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The Gaelic Athletic Association in Dublin during the Irish Revolution, 1913-1923 by Dr William Murphy

The following is a transcript of a talk by Dr William Murphy on the relationship between the GAA and revolutionary nationalism in Dublin in the years 1913-1923. The talk was part of the Sport and the City Seminar held in Dublin City Library and Archive on 11th September, 2010. Listen to the lecture

Good Morning. First of all before I start I’d like to thank Ellen Murphy, and Mary Clarke (Dublin City Archives) for inviting myself and also inviting Paul along to talk today, and wish them the best of luck in the enterprise, which is the Dublin City Sporting Archive. It is very important for myself and Paul who are involved professionally in the writing of sport that archives are developed because sports history is really at its early stages in Ireland as a professional activity and without archives we are not going to make much progress. So again I’d like to wish them all the best with their project.

So today, I am going to talk about a subject that is comparatively widely written in terms of sports history in Ireland and that’s the relationship between the GAA and Nationalism and very specifically the relationship between the GAA and the Irish Revolution. When people wrote about the GAA in its early years they stressed constantly that members of the Gaelic Athletic Association had contributed in disproportionate numbers what they regarded as the struggle for Irish independence. So this is a quote from the Irish Independent of January 1923:
In 1916 when Pearse and his companions unfurled the flag of liberty, the men of the hurling and football fields rolled in from far and near, and it is no exaggeration to say that they formed the backbone of that company... When the Anglo-Irish war developed, go where you would up and down the country, it was difficult to point to even one man, other than a hurler or footballer, who took any prominent part in the fight.

In the intervening years much of this image has lingered. The link between radical separatism and the GAA was symbolically re-enforced during the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the 1916 Rising in 1966 when, according to Mary Daly, ‘it is evident that the GAA tried to claim a special place, as the inspiration for the Rising and a major force in keeping the flame of republican idealism alive.’ This was manifest in the fact that Croke Park and also Casement Park in Belfast hosted enormous pageants during the ’66 celebrations and also on All-Ireland hurling final day in 1966 the Central Council welcome 1916 Veterans to Croke Park and in the Programme they said ‘in having as its guests today the Veterans of the 1916 Rising. Their presence symbolises the indivisibility which has always existed between this Association and the aspiration of a free and Gaelic Ireland.’

So there is no doubt that many members of the GAA were active in Sinn Féin or the Irish Volunteers during the revolutionary period. These included a significant cohort of energetic men who took on leading roles in both the GAA and the revolutionary movement. In the case of Dublin, perhaps the most famous of them is Harry Boland, who was chairman of the Dublin County Board between 1911 and 1918. Here you can see Harry is here with the Dublin hurling team of 1917. But he wasn’t alone Dan McCarthy of Terenure Sarsfields Club who went on to be chairman of the Leinster Council of the GAA between 1919 and 1921 and President of the GAA between 1921 and ‘24) was another. McCarthy was a prominent member of Sinn Féin and he was elected in 1922. And also Thomas Ashe in north county Dublin originally a Kerry man but living in north county Dublin, was very prominent in both promoting revolutionary nationalism and the GAA in the north of the county. Obviously Ashe died in 1917 on hunger strike. In other parts of the country there were other figures, there was J. J. Walsh in Cork, there was Austin Stack in Kerry, and there was Eoin O’Duffy in Monaghan who combined this enthusiasm for the GAA with an enthusiasm for revolutionary nationalism. Eoin was always involved in organising rather than playing. Fearghal McGarry who has written a biography of Eoin O’Duffy, has commented that
"there were certainly similarities between O’Duffy’s role in the GAA and IRA, both of which involved constant travelling, organizing, encouraging activity where little existed, promoting co-operation between rival parishes, and mediating local disputes. It was an immense advantage to O’Duffy in his latter role that he knew, and was known to, the young Gaels of Ulster. "

It is thought that Harry Boland and his brother, Gerry, were recruited into the IRB in 1904 when they were approached after a hurling match by the referee, Maurice F. Crowe, who was a Limerick man who again combined IRB activity with involvement in the GAA. The Bolands would have been predisposed to join the IRB, their father had been a prominent IRB member. These men were committed to the success of the GAA, but they also utilised the association to promote revolutionary nationalism as I’ve said. Just as cricket matches had facilitated Fenians in their activities in the 1860s, so too the GAA provided cover for the meetings and movements of radical nationalists during the revolution: they often saved on train fares by travelling on match-day specials. It provided a network of contacts, a school in the rhetoric of Irish nationalism, a recruiting ground. Dan McCarthy remembered that IRB members within the GAA worked in Leinster counties to get IRB men elected to become the county delegates to the Leinster Council so that then when they came to Leinster council meetings in Dublin they could exchange IRB business as well as GAA business.

