When a group of men sat down in the billiard room of Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles at 3pm on Saturday 1st November 1884 they hoped to establish an organisation that would rekindle Irish nationality and provide an athletic pastime for the masses.
Those intentions have underpinned the GAA since its inception and should be remembered in this year, the 100-year anniversary of the 1916 Rising.
The GAA will mark the Rising in many different ways. On Sunday April 24th a commemorative event will be linked to the Allianz League Division 1 and 2 football finals in Croke Park with TG4 televising the full programme. O’Neill’s released a commemorative jersey and the Cork County Board commemorations saw their hurlers wear a blue jersey against Kilkenny for the Allianz League game on March 12th in Pairc Ui Rinn.
So far this year the media has faced growing criticism for its coverage of the 1916 anniversary, with accusations suggesting commentary has been cliché-ridden and devoid of context. Much recent commentary has ignored the vast amount of research done in the last 20 years, such as the recent publication of The GAA and Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923, which the association supported.
Numerous historians have analysed the GAA’s role in the rising with varying conclusions about their significance, but widely accepted is that basic fact: the GAA did have a role in the rising; a role that exhibits what they were established to represent.
It started from the day of the association’s birth. Two of the seven men definitely in attendance that day were known IRB members, John Wyse Power and J.K. Bracken. From there the GAA’s relationship with an ever-growing and radicalising nationalist movement grew.
RIC reports during the 1890s would appear to suggest that every member of the GAA was a Fenian and the whole organisation and its activity was a cover for treasonable practises, demonstrating RIC paranoia more than the reality.
As time went on members of the GAA began to appear on the authority’s radar. The Dublin Metropolitan Police drew up a list of the most dangerous Fenians and IRB members in Dublin in 1888. Included on that list were prominent GAA organisers P.N. Fitzgerald and P.J. Hoctor. Throughout the 1890s meetings under the guise of the National Council took place between the IRB, Sinn Fein and the GAA.
GAA secretary Luke O’Toole spoke on stage when the Dublin Irish Volunteers were formally established on the 25th November 1913. In the same year the Dublin Leader recommended every GAA club look at the example of the Ulster Volunteers and form such a movement. President James Nowlan told every member to join the volunteers and “learn to shoot straight” in front of a large crowd at Wexford in 1914.
The recruitment of Irish men to the British army was widespread, including many GAA men. On the other hand, the core of the GAA rising almost, although not quite, to the top attempted to orchestrate radicalisation during the war. Rule 21, banning members of the British forces from membership of the GAA, was not implemented widely until after the rising.
In certain counties there was a formidable link between the parties directly involved in the Rising and the GAA. In Kerry for example, the GAA chairman, Austin Stack, was also the head of the IRB and the Irish Volunteers in the county.
Before the 1915 Kerry-Wexford All-Ireland final he smuggled weapons from Dublin to Kerry and the night of the final a meeting between volunteer leaders and GAA Central Council took place. In Dublin, GAA President Harry Boland was also a leading member of the city’s IRB and active in the rising.
The various infiltration and co-operation of the bodies that would go on to contribute to the rising incorporated the GAA as well. Cumann na mBan held a collection on March 19th 1916 before a GAA match in Wexford for theirs and the Irish Volunteers’ benefit.
As Richard McElligott, lecturer in modern Irish history at UCD, points out, it is now clear that as a whole the GAA was not active in the actual rising and its national leadership were not aware of the planned rebellion, despite the contrary being “forcefully argued by historians of the GAA in the decades following Irish independence. Clear evidence of this can be seen in the fact that just 24 hours before the rising, the GAA’s Annual Convention took place.”
While the top brass of the GAA did not endorse the rising they did face considerable reprisal because of it. The under secretary to the Lord Lieutenant, Matthew Nathan, told how he felt the association helped plan the rising. In response the GAA told the Rebellion Commission and national press they were a non-political and non-sectarian entity, but that members were permitted to join any political body they choose.
The GAA was an essential part of life for numerous participants in the rising. The declaration of martial law after the rebellion resulted in Gaelic games being suspended and many members were imprisoned. Joseph Connell has written about Frongoch internment camp in north Wales, where many young Irish men were interned.
Here the GAA community manifested once more. Gaelic football contests were organised by former All-Ireland-winning captain Dick Fitzgerald and London GAA man Michael Collins. Two games were played daily and a league competition was also organised, with teams named after the Rising’s leaders. Eventually inter-county contests developed and the main pitch in Frongoch was renamed Croke Park.
Frongoch has become notorious for radicalising many young Irish men by confining them alongside other subjected nationalists, but it also serves to highlight the monumental role the GAA played in many people’s lives.
Many of those interned at Frongoch including Collins, Seamus Robinson, Joe Gleeson, Seán O’Kelly and ‘Blimey’ O’Connor would meet in late 1917 to discuss trailing Eoin MacNeil for countermanding the maneuverers of 1916 and whether the volunteers should be associated with Sinn Fein. This meeting took place in a loft in Croke Park, where the Hogan Stand now lies.
By 1918 the British mistrust of the GAA was full-blown and they decided to ban all GAA activity without a permit. In defiant response the GAA announced any person who applied for a permit would be expelled from the organisation and a series of matches throughout the country were organised for August 4th 1918. This day was to become known as Gaelic Sunday. The GAA’s disobedience was representative of a growing nationwide reluctance towards the British regime.
The escalating tension between the nationalists and the British regime would eventually climax tragically for the GAA, when the British forces drove into Croke Park during a game between Dublin and Tipperary and fired 114 rounds at players and spectators, killing 14 people.
While the head organisation was not directly involved in the Easter Rising, the cross-membership and interaction of the various nationalist bodies ensured it featured throughout this period. In many ways it unintentionally recruited the various sections of society into a community fixated on one common goal.
It was this explosive birth that ensured it would go on to become not only our national game, but a fundamental piece of the framework of modern Ireland. By acknowledging these contentious routes, we can go some way toward understanding the association as it exists today.
Maurice Brosnan, Pundit Arena