Northern Ireland

The 'Battle of Balmoral' revisited more than 100 years later

Jasper Brett Image copyright IRFU archives
Image caption Jasper Brett from Dublin, who was educated at Monkstown Park School in Dublin and the Royal School in Armagh, was making his Ireland debut in the game

With the Six Nations competition under way, we take a look back at the most violent match between Ireland and Wales.

In March 1914, in the compact surroundings of the Balmoral Showgrounds in Belfast, the Irish team had home advantage, and in front of a partisan crowd they felt they had every chance of defeating the Welsh.

Such was the demand for tickets that special trains were laid on for day trippers from Dublin.

Those who could afford first class paid 14 shillings to make the journey north.

Last contest

The Welsh team arrived in Belfast knowing that a defeat would put an end to any thoughts of winning the championship.

They did not know at the time that this would be the last contest with the Irish team for six years.

Five months later the Great War would begin, and rugby internationals were about to become irrelevant.

The Welsh pack was one of the most feared in rugby circles, and because of the physical way they played the game their forwards had been given the nickname 'The Terrible Eight'.

The game marked an important moment in the lives of two young Irishmen, Jasper Brett and Vincent McNamara.

Nineteen year-old Brett from Dublin, who was educated at Monkstown Park School in Dublin and the Royal School in Armagh, was making his Ireland debut.

As Brett took to the field in Belfast he joined Cork man Vincent McNamara who, like Brett, had caught the attention of the selectors in recent months.

'Fireworks'

Within the opening minutes, as the rain lashed down, the Irish team decided to get their retaliation in first and the chief agitator was the Ulsterman Billy Tyrell.

As Welsh player Percy Jones recalled: "We did not have long to wait before the fireworks started. In the first few minutes Tyrell got me and everything inside my head rattled."

Tyrell's punch was the first of many that were traded between opposing players. Soon it seemed that every player on the pitch was involved in a fist fight or scuffle.

Tyrell and Jones had a series of fights, and none of the incidents led to penalties or action by the referee.

Rugby correspondent W J Townsend Collins recalled: "Enough happened under the very nose of the referee and in full view of the press to justify the ordering off of half a dozen players.

"Scores of times, men were tackled and flung to the ground when they were yards from the ball; frequently blows were exchanged; there were times when this game was more like a free fight than scientific rugby football."

The game did not go Ireland's way, and in the closing stages they lost two players to injury.

Image copyright University College Cork
Image caption Vincent McNamara, from Cork, seen here seated, had caught the attention of the selectors in recent months

At full-time the visitors had chalked up a goal and two tries against Ireland's sole try, making the Welsh 11-3 winners.

Three of those who played that day would fight in the Great War and never return home.

The Welsh forward Dai Watts, would die in 1916 on the Western Front. His body would never be recovered.

'Commemorated'

Jasper Brett and Vincent McNamara never played again for Ireland. Brett's appearance in 'The Battle of Balmoral' would be his only Irish cap.

Vincent McNamara joined the British Army and was killed in an explosion in Gallipoli in November 1915 and today his name is commemorated on the Lancashire Landing Memorial.

Jasper Brett fought at Gallipoli and suffered shell shock and was discharged by the hospital authorities, who declared that he was unfit for military service and he returned to Dublin.

On Sunday 4 February 1917, he left the family home and went for a walk.

He walked into a railway tunnel and was hit by a train. An inquest later ruled he had taken his own life.

He and his teammate Vincent McNamara lived similar lives. They were talented sportsmen from an early age, at school, club and international level.

Men who over a century ago played their part in 'The Battle of Balmoral'.