Killarney’s earliest recorded links with rugby date back to the 1800’s and while we have been unable to unearth much material relating to that period, notable players of the era were Jack McKay and MacGillycuddy of the Reeks. Early matches were played in the Cricket Field, a piece of ground on the northern banks of the Flesk opposite the Gleneagle Pitch & Putt course and now owned by the O’Shea family of Cleeney. Among the great players of that time was Dr William O’Sullivan (Queen’s College Cork - now UCC) who became the first Killarney man to earn senior international honours when capped for Ireland against Scotland in 1895. Other Killarney players to carve their names into rugby history at the turn of the century were District Inspector Cruise, Jerome O’Leary and a teacher in St Brendan’s College, known simply as ‘The Professor’, who played with Cork Constitution. In 1913 Killarney provided its second international player, Jerome Guerin, who made his debut against France in 1913 but tragically who lost his life in that country during the First World War.
A meeting of interested parties was held early in 1928 which resulted in Mr. Jack O'Connor, securing a playing pitch at Countess Road from the Earl of Kenmare. At a general meeting held in the Commercial Club, New Street, on the 28th April, 1928, it was unanimously decided to establish a rugby club in the district and the following was the first committee elected to run the affairs of Killarney Rugby Football Club: President: The Earl of Kenmare. Vice-President: Senator Dr. William O'Sullivan, Major John MacGillycuddy, The MacGillycuddy of The Reeks, A. R. Vincent, Esq., Sir Maurice O'Connell, Very Rev. Denis Moynihan, Adm., V.F., and Rev. Dean Rowan. Hon. Treasurers: Messrs. James Eagan and Jack Martin. Hon. Secretary: Michael J. Rohan. Captain: Jack Sewell. Committee: Messrs. Jack O'Connor, Jimmie Egan, J.D. H. O'Connor, Jim Flaherty, Liam Trant McCarthy, Charles Lynch, Jerome O'Leary, Jim Corcoran, Robin P. Hilliard and Connie O'Connor. The club had a hard core of players with senior experience such as Neilly O'Flaherty (Dolphin), Marcus O'Sullivan, Jim Corcoran, and Jimmie Egan (Constitution), Cal McCarthy (Sunday's Well). Dave O'Leary (Blackrock) and Dr. Billy O'Sullivan (U.C.C.) and the club enjoyed admirable success for several years.
The fledgling club suffered a severe blow with the death in a motor accident of two sterling members, Jim Corcoran and Maurice FitzGerald in 1930. In 1931 James Egan became the third Killarney man to be capped for his country, while in 1935 both Tom Guihan of Kenmare and Dr. Billy O'Sullivan steered U.C.C. to a Munster Senior Cup victory. The young Dr Billy captained that team and thereby emulated the feat of his father in the same competition forty years previously. up to 1935. Emigration and the war then took its toll and the club more or less ceased to function for almost another two decades.
Club was re-established in the 1953/54 season with Eddie Dillon as captain, Sean O'Sullivan as secretary, and the indomitable Jock Skelton trainer. These three, along with Dr. Des Hayes, Jack Scully and Willie O'Brien, ensured that the Club was placed on a sound footing and enjoyed a sustained period of success right up to the early 70’s. Indeed Willie, from Glenflesk, who went on to establish the well-known and very successful William O’Brien Plant & Crane Hire business in Cork, captained the McGillicuddy and Galwey-Foley Cup winning sides in the 1954/55 season, while Jack Bernard did likewise the following year and even went one better by reaching the semi-finals of the Munster Junior Cup. With Killarney well established as a tourist destination, the local club showed great initiative that season by bringing the Welsh side Aberavon G.S. to play in Killarney. Secretary Sean O'Sullivan retired after rendering sterling service to the club and was replaced by Liam O'Connor, while Dan Healy led his men to the final of the Cork County Cup against Cobh Pirates in 1956/57.
