he was Vice-President of the Gaelic League, a member of the London Irish Volunteers and chairman of the London (GAA) County Board. He was a major patron of the sport and spent much of his own money in London sponsoring cups and medals for club games, as well as paying for hurling sticks. He also financed projects that promoted the Irish language and educated the Irish in London in the history and mythology of their native land.

The Sam Maguire Cup was modelled on the Ardagh Chalice and made by Hopkins and Hopkins. jewellers and silversmiths at 2 O’Connell Street, Dublin, opposite the Daniel O’Connell monument (and now a bank). The Hopkins originally hailed from Tuckamine, about midway between Tullow and Rathvilly, or Carlow and Hacketstown, in County Carlow. They were also connected to nearby  Knocknagan by Lisnavagh. (With thanks to James Grogan).

The Secretary of the London GAA at this time was a young post office worker from Clonakilty, West Cork, called Michael Collins. He had arrived in London in 1905, aged fifteen, and found work in the same Post Office where Sam Maguire was working.

Born on 11 March 1877, Maguire grew up on the 200 acre family farm at Mallabraca near the town of Dunmanway in West Cork. [2] Although they were Church of Ireland, the Maguires had successfully integrated with the Catholic community and were held in high esteem. Sam was the youngest of four brothers, with two sisters who never married. He was educated at the Model School in Dunmanway and at the National School in Ardfield, where Collins subsequently attended.

The tall, slim, broad-shouldered 22-year-old arrived in London on the eve of Queen Victoria’s death and went to work in the Post Office headquarters at Mount Pleasant near King’s Cross.

Although he had never played football in Ireland, he joined London Hibernians. He was perhaps prompted to start playing football by the success of Dunmanway’s local team, The Dohenys, who reached the 1897 All-Ireland football final. At this time, the All-Ireland final was contested by whichever clubs had won their county championships. There was also both a ‘home final’ and an ‘All-Ireland Final’, in which the All-Ireland and All-Britain champions were paired against one another. Maguire captained London Hibernians in the 1900, 1901 and 1903 finals. The team lost on all three occasions.

In June 1906 he again captained the side in the final of the Croke Cup, the last time he played in Jones’s Road (later Croke Park). The following year, he joined the administrative department of the London GAA, becoming Chairman of the London County Board and a regular delegate to the Annual Congress of the GAA. He later became a trustee of Croke Park. The Vice-Chairman of the London County Board at this time was Liam MacCarthy.

Maguire had become an influential member of the London IRB by the time he befriended Collins at the Post Office. ‘You bloody South of Ireland Protestant’ was how Collins often referred to him but the two West Corkmen became close friends. In November 1909, Maguire swore Collins into the IRB.

The GPO in London was already a massive operation before war broke out in 1914, employing over 250,000 people, making it the largest single employer of labour in the world, according to the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA). Over 75,000 Post Office workers left their jobs to fight in the war, which presumably created multiple vacancies for Irishmen seeking work at that time.  Something like 12 million letters a week were going through the postal system during the war years, as well as a million parcels, most of which were heading to soldiers on the frontline.

At the time of the Easter Rising, Sam Maguire was head centre of the London IRB.

By 1915, Collins was working with the Guaranty Trust Company of New York (later Morgan Stanley). As the corpses piled high in the battlefields of the Western Front, the British government began to consider introducing conscription to Ireland. McaCarthy chaired a meeting, attended by Collins and perhaps by Maguire, which discussed this threat. MacCarthy drew Collins aside to counsel him on what to do if conscription was introduced. ‘If you come from Clonakilty, it is obvious where you must go’.

Collins returned to Ireland the following year to take his place fighting alongside Pearse and Connolly in the GPO during the Easter Rising. By that time, Maguire was head centre of the London IRB. MacCarthy was also highly ranked and it was he who persuaded Collins to return to Dublin and take his place alongside Pearse in the GPO. MacCarthy was a passionate supporter and patron of Pearse’s St Enda’s school; he sent his son Eugene there for a year.

