Big H’s first pack of Galahs

In August 1884 Michael Cusack met a group of nationalists in Loughrea, County Galway, and outlined his plans to establish a national organisation for Irish athletes.  He wanted to revive hurling, Gaelic football, camogie and other traditional Gaelic activities. He believed that the revival of these activities would enrich the culture of the nation and further Gaelic ideals.  The Gaelic Athletic Association grew from this meeting. As part of the process of strengthening national identity, it codified Gaelic football in the following year.

About eighty-two years later, the GAA received a pugnacious telegram from Harry Beitzel, a Melbourne radio commentator and retired Victorian Football League umpire.  It read as follows:

We challenge your Irish team to full sixty-minute game Gaelic – no compromises. Think we can win. Do not wish to travel 12,000 miles for an exhibition game.

Here was the perfect opportunity for the Irish to test their skills against a team of foreigners.  The GAA seized this challenge, promising Beitzel that County Meath – the reigning All-Ireland champions in Gaelic football – would take on the Australian team.  The last Sunday in October 1967 was set aside for the clash at Croke Park in Dublin.  The Meath team was a good one. Having won the All-Ireland final in late September, the Irish Times told its readers that the men from Meath were “mustard keen” and “thriving on the grind”.

Having persuaded the Irish to take up the challenge, Harry Beitzel set about to generate publicity and enthusiasm for the contest.  The VFL season had come to a close in early September.  The Spring Racing Carnival had begun to capture the attention of Melbourne sports fans.  But Beitzel made sure that his team got some good exposure. He asked his star players to wear a slouch hat as part of the official team uniform.  The State President of the Returned Services League of Australia in a letter to Beitzel pointed out that the choice of headgear was “in very bad taste”, provoking howls of protest from the RSL sub-branches.  The Herald was quick to print parts of the letter and Beitzel’s response to it.  Dismissing the RSL’s claim that the hat was “ludicrous”, Beitzel told the Herald reporter that it was “nifty and natty”.  He claimed that “no matter where Australian diggers congregated during the war there was always a football being kicked around”.  Beitzel’s willingness to dismiss the concerns of the RSL – traditionally, the conservative custodian of Australia’s national heritage – tapped into larger trend away from unswerving obedience to institutions and figures of authority.

Percy Cerruty, an athletics coach, described the players in their uniforms as “a pack of galahs.”  With an eye on generating publicity, even though older Australians had used that word as slang to describe an affable idiot or buffoon, Beitzel embraced this term as the name of team.

Meanwhile, the Irish press was doing its bit in generating enthusiasm for the contest. On 21 October 1967, the Gaelic Weekly told its readers that:

The Australian Rules Footballers will arrive in Dublin on Friday next for their mammoth spectacular at Croke Park. It could mark the beginning of a new era with regular Ireland versus Australia games and Irish teams making trips Down Under.

The Galahs had about six weeks to adapt to Gaelic football.  Beitzel and Barassi built the team around key-position players such as Royce Hart and John Nicholls.  At that stage, Hart had played one season of senior VFL football.  Having been brought to Richmond from Tasmania in 1965 (on a famous promise that included Hart receiving six Pelaco business shirts so that he had some clothes for his new job as a bank teller), the Tigerland selectors promoted him to the senior side at the beginning of 1967.  He had a stellar season at full forward, helping his team beat Geelong in a tight grand final.  When Carlton recruited Nicholls from Maryborough in central Victoria, he did not receive any special treatment.  The coach of the senior side, Percy Bentley, described Nicholls curtly as “that little fat bugger”. Despite this initial description, he became a champion ruckman.

Beitzel and Barassi selected other club champions including: John Dugdale, Norm Brown, Bill Barrot, Graeme Chalmers, Ian Law, Ken Fraser, Barry Davis and Bob Skilton.  Fearful that he would be injured, the St. Kilda Football Club would not let Ross Smith go on the tour.  Bob Keddie, the youngest member of the touring party, got a late call up.

At a press conference held on the tarmac of the Dublin airport, Beitzel told the Irish reporters that the Australian team had “mastered” the Gaelic code in about six weeks.  He expressed the hope that, in the future, representative sides from both countries would play a regular series according to a hybrid set of rules.  Barassi told the reporters that, apart from the ban on tackling, the Australians had been quick to adapt to the rules of the Gaelic code.  One Irish journalist referred to the VFL players as “the bronzed Aussie giants, in their sleeveless jerseys, looking like a line-up for a Mr. Universe contest”.

The Australian team faced the All-Ireland champions at Croke Park, the famous Dublin stadium, on the following Sunday afternoon.  About 23,000 spectators turned out to see the game.  It got off to a cracking start when Oliver Shanley of Meath scored a point after thirty seconds of play.  But the defensive work of Graeme Chalmers and Ian Law made it difficult for the Meath men to reproduce this sort of attacking play. The Australians dominated the remainder of the game.  At the ten-minute mark of the first quarter, Bob Skilton scored the first goal of the game. The Melbourne Herald reported that he sidestepped five defenders before punching the round ball into the back of Meath’s net.  Near the end of the first half, Royce Hart managed to kick two quick goals.  These goals flowed from two spectacular marks (“high fielding” in Irish parlance), the type for which Hart had become famous.