But that’s not the whole story. In his analysis of nationalist politics in the counties of Sligo, Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon and Westmeath in the years before the 1916 Rising, Michael Wheatley has argued that ‘virtually no trace . . . can be seen locally’ of the control which the IRB appeared to exert at national and provincial levels of the GAA. Wheatley records that the RIC County Inspector for Roscommon reported in April 1913 that ‘The GAA clubs are chiefly concerned with their games and do not display disloyalty, but that is not saying that they are loyal.’ David Fitzpatrick was surely close to the mark when he suggested that
what the [Gaelic] League and GAA had to offer the politicians they offered indiscriminately to Sinn Féiners and Redmondites alike: zest for Ireland, tangible rather than rhetorical reminders of Irish nationality, Irish reels, sets, jigs, a few words of Irish, aggressively un-English games.

For these reasons Irish party figures remained very active in the association, as well as Sinn Féiners as they too sought to harness the association’s vitality. Irish party loyalists were active in the GAA in Dublin, but in this city and county there seems little doubt that the GAA at least at the higher administrative levels was dominated by an IRB or radical nationalist faction which included individuals such as Boland, McCarthy, Crowe, another man called Jack Shouldice who went on to be secretary of the Leinster Council, and a man called Maurice Collins, who was the Geraldine’s Club representative on the County Board.

In late 1913 and 1914, GAA members and clubs in some areas were swept up in the initial wave of enthusiasm for volunteering in the country. Jack Shouldice estimated that about a third of those who attended the first meeting of the Irish Volunteers at the Rotunda here in Dublin on 25 November 1913 were GAA members. But he went on to note that he thought that maybe half were Gaelic League, so the Gaelic League was more important, he felt than the GAA in terms of nationalism. The association did not officially endorse the Irish Volunteers, but in January 1914 James Nowlan, who was President of the GAA, advised every member to join the Volunteers and ‘learn to shoot straight.’ The Volunteers branch formed in Fairview-Drumcondra area, drilled at the Clann na hÉireann hurling club grounds in Ballybough and Clann na hÉireann had close links with the IRB. All over the country GAA matches were facilitated Volunteer displays. In Con Short’s view this was mutually beneficial for both the GAA and the radical nationalist movement. So the Volunteers turned up and they paid in and they provided a crowd for the GAA and the GAA provided volunteers in return. On the other hand, other people have argued that they got in each other’s way. So for instance in Wicklow and Kildare some of the GAA people complained that their calendar was being constantly disrupted by their members going off on Volunteer activities. So it should not be taken for granted, therefore, that the cultural and political forms of nationalism always complemented each other. In some cases active membership of the GAA militated against participation in the Irish Volunteers, as the GAA and Irish Volunteers competed for the time and commitment of the activists. In Towards Ireland Free, by Liam Deasy, Deasy makes this comment that he did not join the Irish Volunteers for a considerable period because
my activities in the G.A.A. and the Gaelic League at the time were so absorbing as to prevent my feeling any immediate urgency about joining the new movement. Besides, I felt that by being actively engaged in the two organizations mentioned I was already serving my country in a useful manner.

Cornelius Murphy was from Cork and he was very involved in the Volunteers, and he remembered ‘Ninety per cent of the GAA was just GAA, the other 10% was good. I belonged to two GAA clubs when the Volunteers started, and I was the only member of either of the two clubs who joined the Volunteers.’ Several leading members of the Volunteers complained about their members going off to play matches, when they should have been as far as they were concerned, going off drilling etc.

Prior to September 1914 involvement in the GAA and the Irish Volunteers was not synonymous with radical separatism. This is illustrated by the case of Laurence Roche of Bruree, Co. Limerick. Roche had been chairman of the Limerick County Board and he had been that county’s representative on Munster Council, before becoming chairman of the Volunteers in Limerick city. But when the Volunteers split with the arrival of World War I, they split over whether they should assist the war effort or not. Roche joined the Royal Munster Fusileers and in May 1916 he was commended for his bravery in leading the capture of Guillemont, In various places around the country you get reports of club activities being disrupted because so many of their members have joined the British Army. In The Irish Independent they reported a Gaelic football match on St Patrick’s Day 1916 at the Phoenix Park between teams representing the RIC and the Dublin Fusileers. The fact that a number of counties contemplated a proposal to lift the ban on GAA members joining the British Army at this point kind of gives an indication that this may have been a problem for the GAA. That they felt they were losing sufficient number of members that they had to lift the ban. Unfortunately a systematic study of GAA members’ involvement in the British Army during the 1st World War just does not exist, so we cannot be absolutely clear on what the picture is.