Maguire was urged to remain at his job in London as he would be much more valuable as an informer within his civil service. Most communication at this time went through the post office and Maguire was often able to intercept Official State Documents which provided vital insights into just what 10 Downing Street was planning to do in Ireland. Many of the Irishmen working in London’s post office at this time were sworn members of the IRB.

In the summer of 1919, Collins was elected President of the IRB. Maguire became an integral part of his intelligence network, playing a key role in raising funds and smuggling arms into Ireland during the War of Independence. He frequently travelled across the Irish Sea to Dublin on the night mail with information that he dare not write down. He paid the fare from his own pocket and refused to accept any money offered for expenses.

Edmond Johnson Ltd was one of Dublin’s most renowned firms of manufacturing goldsmiths, silversmiths and art metal workers. Perhaps the most famous legacy of the Grafton Street shop came in 1922 when Matthew Staunton, the firm’s chief silversmith, was commissioned by the Gaelic Athletic Association to make the original Liam MacCarthy Cup, the trophy presented annually to the All-Ireland Senior Hurling champions.

Maguire was Collins’ chief intelligence officer in London. His cover was vital but the wily Protestant bachelor played the game well. On one occasion, he ‘alerted’ his London employers at the Post Office to a stack of rifles which belonged to the company brigade, warning that they were likely to be stolen by those ‘unscrupulous Sinn Feiners’. His superiors did nothing and two nights later the rifles had mysteriously vanished, destination Ireland.

Meanwhile, Collins and MacCarthy’s friendship was also blossoming. Acting as de facto Minister for Finance, Collins had established a ‘National Loan’, primarily to raise funds for the operation of the Irish Volunteers who around this time became known as the Irish Republican Army. MacCarthy was appointed London treasurer for the Loan which, by the end of August, had amassed £250,000 [c. €12 million today.].

MacCarthy purchased £50 [c. €2,700] of certificates on behalf of himself and his two sons, William and Eugene. When the loan was redeemed, he used the money to purchase a silver cup which, like the Sigerson Cup of 1911, was modelled on an ancient Gaelic Meither, or loving cup. He offered it to the Central Council of the GAA as a perpetual trophy for the All-Ireland hurling champions. And so the Liam MacCarthy Cup was born.

During the Civil War, all of the GAA clubs in London adopted an Anti-Treaty stance but MacCarthy stayed loyal to Collins.

The Liam MacCarthy Cup was based on the design of a mether, an old Irish ‘friendship’ vessel used for drinking mead in Celtic times.

Liam MacCarthy died after a long illness on 28 September 1928. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Dulwich Cemetery, London. The reason why it was left unmarked remains a mystery but he did not die in penury, as sometimes suggested. Sean Meaney of the MacCarthy family wrote to me in January 2015: ‘The most logical theory was that his wife died ten days after him. Had she lived she would surely have put a headstone there. As it was he had a houseful of sons, who may not have been to bothered about marking the grave.’ [3] On Easter Sunday 1996, 68 years after his death, the Dulwich Harps GAA club erected a headstone over his grave.

Sam Maguire continued to play a key role during the War of Independence, perhaps most notably when he saved one of Collins’s death squads from certain capture as they were about to assassinate a British officer in London. The War of Independence was particularly brutal in County Cork, the home terrain of Maguire, MacCarthy and Collins. British soldiers ran amok across the county and amongst the buildings they burned down were the school where Liam MacCarthy’s parents were educated, the factory where many of Collins’s family worked and scores of homes belonging to their neighbours. Much of this carnage was attributed to Major Percival who commanded the garrison in Bandon. In March 1921, Percival narrowly avoided assassination in London by one of Collins’ death squads. Just as they were about to shoot the officer, Sam Maguire arrived and warned his fellow Irishmen that Scotland Yard were onto them and about to arrive on the scene. Percival survived to become commander of British troops at the fall of Singapore, and witnessed the surrender of Japanese forces in Tokyo at the end of the Second World War.

Together with his second-in-command, Reggie Dunne, Sam Maguire also devised a plan to kidnap 25 Westminster MPs who were to be held in retaliation for hostages taken in Ireland. The plan was seriously considered but abandoned when the British government sued for peace. Collins duly arrived back in London to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Lloyd-George, Churchill and the British cabinet.

