June 30, 2002
Joe Barrett, perhaps the greatest Kerryman of all
If he were alive today, Joe Barrett would have just passed his 100th birthday. The 50th anniversary of his death occurred only a few months ago (he died of a protracted illness on June 2, 1952).
The renowned Kerry fullback was born into a nationalistic family at 67 Rock Street, Tralee and it was within those four walls that he drew his last breath. At the age of 45, his health started to fail and he was dead before his 50th birthday.
During his all too short life, the many facets of distinguished career in sport, business and politics came into the public domain under different headings.
He was, first and foremost, an outstanding footballer who also played other sports like hurling, billiards and snooker.
He was a successful businessman, a republican activist who suffered imprisonment and had the harrowing experience of being frog-marched down Rock Street past his own mother and family on his way to jail after being arrested in September 1922. When he was 15, he joined the Irish Volunteers and he remained active throughout the duration of the War of Independence. He took the republican side in the tragic Civil War that followed the signing of the Treaty.
While in jail he embarked on a 22-day hunger strike which undoubtedly affected his health in later life.
Born on July 17, 1902, Joe Barrett was the third of five sons and six daughters. His father, John, was a well know pig and cattle dealer and his mother, Nora O'Mahony, hailed from Ballyduff. The influence in his home was strongly Catholic and nationalist and those were the values that were handed on to his family.
In 1915, after the age of 57, the future Kerry full-back, at the age of 13, followed his older brother, Christy, into the family business. World War One was raging at the time and the export of bacon and other meats created a huge demand which kept the Barretts gainfully employed through their agency for the two local bacon factories.
Droving, feeding and cleaning out from animals was usually the chore which fell to the younger male members of the household and he would have been very familiar with this activity during his formative years.
Tragedy was to strike the family again two years later when the eldest brother, Christy, died on November 15, 1918 at the age of 30 after contracting pneumonia during the great flu epidemic. The onus then fell on Joe at the age of 16 and his younger brother Jimmy (14) to hold the business together. It proved a baptism of fire for both in a most competitive environment which required a great deal of credibility, honour and ready cash, With fairs held almost on a daily basis, it took a hefty bankroll to stay afloat financially but, somehow, against all odds the Barretts survived.
Political activity impinged greatly on the daily grind of making a living and with no member of the family earning it is clear that funds were low when Joe and Jimmy Barrett and their sister Brigid were released from jail in 1922.
Rebuilding the family business from scratch is a story in itself. Boycott and intimidation were just two of the many difficulties encountered.
In 1935 Joe married Kitty Barrett from Fenit (who is still alive and well) and four children were born to the couple who set up home in Tralee.
John, the eldest, was a noted sports journalist with The Kerryman, The Irish Press and The Irish Post before his untimely death in June 1995, Tim, who died tragically in a motor accident at the age of 35, captained the Kerry minors in the 1954 All-Ireland final. A high-ranking trade union official in Dublin, he left a widow and six young children who later settled in Florida.
Frances (Mrs Delaney) lives in Leixlip while the youngest member of the family Jo Jo, is a well known journalist and author who lives in Bray, Co Wicklow. He won senior and under-21 All-Ireland medals and was considered one of the best men ever to have held this position. He won four National Leagues, 10 Munster championships, three Railway Cups as well as playing for Ireland against America in the Tailteann Games in 1928 and 1932 when he was named captain of the side.
A younger brother, Tommy, won two senior All-Ireland medals with Kerry.
During his illustrious career, Joe played with the Tralee and Rock Street selections that won seven county football titles. He also won seven county hurling championships.
In an obituary notice published in The Kerryman on June 7, 1952, Patrick Foley(P.F.) wrote: "I have never seen a full-back the equal of joe Barrett. He had a powerful kick, on or off the ground with either foot. He was a safe highfielder. His brilliant clearances were always accompanied by a dull Kerry roar during the memorable matches with Kildare, 1926-31."
P D Mehigan (Carbery) wrote: "Joe Barrett of Tralee is still spoken of as one of the greatest full backs of all time. He was both cool and resolute with the strength and pluck of a lion. He tore his way out of difficulties, could sore high for a catch and had bounding energy. Truly, an iron man".
Powerfully built, he stood close to six feet in height and had unending stamina. A regular training exercise of his was to walk from Tralee to Ballyheigue (24 miles return). After undergoing major surgery before his death, one of Dublin's leading surgeons informed him that he had "never cut through so much muscle". A back-handed compliment that brought little consolation.
Having captained Kerry twice to All-Ireland honours (1929 and 1932) he could have carved a special niche in GAA history had he opted to accept the captaincy that was again thrust upon him in 1931. Instead, he handed the honour to his erstwhile political enemy, Con Brosnan, who was an officer in the Free State army. This magnanimous gesture denied him the honour of becoming the only man ever to captain three All-Ireland winning teams.
In taking this step, the legendary full-back who was a Kerry football icon in the 1920's and '30s helped in no small way to heal the deep wounds which the Civil War had left among the people if Kerry.
This was his finest hour.
Courtesy of the Kerryman
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