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Descendants of GAA founder visit Croke Park for first time

GAA President Jarlath Burns presenting a hurl with the GAA crest and McKay family crest to Philip Byrne, Simon McKay, Emilia McKay, and Patrick McKay at Croke Park.

GAA President Jarlath Burns presenting a hurl with the GAA crest and McKay family crest to Philip Byrne, Simon McKay, Emilia McKay, and Patrick McKay at Croke Park.

By Dónal McAnallen, Coiste na Staire CLG

Today at Páirc an Chrócaigh is an occasion of remarkable reconnection with its past, when the direct descendants of one of the GAA’s founders will visit for the first time, having just learned of their family and sporting heritage.

Patrick McKay has travelled over from Kent, along with daughter Emilia and son Simon, on a life-changing ‘DNA journey’, as they retrace the steps of John McKay, their great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather respectively, and a founding father of this Association.

You might imagine that if you were one of the closest living links to the formation of the GAA 140 years ago in 1884, you would know about it. Especially today, with so many newly available genealogical records to hand, the drawing up of family trees is more popular than ever.

If the story of John McKay proves anything, however, it’s that family history isn’t always so simple.

McKay was one of the seven famed figures who formed the GAA at Hayes’ Hotel, Thurles, on 1 November. Though an Ulster native, he represented Cork Amateur Athletic Club, and was no token attendee.

Working as a correspondent for the Cork Examiner, he wrote the most extensive report of the first meeting that was published in the press.

He was also elected joint secretary of the GAA, along with Michael Cusack and John Wyse Power.

McKay’s interest lay primary in track-and-field athletics. Not only did he organise many athletics events around Munster during the crucial first two years of the GAA, but he served as a timekeeper as well, and did much to publicise these through newspaper articles.

The late Marcus de Búrca, in his official history book of the GAA, declared that after Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin, McKay was probably the third most crucial official in the early development of the association.

He retired from his role as joint Rúnaí in August 1886, and remained involved in Cork athletics for some years.

The rest of his life was more noted for his journalistic career, which led to his return for a second stint in Belfast in 1894, then to Dublin in 1900, back to Cork around 1910, and finally to London – where his two sons were already living – in the early 1910s.

His death in London in 1923 was reported in some Irish newspapers, but otherwise he became a largely forgotten figure in his native land.

Long before 2009, when the GAA’s 125 Years Committee sought to ensure that each of the famed seven founders had a suitable memorial, memory of where McKay was born or buried had faded into oblivion.

A furious search led to the discovery that he was born in Downpatrick and buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green, London. The GAA then erected a gravestone for John McKay, his wife Nellie (1854-1949), his son Patrick Joseph (1887-1929), and grandson Patrick Joseph Jr (aged 10 days in 1917).

John McKay, one of the founders of the GAA. 

John McKay, one of the founders of the GAA. 

Having attended that event in London, I was determined to find out if there was more to the story. What if there were direct descendants who could call this grave their own, and reconnect with and cherish a bloodline that had long been forgotten?

My fitful efforts to find out more didn’t get very far for the next nine years. In 2018, however, I discovered in an obscure record that not only a second grandson, Denis Paul McKay, had been born in 1928 (and lived until 2008), but that he in turn had two sons, who were born in Fulham in 1950-51.

Intriguingly, Denis Paul McKay died intestate and his estate went to the state, only for this to be revoked in 2011. This suggested very strongly that he had at least one legitimate heir still living, probably at least one of his great-grandsons. Yet no further records of these two records came to light though, despite my increasingly desperate attempts to find them.

The approach of the centenary of John McKay’s death in December 2023 spurred me on to make another push to find them. I knew that the great-grandsons, if still living, would now be in their early seventies.

The GAA in Britain held a very fitting centenary event at John McKay’s graveside on 2 December last. Wreaths were laid; ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ and ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’ were sung; and a piper played. In an address next to the headstone, I told the stories and appealed for help to find direct descendants in London.

The previous day I had pounded the streets of London, chasing ghosts at former McKay addresses.

As I walked from Fulham Broadway tube station to the house where the great-grandsons were born, something very serendipitous happened. The street names in the last mile were leading me to him: Clonmel Road, Rostrevor Road, Munster Avenue and Burnfoot Avenue. Each seemed to have some link to the lifetime trail of McKay.

Patrick McKay pictured visiting the gravestone of his great-grandfather and founder of the GAA, John McKay. 

Patrick McKay pictured visiting the gravestone of his great-grandfather and founder of the GAA, John McKay. 

I went home and tried something different. Why not search through online records by address?

I typed in Burnfoot Avenue. The eighth and final mention in newspaper archives had it. A letter from a Mrs K. Priest, formerly of this address and now living in the Isle of Wight, to the Fulham Chronicle, and referring to her son Patrick McKay having just run the London Marathon of 1982. She had obviously remarried and changed name.

From that, after fourteen years of stasis, everything came together quickly.

I searched online for a Patrick McKay on the Isle of Wight. This led me to see a picture of a man who looked the right age and even bearing a little resemblance to John McKay.

One of his ‘friends’ on social media was a Simon McKay who could be his son and owned a business in Kent.

Nervously, I prepared to call the business. I feared that I might be rebuffed. Who was I but a mad Irishman? He might not want to know.

‘Hello Simon ... Is your father Patrick Terence McKay, born in Fulham in 1950?’


Eureka! I managed to sound still a little sane and keep his attention. Within minutes I had emailed the family tree to him.

That night, I had a two-and-a-half hour call with Patrick McKay and his daughter Emilia, telling them much of the family history. To my delight, they were willing to embrace it.

It transpired that Patrick knew nothing about his father’s background. He had believed he was from Dundee. He had no clue about a paternal link to Ireland, let alone the GAA.

Patrick McKay pictured visiting his ancestral homeland of Downpatrick in County Down. 

Patrick McKay pictured visiting his ancestral homeland of Downpatrick in County Down. 

There was one more extraordinary vignette. He knew that his maternal line was Irish, for the family had visited Ireland once, in 1957. He had one photograph of that visit – standing in front of the statue of St Patrick in Kilkenny, along with his younger brother Joseph, and both holding camáns.

Not then or in the 66 years till we spoke did he realise his ancestor’s central role in establishing an organisation for hurling and setting its rules.

This week, Patrick McKay has made his maiden trip to Ulster.

On Wednesday he and his daughter visited the ancestral family homestead in Downpatrick and were hosted to dinner by the GAA’s Down County Board.

Yesterday they attended a function to mark the reinstallation of the John McKay plaque on the new Irish News office in Belfast.

A family history has come full circle, with a happy ending.

Today, one of the closest living links to the foundation of the GAA has been celebrated, through a meeting of Patrick McKay and children with Uachtarán Jarlath Burns.

More dreams come true on this field of dreams.