In November 1921, while the Treaty negotiations were underway, Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence, sent two IRB men to London to collect some arms. In a sign of things to come, they were told to keep the deal a secret from both Collins and Maguire.

The following June, Maguire became embroiled in one of the most controversial episodes of the Troubles with the assassination of the staunchly Unionist Sir Henry Wilson, a friend of Churchill and the Northern Ireland Government’s adviser on security. Wilson had been the chief of the Imperial General Staff during the first World War. A staunch anti-republican, he was elected Unionist MP for North Down, co-founded the B-Specials and was deemed to be largely responsible for the pogroms against Ulster Catholics in 1921 and 1922. He was also reputed to be the one member of Lloyd George’s cabinet who insisted that Kevin Barry’s execution be carried out in 1920, despite widespread opposition across Ireland, the USA and, indeed, in the UK.

Sir Henry Wilson was shot dead outside his home in Belgravia on 22 June 1922. His assassins were two London-born veterans of the First World War, namely Reggie Dunne, Maguire’s deputy, and one-legged Joe O’Sullivan. Both men were captured, convicted of murder and hanged six weeks later. [4]

The assassination in London of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson who had been Chief of the Imperial General Staff (the professional head of the British Army) at the end of the Great War arguably triggered the Irish Civil War. Wilson’s portrait was painted by William Orpen.

The historian Tim Pat Coogan described Sir Henry’s assassination as ‘one of the most indefensible, inefficient and hopelessly heroic deeds of its kind’. Precisely how involved Maguire was remains unclear. Dunne and O’Sullivan may have been acting of their own accord in a bid to provoke the British and reunite the divided forces of Irish nationalism. They may have been following an order given by Collins some time previously. In 1953, Joe Dolan, one of Collins’s former intelligence staff, stated that Collins had given this order to Maguire who he in turn passed it on to Dunne and O’Sullivan. Coogan also believes the order was given directly by Collins and delivered via Peg ni Braonain, a young Cumann naBan member.

However, Collins denied giving the order. His supporters generally agree that he gave the order but, amid the excitement of the Treaty and ensuing debates, he either forgot or failed to rescind it. His detractors hold that Collins simply lied to save his skin, disowning Dunne and O’Sullivan in the process. A military pension file of Mary Egan, released in may 2018, suggests the assassination was planned in 1921 before the Anglo-Irish Treaty came into being. The note from senior IRA man Mick Murphy states: “On another occasion during my visit to London we made plans at her [Mary Egan’s] house for the shooting of Sir Henry Wilson in 1921. Same did not come off at the time on account of a murder being committed in Wilson’s area and the whole place was being held up and being watched for some time … Reggie Dunne and Joe Carr were also at this meeting, and Miss Egan was conversant with the whole proceedings.”

Britain demanded vengeance for Sir Henry’s death. Dunne and O’Sullivan were said to have been acting in support of the anti-Treaty forces who, headed up by Rory O’Connor, had been occupying the Four Courts since mid-April. As such, O’Connor’s men were held accountable for the assassination. Six days after Sir Henry’s assassination, under pressure from London, Collins ordered the Free State Army to bomb the Four Courts with two 18-pounders, borrowed from the British army, thus igniting the Civil War.

Both Maguire and MacCarthy were horrified by the ensuing Civil War.

There are two versions of Maguire’s post-war story. One has him flee London in the wake of Sir Henry’s assassination, with Scotland Yard hot on his case. When the truth of his involvement in the IRB became known, he was stripped of his £4,000 pension from the Post Office, a devastating financial blow at that time. He took the pro-Treaty side during the Civil War and secured a post within the Free State’s new Civil Service. However, his attempts to modernize and Irish-ify the British system brought him into conflict with his superiors and he was dismissed with a paltry £100 [circa. €6,000 today] pay off and no pension.

Thirteen Protestant men, suspected of being informants to the British Army, were killed in and around his hometown of Dunmanway in April 1922.