The Irish spectators marvelled at the ease with which the Australian players combined pace and anticipation.  Hart thrilled the crowd with his ability to leap into the air.  Bob Skilton and Hassa Mann stunned the Meath men as well as the crowd with their use of fast, accurate punt kicks on the run.  Paddy Down, the Gaelic football reporter for the Irish Times, wrote that Barry Davis stood out in the Australian team of champions.  According to the Irish scribe, Davis was a “tremendous athlete and possibly, the best full back ever to appear at Croke Park.”  In the second half, Davis drew roars of generous applause from the crowd as he launched a number of effective counter-attacks.  Down also noted that, apart from some bursts of spirited play from Kerrigan and Reynolds, the Meath players were “overwhelmed by what looked like a team of supermen.”

The Irish reaction to this crushing defeat of the All-Ireland champions was generous and outward looking. Journalists and officials of the GAA heaped praise on the Australians. An editorial in the Irish Times declared that “the cobwebs of conservatism [had been] blown away by the Australians.”  A week later the Australians proved that the victory over Meath was not a fluke.  The Galahs defeated County Mayo, the runners-up to County Meath in the All-Ireland final.

The Australians captured the imagination of Irish, including the politicians. About one week after the Meath game, the candidates for the Newcastlewest by-election addressed the voters at a public meeting. Mr. O’Malley, the Minister for Education and a member of the Fianna Fail party, was nearing the end of his speech when Mr. Sweatman of the Fine Gael party interjected.  According to the newspaper reports, the following exchange then took place:

Mr. Sweatman:            “Mr. O’Malley only believes in keeping the rules when it suits him.”

Mr. O’Malley:              “The only hope Fine Gael have of defeating Fianna Fail is to call in the Australians.”

Less than twenty-four hours after the game against Mayo, the Australians played an American-Irish team at Gaelic Park in New York.  The New Yorkers adopted a physical approach to curb the skill and pace of the tourists.  Peter Costigan covered this game for the Melbourne Herald.  He reported that Brendan Tumulty – a tough detective from the Bronx – broke a finger by belting Ron Barassi.  The six-time Premiership player was forced to the fence with a broken nose.  Plainly, the champion’s reputation did not trouble Tumulty at all.  Having received a blow to the back of the head late in the second half, Hassa Mann ended up in hospital with a broken jaw.  Although the Galahs fought back in the second half, the ‘New York Stars’ held them off to record a hard-fought victory.

An Irish team came to Australia in 1968.  But the games did not really attract the attention that they deserved.  Alf Brown of The Herald – the doyen of Australian Rules football journalists at that time – wrote that the game was “pathetic.”  Beitzel’s bold experiment was ahead of its time and, as the promoter of the first tour and subsequent tours, he incurred heavy financial losses. In the early 1970s, the bold experiment lost momentum.

In 1984, the VFL and the GAA developed a set of “Compromise Rules” for a three test series at the end of that year.  The Australian series won two of the three test matches.  Since that series, there have been reasonably regular hybrid games between the two nations.  In October 1999, a crowd of almost 65,000 at the MCG saw the Irish defeat the Australians.  Writing in The Sunday Age, Martin Flanagan described the game as “breathtakingly offensive” and “like watching soccer on speed.”

On Sunday morning (Melbourne time), the GAA representative side will play the Australian Indigenous All-Stars at Croke Park.  They will play for the Cormac McAnallen Cup.  This is a new chapter in the history of International Rules Tests.  Motlop, Stokes, Wells and others indigenous stars will doubtless excite the crowds at Croke Park on this occasion.  It is a development of which Beitzel, the trailblazer, would be proud.

About Rob Heath

Rob Heath is a barrister based in Melbourne. He enjoys watching the football at Kardinia Park with his father and son. In 1999, Rob, Adrian Anderson, Peter Cullen and Jim Main complied & edited a book titled “COACH! Inspiration & Perspiration” (Information Australia, Melbourne, 2000).


  1. I have a near full set of the old football newspaper – Footy Week – that Harry Beitzel published between 1965-71 and it gives great coverage to the series in 1967-68. There was another tour in 1978 as well.

    When the series was relaunched in 1984, the Gaelic games were like Interstate matches for me when I watched them with fascination in 1984 and 1986 as I was always interested by the players in other comps – particularly as All-Australian Captain Steve Malaxos was joining the Hawks in 1985 it was a small preview. I still have all those 6 games on video with Peter Landy announcing there was a donnybrook breaking out when there was a big all in in the 1984 series.

    It is still an interesting series but unlikely to ever get big crowds in Australia again so it is better to hold the games in Ireland.

  2. Paul Daffey says

    Love it, Rob.

    A great historical piece.

    The Irish have always given more credence to these games than the Australia.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Interesting historical read what I thought of 1st , was what Franklin is being paid compared to what Royce Hart , goy for signing on , and John Nicholls , surely Aust Rules Payments , has increased more than anything else in Australia.
    Remember the 84 . Series well when Garry McIntosh announced himself to the rest of Aust , ironic that John Dugdale , is mentioned when Macca , complained that a
    Doug Dale , bloke from Nth Melb , keeps ringing me you will never get another case of blind loyalty to his club in his case Norwood , ever again .
    McIntosh and Greg Williams went toe to toe and were line ball in state games he would have been a VFL , superstar even more so in that back then there were so many muddy grounds which suited Macca
    I reckon the Irish Rules , is dying a natural death no interest what so ever any more
    Thanks Rob a lot o research would have gone in too thi article !

  4. Josh's dad says

    Have a “Football Life” magazine from that era with Bob Skilton on the cover in Touring uniform complete with slouch hat and holding a Galah, bird.

  5. Great story Rob

  6. This article ended up forming the basis of a film ‘The Galahs’, that Rob Heath and I made. More information here We spoke to many of the surviving Australian and Irish players. It opened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, 2016 .

  7. And Cam Fink! I left off that Cam made the film too.

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