The club made further history by being the first Kerry side to tour overseas when they played in Port Talbot and Margan, South Wales, in the same season. Sean O'Reilly was captain in 1957/58 when Killarney captured the coveted Aberavon Shield, becoming the first Irish side to defeat the Welsh junior champions. 1958/59 saw Martin O'Halloran installed as captain and Creagh Downing as secretary and the highlights of the year were the three drawn games with the 'Island for the Galway-Foley Cup’ when even extra time could not produce a decisive result. John O'Connor led his 1959/60 side to victory for the first time in the Hayes Cup, but they were narrowly defeated by a point in the Cork County Cup. In the same season the first English visitors, Manchester De La Salle, visited Killarney and the first inter-county game of rugby for many years was played against Clare at the Cricket Field, when Kerry were captained by John O'Connor with club members Dave Slattery, Michael O'Leary, Tom Foley and Charlie Fleming also on the side. In the same season John McMahon took over as secretary, former captain, Willie O'Brien, was elected to the Munster Branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union and Michael O'Leary became the first Killarney man to gain a junior inter-provincial cap. In the 1961/62 season Tom Foley was a most popular and capable captain of a side that retained the Hayes Cup, Palmerston were the first Dublin side to visit Killarney, Dave Slattery earned a Munster junior cap and John McMahon and Willie O'Brien were made a members of the Munster Referees Association.
The following season Dave Slattery (D.D. or Slatts to his friends) had the unique honour of captaining the Killarney ‘Selection’ that welcomed the notorious Touring Wolfhounds to Killarney for a much publicised exhibition match. Sadly Slatts passed away in July 2008. He was a great supporter of the club for over half a century and it is testament to his popularity far and wide that a huge gathering of rugby folk from throughout the country turned up to pay their last respects to one of many fine characters our club has known over the years.
A larger than life character in the club at that time was of James "Chumin" Coffey, who acted as Vice-President of the Club and a veteran of many a game with the club and the quintessential club-man in that whatever the task Chuimin was your man.
In the late 1960’s and early 70’s the club enjoyed further successes, despite the difficulties the infamous GAA ban visited on ‘foreign’ games such as rugby. Mighty men such Slatts and Mike O’Leary kept the flag flying in the company of the Lyne brothers from Faugh, the McCarthy brothers from Deerpark, Dave Power from Puck, the Lynes, Park Road, Leo Malone etc. Throughout that time the Rugby Club had a great social profile and tickets for its annual New Year’s Eve Dress Dance were like the proverbial gold dust. Ironically, while the club went into hibernation in the late 70’s from a playing perspective, the annual ball continued to be a feature on the town’s social calendar!
For no obvious reason the club did not function for about 10 years up until 1983. During that time postmaster, Sean O’Sullivan, who had been founding Secretary in 1953, strove relentlessly to maintain a juvenile rugby presence in the town but his was an uphill battle. He and a few other diehards such as Jack Scully and Eddie Dillon used to plague new comers to town – bankers, teachers, guards etc. – who might have a leaning towards rugby to see would they initiate a revival.
Their persistence paid off and in 1983 an inaugural AGM was called for Killarney Rugby Football Club in an upstairs room in the Failte Hotel. Sean O’Sullivan was again appointed Secretary, Junior Finnegan (an economic migrant from Gort in Galway, who had just arrived in town) was appointed Coach, Conor O’Mahony was elected Captain. Liam McGuire was appointed Treasurer. The first training session was held in the Demesne, Killarney (shortly afterwards several trees were planted by the Board of Works so as to ensure no further training could take place in that location!) and everyone was very pleased with the numbers attending. Mike, John & Declan Fuller, Kevin, Dee & Ben Sullivan, Seamus Kelly, Pete O’Sullivan, John Dermody, John O’Connor, Dave Whitby, Dan McSweeney, Mike Sheehan, Ger O’Leary, Mike McGuire and the officers mentioned above were all present and a couple of matches were arranged with Tralee and Bandon. The results of these games were very encouraging and it was evident that a viable club had been reborn. Today many of these epople remain actively involved in the Club as it continues to grow and develop. The Club has a fast growing under age section catering for in excess of 240 children under the age of 18. It is these members that will ensure the future of the Club goin forward.