The extent to which GAA members participated in the 1916 Rising, however, has received more detailed attention. Willie Nolan’s recent history of Dublin GAA, published in 2005, contains a list of GAA players in the county who were among the rebels. This comes to a total of 302 players from fifty-three identified clubs. In the past this list would have been accompanied by ritual repetition of the conclusion that the GAA was at the forefront of providing men for revolutionary movement. But this is not done in this book; there is a good reason why. We know that about 1500-1800 people participated in the Rising in Dublin. So this means that (allowing for the participation of some GAA players from outside of Dublin) the overwhelming majority of those who fought in 1916 were not members of the GAA. GAA players were more likely to have participated than many other sectors of Dublin society, yet the rebellion remained a minority sport, even for them. At the time, however the authorities were inclined to suspect that the GAA were deeply involved, many leading figures were interned, but the GAA while acknowledging that members had participated, denied any responsibility for the Rising.

In general, the association – as an association – was wary of running ahead of the political attitudes of the majority of the nationalist public and managed to retain the loyalty of most nationalists, whether they were radical or constitutional. This does not mean that there were not local splits: Eoghan Corry suggests for instance, in County Kildare, that in Monasteravin there were local Sinn Féin and Irish Parliamentary Party clubs founded. And there was a real danger of a split nationally, at least between 1914 and 1918 when the Irish Parliamentary Party’s was destroyed. There was a secessionist organisation set up called the National Association of Gaelic and Athletic Clubs. It grew out of a dispute between the Kickham’s club in Dublin and the Dublin County Board. There were various reasons for it, but one of the sets of people who were attracted to this new association were those who were worried that the GAA was becoming too radical in its nationalism.

Recent historians of Sinn Féin have recognised an important overlap between membership of the post-Rising party and the GAA. In Clare, for instance David Fitzpatrick acknowledged that the GAA had a role in facilitating Sinn Féin across the county. The Clare County Board began the process that saw de Valera nominated to contest the by-election of July 1917 and during its march to the All-Ireland football final of that year the Clare team entered the field, round after round, under the banner ‘Up de Valera’. More recently, Peter Hart has suggested that a significant correlation can be found between G.A.A. and Sinn Féin membership as of July 1917 but this got smaller and smaller as the revolution progressed. That the GAA maintained a recognizable distance between itself and Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers is probably suggested by the fact that the Government actually did not ban the association. Whereas it banned obviously Sinn Féin, it banned Cumann na mBan and it banned the Gaelic League, all these associations, but it never banned the GAA.

The use of hurleys by drilling volunteers who did not possess rifles, was a common sight from the foundation of the Volunteers right through to 1917-1918. This gave the impression to the authorities or reinforced the impression that there was a close association between the GAA and the Volunteers. When a meeting demanding the release of the prisoners organised for Beresford Place, here in Dublin, on 10 June 1917, the Government banned it. The meeting went ahead, the DMP moved in to stop it and in the resulting fracas Inspector John Mills’ skull was fractured and he died within hours. The weapon used, it was reported, was a hurley. So this prompted the much talked about, but little enforced ban on carrying hurleys other than for sporting use which was instituted in the summer of 1917. Despite the fact that the first convention of the Irish Volunteers after the Rising was held at Croke Park , historians of the IRA have not been convinced of the importance of the GAA to the military wing of Irish nationalism. In major studies of Irish Volunteer activity in this period, Joost Augusteijn and Peter Hart have reached similar conclusions. Basically they argue that there was no direct relationship between the local strength of the Irish / Ireland movement and violent republicanism. And this is supported by some statements: this is from Sean Clifford, who was an IRA member in Limerick, who said:
men who spoke only English and who never had much time for Gaelic Games, attacked and beat the enemy whereas those who claimed a monopoly on Irish patriotism, namely the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League were nowhere to be seen when it came to a fight.

On the other hand this may hide regional patterns. Particular IRA leaders probably made extensive use of their GAA for recruitment; Eoin O’Duffy, for instance certainly did in Monaghan. In summer 1918 O’Duffy travelled to Wattlebridge to address the local GAA team and seek enrolments in the Irish Volunteers. Francis Tummon remembered
On this particular Sunday there were about thirty boys of all ages [playing football] but only about twenty assembled to listen to O’Duffy ... His words left a lasting impression on me and, I’m sure, on all present. There were at least half a dozen who listened to O’Duffy that Sunday afternoon but never joined the Volunteers. The practice game of football from which we were summoned to listen to Gen. O’Duffy was resumed, but the foundation of a company was laid.