The second story says that he remained in England until 1923 when he returned to Dublin and took a job in JJ Walsh’s Department within the Posts and Telegraphs. His £4,000 [circa €250,000 today] pension was moved from London to the Irish Civil Service. However, on 29th December 1924 he was summarily dismissed from his post as it was suspected that ‘the person concerned has been in close and active association with a conspiracy, the object of which was to suborn from their allegiance members of the Army and other State Services, with a view to renewing the attempt to subject the Government to pressure of an unconstitutional nature’. As the GAA Museum says, ‘Maguire was dismissed without pay; efforts by him for an investigation into his alleged role were unsuccessful and he never got the chance to prove his innocence.’

Michael Collins was intimately connected with both MacCarthy and Maguire until his death in 1922.

Jerry Gardner, author of “The World’s 50 Greatest Sporting Trophies“, writes: ‘Such a major financial and professional loss [ie: to be dismissed without pay] surely indicates something more serious, and perhaps hints of darker forces afoot. There are whispers that Maguire was involved in a conspiracy or plot against the new Irish government, and the fact that he was a supporter of the now deceased Michael Collins – and not Collins’ old rival Eamon de Valera – might explain the reason behind his shoddy treatment. Though he always maintained his innocence, Maguire was never given the opportunity to prove it. Like so many brave men who supported Collins and not de Valera, Maguire’s role and importance in the establishment of the Irish Republic were lessened and devalued.’

Penniless and in rapidly declining health, he returned to the family farm at Mallabraca, Co. Cork in 1926. He died of tuberculosis on 6 February 1927. He was 49 years old. On his final visit to Dunmanway he reputedly gave away his last £5 [c. €330 today], saying he would not need it anymore. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery with a grave marked by a Celtic cross. Shortly after his death, some of his friends in Dublin organized a collection, using the money to purchase a cup which was modelled on the Ardagh Chalice and made by Hopkins and Hopkins of O’Connell Bridge. [5] The cup was presented to the GAA in honour of a man who remains the only Protestant to have captained a team in the Senior Football Final. Kildare was the first county to win the cup in 1928.

Following the end of the civil war in 1924, the Supreme Council, under Collins’ protégé Richard Mulcahy as chairman, voted to dissolve the IRB, deeming that its goals had been achieved.


With thanks to Sean Meaney, Michael Purcell, Mark Reynolds, Jerry Gardner, Alan Milton, Sheila Flynn, Regina Lavelle, Kieran Connolly and Yvonne Harrington.


  • Meaney, Sean, Our Name Is on the Cup. The story of Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire (Cunas, 2008)
  • Walsh, Margaret, Sam Maguire: The Enigmatic Man Behind Ireland’s Most Prestigious Trophy (Kenneigh Tower Publications, 2003).


[1] Sean Meaney of the MacCarthy family contacted me in January 2015 to state that the family name is spelled ‘MacCarthy’, not ‘McCarthy’, contrary to what the GAA might say

[2] Date of birth as stated in birth certificate on file in the National Archive.

[3] It has been said that Liam MacCarthy died in penury but Sean Meaney of the family wrote to me in January 2015 to say Liam had, in fact, left a thriving business.

[4] At their trial Dunne and O’Sullivan were prevented from making the following speech from the dock to explained their actions: “We took our part in supporting the aspirations of our fellow-countrymen in the same way as we took our part in supporting the nations of the world who fought for the rights of small nationalities. The same principles for which we shed our blood on the battle-field of Europe led us to commit the act we are charged with.” In 1967, Dunne and O’Sullivan’s bodies were brought to Ireland, and reburied at Deansgrange Cemetery.

[5] The arrangements for the provision of the trophy were made by a committee of former comrades and friends and included: Dr. Patrick McCartan, Dr. Mark Ryan, Commandant Jerome Hurley, Tommy Moore, well known publican and GAA personality; Jim Kirwan, whose licensed premises was much availed by Sam Maguire and Michael Collins as a secret rendezvous; Dan Mac Auliffe and Mick Maloney both of whom had been close friends of Maguire and couriers between himself and Collins.