WW1 and the GAA - Frank 'Scout' Butler
By Michael Foley
When the firing stopped in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday November 21, 1920, the Tipperary goalkeeper Frank ‘Scout’ Butler was lying flat on the ground, arms outstretched. In the middle of the chaos, as people crushed through the exits and ran for their lives and the extent of the tragedy that claimed 14 lives began to unfold, a policeman walked over to Butler and kicked him.
“You’re one of those gunmen that killed our lads,” the policeman said, recalling the killings of 14 British agents across Dublin that morning by Michael Collins’s Squad. Burke looked at him and rolled up his sleeve, revealing a regimental army tattoo. “The last time I fired a gun was in Europe,” he said.
Another policeman was brought across to compare his tattoo with Butler’s. They both matched. When Butler told the story at home in Fethard he always reckoned his war tattoo, followed by his swift recollection of his army regiment and serial number, saved his life.
In many ways Butler’s story captured the random nature of that atrocity and the tangled mix of personal histories that ran through every part of Irish life for years after World War One. Apart from being a British Army war veteran in a team dotted with active IRA volunteers, Butler wasn’t Tipperary’s regular goalkeeper. Arthur Carroll from Templemore usually stood in goals but hadn’t travelled that weekend due to the death of his mother, obliging Butler to travel as a replacement. Any other Sunday Butler would have been playing football in Fethard, a million miles away from any more combat. Instead he had been landed back into a battlefield by pure chance.
Butler was born in February 1896, the youngest in a family of four sons and a daughter. When war broke out the same rush of young volunteers to the front that emptied communities across Europe washed through Fethard. Reports suggest 127 men marched in Fethard for the first armistice day parade in 1919. “Probably as many more never came back,” said one veteran.
As the years went on and the stories of Ireland’s war veterans either got erased or faded from history, Butler’s went the same way. Some old stories recall Butler talking about fighting in Flanders. Others place him in Mesopotamia, now Iraq. Joining the distant dots in the British army military records suggest Butler may have been a driver in the Royal Field Artillery. For now, his story remains open ended and inconclusive.
Butler returned home after the war and played for Fethard into the 1930s, dipping in and out of goals for Tipperary as required. He returned regularly to Dublin for annual Bloody Sunday commemorations with his former team mates and a plaque was unveiled in October 2017 at his grave in Fethard marking the 40th anniversary of his death in 1977, aged 81, an affectionate tribute from his own people to a footballer, soldier and survivor of a remarkable life in history.