So it’s quite interesting that there were thirty potential boys and maybe a dozen listened to him. So it’s important but then there are lots of members who have no interest. Such contrasting examples illustrate the importance of treating with scepticism the notion that the GAA was politically and nationally minded above all else. Phil O’Neill’s comment that ‘Our National Athletic Association nobly contributed its quota of heroic men, who left aside their camans for more deadly weapons’ should be balanced by an acknowledgement that there were countless ordinary members of the GAA, obscure men, who chose the hurley rather than the rifle.

Inside prisons and camps Gaelic games occupied an important place. The boredom of prison-life and the dearth of other activities ensured that even sceptics adopted Gaelic games. Todd Andrews, for instance who was a soccer man found himself having to play football in the Curragh Camp. He didn’t particularly enjoy the experience; he thought it was far too rough. In more conventional prisons it was harder to play; there wasn’t so much space for games so there was a lot of handball and rounders played. But in Mountjoy in 1921, the women prisoners approached the Governor C. A. Munro, and they asked that they be allowed
to play some game at exercise while at exercise such as Camog – which I understand is a kind of hurley for women – or football. As a matter of fact a football has been sent in for one of these prisoners, neither game seems suitable but as regards the football I gathered that all they wanted to do was to kick it about in their exercise ring.
And eventually he agreed that they be allowed to play football but not camogie. It was a pretty consistent approach within the prisons because hurleys could be used as a weapon, there was a fear, whereas the footballs were fairly harmless as far as they were concerned. These same women actually, several of them escaped within a couple of months, they used the football match as a sort of diversion, they made lots of noise playing the football match while some of the others basically scarpered out of the wing, over the wall and out of the prison. In fact the governors often encouraged the playing of these games because they dissipated the prisoners’ energies which might otherwise be used basically to attack them or the warders or to organise hunger strikes or whatever. In writing about his prison experiences in Mountjoy during the Civil War, Peadar O’Donnell noted that a rising tide of unrest would suddenly dissipate when ‘a football match seemed to catch on, the crowd cheered, and our ridiculously small exercise ground sated the fever out of our minds.’

So you have lots of activists who are members of the GAA who are overlapping in their activity but again to stress that they very rarely used the organisation as a whole as a weapon in their struggle against the British state. But they did do it occasionally. The most significant example of this occurred when Harry Boland persuaded the annual congress of 1919 to confirm a proposed ban on all civil servants who took the oath of allegiance; he famously told the delegates that the GAA ‘owed its position to the fact that it had always drawn the line between the garrison and the gael’. Now historians have begun to draw more subtle conclusions. Recent scholars of the ban, for instance, have pointed out that a sizeable minority of delegates supported an amendment proposed by Jack Shouldice, which would have considerably circumscribed the impact of the ban. Nonetheless the congress banned all civil servants who took the oath by a clear majority of fifty votes to thirty-one. Reactions around the country seem to have been very mixed; some counties seem to have been very disappointed by this decision and there was an interesting debate at the County Convention in Wexford GAA in mid-March 1919 when the delegates unanimously supported an appeal circulated by Dublin Civil Servants that this ban not be introduced. So one of the things that is striking is that there is a very mixed pattern around the country when you look at different places. For instance North Wexford the GAA there seems to have been quite intimately associated with radical nationalists, whereas South Wexford less so. Or even if you take a town like Enniscorthy, which Paul has written about, there are several clubs in the town, and you have some clubs who are very associated with the GAA and others, you know, very little.

As an organization, perhaps the GAA’s most explicit act of resistance during the revolutionary period came in August 1918. In one of the most successful examples of mass defiance witnessed during the period the GAA defied an attempt to halt football and hurling matches which was instituted by the government in the summer of 1918 as part of a general ban on public meetings, that summer. On 28 June when the DMP tried to stop several games at the Phoenix Park players responded with stones and several were arrested. Then the GAA decided to organise on Sunday, 4 August, what they called Gaelic Sunday, and they would organise matches in every town and parish across the country simultaneously in this mass defiance of the ban. The Irish Independent reported that about thirty matches were organised in Dublin, including two important championship games at Croke Park. It is estimated that over 50,000 people participated in games all over Ireland on that day. The police realised they just did not have the resources to compete with that sort of mass defiance so they backed down.

