Shirt Stories — The History of County Cork’s Blood Red Uniform

Greetings! This is part of a series on the unique and interesting stories behind the uniforms we see in sports today.

Disclaimer: The following account has not been officially confirmed anywhere I can find, but has been reported in enough places that I tend to believe in its authenticity. It has also not been officially denied by any party.

In a literal sense, a sports uniform is simple branding. Just like any corporate logo or uniform. Sorry for being that guy again.

But that doesn’t mean the uniform can’t still tell a hell of a story. Such is the case with County Cork uniforms in the Gaelic Athletic Association. In most European sports, the stories about uniforms are simple enough for historic clubs. Many of them are, at their roots some variation of “The other guys were wearing blue, so we did red.” By no means do I want to devalue those stories (because I might end up trying to write about one of them later). Other times, an act of war brings about a wardrobe change. Like, a literal act of war.

The year is 1919 and things are not going well between Ireland and England. There’s a literal war going on. Tensions had been flaring for, by most estimations, the entirety of recorded history, and in 1916 Ireland declared independence from England. County Cork became one of the areas that would be considered one of the epicenters of the fighting, starting with the Easter Rising which originated within the bounds of the county and continuing right to the end of the war.

In the face of armed military conflict, however, the national sport of Ireland was still needing to crown a national inter-county champion. The first step in this process was declaring the champions and runners up for each province. Cork was suffering an uncharacteristic lapse in form, having missed out on the All-Ireland title for 13 years. This drought marks one of only three times in their history that Cork went more than a decade without a title. Additionally, one of the most storied Hurling Counties in the country had gone consecutive years without even playing in the provincial final. These two years of relative obscurity were the longest since, and I am not even kidding, 1899-1900. Cork had appeared in every single Munster Hurling final between 1909 and 1916. This two year drought was driving the fans completely mad.

The Cork GAA organization had been involved with the IRA at the time, and to this day, the ground where Cork plays their home games is named after a former IRA soldier who would later head the GAA.

The British were reeling in County Cork and under pressure to try anything at all to gain an edge in the fight. Knowing the cultural significance of the impending Munster Provincial Hurling tournament, British soldiers broke into the GAA offices and stole the famous blue jerseys of the team that would later be nicknamed “The Rebels,” and “The Blood and the Bandage.” Both nicknames commemorate the Cork GAA and county’s central roles in the battle for Irish independence.

The theft was meant to humiliate and intimidate the team and the county. Undeterred, however, the team began simply searching for alternate jerseys. They happened upon the uniforms of a nearby club team that had recently gone defunct. The blood red shirts of the Father O’Leary Temperance Association team became the temporary shirts of the Cork team until a new batch of the blue shirts could be put together. As luck would have it, Cork ended their 16 year spell with Munster and All-Ireland championships, the reprint of the old blue and saffron shirts was put on hold, and the rest is history. Cork have proudly worn blood red jerseys ever since.

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