Saturday 1 October 2016

Excessive historical claims would be the downfall of GAA's Rising pageant

Tommy Conlon

Published 24/04/2016 | 13:00

'When John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, urged the Volunteers to partake in the great struggle against German imperialism, it was inevitable that many Gaelic players would be swept up in the vast recruitment drive' Photo: Getty
'When John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, urged the Volunteers to partake in the great struggle against German imperialism, it was inevitable that many Gaelic players would be swept up in the vast recruitment drive' Photo: Getty

One hundred years ago today the Easter Rising began, which is why the GAA will be marking it with some class of a theatrical extravaganza after the National Football League finals in Croke Park this evening.

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It must be hoped that the pageant won't be making excessive historical claims for the association, not least because the GAA in all likelihood would've organised the Rising a whole lot better than the actual rebels themselves ever did.

And also because, as the historian Paul Rouse has pointed out, "the GAA's involvement in 1916 was more as a ghostly presence". It is estimated that more than 300 of the 1,500 rebels involved in Easter week were GAA members. But, says Rouse, "there is this perception that the GAA was more involved than it actually was".

Indeed around that time of political tumult, the association was doing what it would always do best: taking care of business. It had managed to successfully lobby the government of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith for a special tax break - something which did not impress unionist opinion at the time. "If the Sinn Feiners want their hurling to be free of taxes," spat the Fermanagh Times, "they can go into the trenches and hurl bombs."

And, notwithstanding this conflation of the GAA with militant nationalism, that is exactly what thousands of hurlers and Gaelic footballers actually did. The numbers of GAA men who joined the British Army and fought in World War One positively dwarfed their quantity in the GPO and elsewhere during that fateful Easter week.

GAA members had flooded into the ranks of the Irish Volunteers in 1913/'14. When John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, urged the Volunteers to partake in the great struggle against German imperialism, it was inevitable that many Gaelic players would be swept up in the vast recruitment drive. And this at a time when the association had already introduced the Ruritanian absurdity that was the ban on 'foreign games', and also the ban from GAA membership of anyone serving in the police, the army, the navy or prison service.

John Redmond had bigger fish to fry. He wanted to assemble an army division of Irishmen who would serve in British uniform, in return for which the British establishment would honour its commitment to Home Rule. But in the early days of the Great War he had difficulty in reaching his quota. The idea was therefore floated that the 16th (Irish) Division might also recruit from emigrant Irishmen living in Britain. Many of these had already joined up in Liverpool, London and Newcastle-­upon-Tyne, among other cities.

The Irish had settled in large numbers in the poorer parts of these urban conurbations. Redmond's proposal to complete his division with these emigrants was resisted by the UK War Office. The commanding officer of the 16th (Irish) Division, Major General Sir Lawrence Parsons, wouldn't tolerate it either. Parsons took a dim view of the fighting stock to be found in these city ghettos, and an idealised view of the rural Gael back in Ireland. He did not couch his opinion in politically correct language.

"It would mean filling us with ­Liverpool and Glasgow and Cardiff Irish who are slumbirds that we don't want," he wrote. "I want to see the clean, fine, strong, temperate, hurley-playing ­country fellows such as we used to get."

There may be a thesis to be written somewhere on the British ambivalence to hurling and all its works. While Parsons evidently saw a type of wholesome manliness in the archetypal hurler, the colonial administrators in Dublin Castle saw the hurley as a potential weapon as much as an instrument of play. Irish Volunteers in those years routinely used hurleys for rifles while out on drill manoeuvres.

Prominent GAA men such as Harry Boland and James Nowlan had been rounded up after the Rising and interned along with many other grassroots members in Frongoch prison camp in Wales. While prison authorities permitted them to play games of Gaelic football, they drew the line at hurling for fear that the ash sticks might be used for more nefarious purposes than the driving of a ball over the bar.

In any event the GAA men who ended up on the Western Front or in Frongoch or the GPO were probably at their happiest when playing rather than fighting. In The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923, Rouse writes that for all of its entanglements with the volatile political currents of the times, it remained first and foremost committed to building a sporting organisation. "The story of the GAA in the years immediately before the 1916 Rising is, ultimately, the story of the triumph of play."

A lot of ideologues, now as well as then, wanted it to be more than merely this. Writing in 1908, Douglas Hyde stated that the birth of the GAA had been "an enormous step in the direction of Irish nationhood".

But he seemingly felt a tad let down by the people who actually played the games. "Very often the players never think of any other aspect of the Association than that of the match alone. The idea that they are really and powerfully contributing to the revival of Irish nationality has, I believe, never occurred to thousands of them."

Whatever about the pomp and pageantry afterwards, we doubt very much that it will be troubling the Kerry or Dublin footballers today either.

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