Even if the GAA members are not actively involved, there is an interesting indication of their sympathies in the naming of clubs during this period. So these are clubs in Dublin that were founded in the years 1917 – 1921 and these are just some of them: O’Raghallaigh’s 1916, Brothers Pearse 1917, Con Colbert’s 1917, McDermott, Macken’s, Connolly, Mallin, Ceannt, Malone – all 1916 martyrs either executed subsequently or died during the fighting. Kevin Barry, obviously everyone familiar with, the club was founded almost immediately after his execution in 1920. Michael Fitzgerald died on hunger strike in Cork in 1920, the club was formed in Dublin immediately afterwards. Patrick Moran was executed in 1921. Tormey and Sloan were shot in Ballykinlar internment camp by a guard, very late 1920 / 1921 and almost immediately again you get a club founded using their name. On the other hand you get clubs like Balbriggan Commercials, Clan Eadair in Howth who are just using local names. Or generic sports kind of club names Harps, Shamrocks, Rovers, or you get local saints - St Agatha’s, St Brendan’s, and you get clubs still associated with workplaces, so the Foundry Gaels is in Inchicore and it’s related to those who worked in the railway.

Throughout the period the GAA organised matches in aid of prisoners and this was one way in which people who were sympathetic but didn’t want to become actively involved, they could represent supporting the prisoners as an act of philanthropy rather than necessarily a political act. So the GAA organised tournaments across the country, in support of prisoners, and they consistently organised matches throughout the period. Obviously the most famous of such matches organised in support of Prisoner’s Aid was the match held in Croke Park on 21st November 1920, which is the match on Bloody Sunday, when crown forces surrounded Croke Park and opened fire and the figure is still disputed as to how many people were killed but eleven on the day and two subsequently is usually the figure given. I hear of people on the day subsequent praying on the pitch at the spot where Michael Hogan died. Despite the mayhem and the confusion on that day £160 was still, after they went around and collected up all the bags that people had dropped as they were scurrying away, there was still £160 there to hand over to the prisoners’ aid.

The successful completion of GAA competitions – both at local and national levels – became very difficult in the years 1918 to 1923. Jack Shouldice who was secretary of the Leinster Council, in this long quote, I’m probably running over time so you can read the quote [on the slide] stressed the difficulty they had but they still managed to keep going:
This was not an easy matter. Contact had to be kept up with the different Counties, meetings of the Council held, fixtures made and carried out at different points. Difficulties had to be overcome in the way of transport, suitable venues arranged, accommodation for teams etc. We managed to keep going, however, and had games played in Athy, Kilkenny, New Ross, Portlaoighise, Drogheda and other centres. Some obstruction was experienced at a few venues where we had visits from Crown Forces when searchings occurred and threats of arrests and other action were made. The attendances at the games suffered considerably but we kept on . . .

For instance in the same year 1921 there was no Munster senior football championship and only Limerick and Cork contested the hurling, and only twenty-seven delegates attended the annual congress of the GAA in Dublin.

The playing calendar wasn’t disrupted as badly Dublin as it was in other places – the senior football championship of 1920 was completed in the summer of 1921, which wouldn’t have been that unusual in that period. But the Fingal Leagues which were important leagues played in the north of the county in this period, they were an important part of the GAA calendar in the north of the county were not played at all in the years 1919 and 1924 . There was much more problems in completing the GAA calendar in counties such as Kilkenny and Tipperary, where for several years in this period there were no championships completed at all. With the truce then of 1921 such disruption ended, at least for a brief time. There are many famous photographs from this period of the troops, and lots of them come from GAA matches actually, here you can see Harry Boland down the end and Michael Collins beside him at a match in Croke Park in September 1921. So there is a general lifting of the mood in the country, matches can be freely organised, those who were on the run can now freely attend games again etc. Obviously with the outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922 this disruption begins again.

So a quick conclusion then: now the stories of the GAA have been told from many different perspectives – for different places, by different people, from different ideological standpoints, and with different themes in mind – has the grand narrative emerged? Well, increasing I think one of the points that has to be made is that the picture is very fractured. The GAA in some counties offered more active support to the revolution than in others. Dublin may have been one of these counties. Perhaps even more importantly, however, some clubs tended to be centres of support for the revolution while many others were not. This is certainly true of Dublin. Historians of the GAA will continue to emphasize the strength the association drew from, and the contribution it made to, Irish nationalism, but, on balance, it seems that revolutionary activists and their opponents had more impact upon the GAA than the association or its members had upon the revolution: the GAA appears to have been a playground of the revolution more often than it was a player in the revolution. Thank-you very much.