The final two decades of the nineteenth century were quite unique in Irish history, in that they can be seen as separating two periods of intense conflict and radicalism. Between the failed Fenian insurrection of 1867 and the bloody Easter Rising in 1916, leading Irish politicians experimented with a policy of constitutional nationalism: trying to win concessions, such as home rule, from the colonial British Government. The most vocal and memorable advocate of this policy was Charles Stewart Parnell, described as an ‘intellectual phenomenon’ by British Prime Minister at the time, William Ewart Gladstone. Parnell supported a broad definition of nationalism – himself a Protestant in a movement overwhelmingly Catholic – and because of the influence he had, in 1884 he was chosen by Michael Cusack, a teacher from Clare, to be a patron of his new organisation: the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).

Despite Cusack’s desire that the GAA would be about the ‘preservation and cultivation of National Pastimes’, the association was quickly identified by the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as a breeding ground for potential recruits to their revolutionary society. IRB’s infiltration of the GAA was not covert: of the ten men on the executive committee in 1885, five of them were Fenian men. New rules were introduced so that anyone who took part in ‘foreign’ games such as cricket, rugby, hockey or soccer could not take part in any GAA event. By 1887, these bans had stretched to include members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the army, the navy and members of the prison service. Now, with only one non-IRB man on the committee, the GAA had become a champion of radical nationalist opinion and anti-Britishness. They defined themselves, and their games, in opposition to whatever could be deemed British. Teams named themselves after Irish revolutionaries of past generations and even after Boer leaders who at the turn of the century were fighting British colonialism in Africa.

With over 600 affiliated teams in Ireland in the first three years of its existence, the enormous popularity of the GAA must be seen as part of the wider Gaelic cultural revival that was going on in Ireland at this time and had its patrons in the likes of W. B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde. However, the (often undercover) influence of the IRB tapped into this revolutionary nostalgia and the political disenchantment after the rejection of the Home Rule Bill in 1886. There are stories of young men attending GAA meetings being approached by IRB men and asked to swear the oath of allegiance. Away from prying British eyes and the unhelpful interference of the Catholic church, the IRB probably could not believe their luck that so many impressionable potential recruits could be gathered unsupervised under their authority.

The popularity of the GAA began to wane in the 1890s after they gave their full support to Parnell in the divorce scandal that would disgrace him. Alongside this, Parnell’s untimely death in 1891 and the House of Lord’s rejection of the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893, the dream of constitutional nationalism started to die. This allowed for the re-emergence of extreme republicanism in new groups such as Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, and the GAA would play a significant part in bolstering the success of these movements. ‘Everyone knew that the Gaelic athletic clubs were political associations in everything but in name’ said Mr. T. W. Russell in the House of Commons in June, 1893, ‘and in a month they could be armed and would become an effective force’.

Though Russell’s prediction didn’t exactly come true, historian Mike Cronin describes a group of Fianna Éireann boys who joined a Gaelic football game in Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1916 and, upon kicking the ball into a British army munitions store, overpowered the sentry there and stole weapons that were used in the Easter Rising days later.

Estimates of the number of GAA members involved in the Republican Rising reach approximately 350. On this sum, one in five of the rebels that fought British soldiers that week were members of the GAA. Most notable was Patrick Pearse, a staunch advocate of Gaelic games whose name appears at the bottom of the Irish Proclamation of Independence and was executed on the 3rd of May, 1916 for his role in the Rising. Indeed, the Official Commission of Inquiry into the events of Easter week by British civil servants directly implicated the GAA as an instigating factor in the rebellion. Following this, Gaelic athletic clubs became closely associated with Sinn Féin and tournaments were staged to raise money for Republican political prisoners. At the All-Ireland football final of 1917, Clare paraded onto the pitch carrying a banner that read ‘Up de Valera’.

But it was the events of the 21st of November, 1920 that would come to define the GAA’s relationship with Irish nationalist politics. That morning, IRA men under instruction from Michael Collins assassinated fourteen British intelligence officers at their flats in Dublin. In response, the British army sent the brutal Black and Tans into Croke Park, home of Gaelic games, to open fire indiscriminately on players and spectators. The events of Bloody Sunday linked the GAA firmly to the Republican cause which of course influenced anti-British sentiment and was exploited by the IRA. Michael Collins, a keen hurler himself, would travel to London in December 1921 to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty that released from British rule twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland.

The truth is that the GAA was politicised and linked to republicanism from the very start, no matter how much Cusack or other early members attempted to distance themselves from it. At a time when a cultural revival was being used to demonstrate the stark differences between Ireland and Britain and highlight the distinctiveness of the Gaelic race, the GAA was clearly attractive to the radical-minded and the anti-British. Its intervention in political discussions and its part played in the Easter Rising leave little doubt that the GAA was a breeding ground for a new generation of culturally aware revolutionaries, and its impact in the years leading up to independence in 1921 should not be overlooked.

 

Sources:

Cronin, Duncan & Rouse, The GAA: A People’s History, (The Collins Press: Cork, 2009).