Thursday 19 September 2019

The GAA and the Rising

The organisation claimed it played a major role, but the truth is more complex, writes Paul Rouse

Michael Collins throws the ball in at Croke Park.
Michael Collins throws the ball in at Croke Park.
Dick Fitzgerald.

In the decades after 1916, the history of the Easter Rising was rewritten by men and women who wished to claim for themselves - or for the organisations they loved - a central part in the Rising.

In sporting terms, the great example of this is provided by the GAA. The Association - and its historians - claimed that, unique among Irish sporting organisations, the GAA had provided the great bulk of the men who fought in 1916.

Like all the best myths, this is rooted in a certain truth: in the aftermath of the Rising, the Official Commission of Inquiry was told by the Chief Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan, and by the Chief Constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary that the GAA had been an instigating factor in the Rising.

This, in turn, led to the internment of numerous GAA members, including the Association's president, in the ill-conceived, ill-directed round-up undertaken by the British authorities in the months that followed the Rising.

But are claims of intimate GAA involvement in 1916 accurate?

The truth is, unsurprisingly, much more complex.

As William Murphy has written, GAA players were indeed more likely to have participated in the Easter Rising in Dublin than most other sectors of society. It appears that there were some 302 players from 53 clubs.

This total of 302 represents a little less than one-fifth of the estimated 1,500 to 1,800 rebels of Easter Week. There can be no denying that it represented a significant contribution.

Allowing for this, it is also the truth that in the immediate aftermath of the Rising the GAA behaved in a way that was entirely at odds with an organisation apparently in sympathy with rebellion.

For example, the response of the GAA was to flat-out deny any involvement in 1916. It issued a statement saying that all allegations 'that the Gaelic Athletic Association had been used in furtherance of the objectives of the Irish Volunteers are as untrue as they are unjust'.

Then, in the second half of 1916, the GAA sought to engage with the British authorities to safeguard the organisation's sporting operations.

The first episode concerned the attempts of the government to enforce an Entertainments tax on sporting and other recreational bodies throughout the United Kingdom. As the relevant bill was being moved through the House of Commons, an amendment was introduced exempting any organisation founded 'with the object of reviving national pastimes'.

This amendment was introduced specifically in response to GAA efforts, through John O'Connor MP, to avoid payment of the tax.

While awaiting decision on whether it should be exempt or otherwise, the Central Council of the GAA took the initiative and sent a deputation to General Sir John Maxwell in an attempt to secure GAA exclusion from taxation and to arrange for the provision of special trains to GAA matches.

It speaks volumes for the priorities of the GAA that it should attend a meeting with Maxwell.

After all, it was Maxwell who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in Ireland during the Rising. Using extensive martial law powers, he had crushed the rebellion. In its immediate aftermath, he was the chief architect of government policy and oversaw a series of courts martial leading to the imposition of death sentences on the leaders of the Rising.

Ultimately, the idea that it was the GAA alone that provided the foot-soldiers of the revolution was rejected by some of the leading figures of that revolution.

Ernie O'Malley later recalled there were those 'who belonged to the Gaelic League or who played Gaelic football and hurling ... [who were] very contemptuous of rugby and golf, and soccer. They spoke of the English with inherited contempt, attended public meetings in the streets, approved of physical force in talk, but made no attempt to join the Volunteers.'

More than that, there were also many more GAA men fighting in British army uniforms in France, than there were in the GPO.

Any rounded account of the GAA's involvement in 1916 must acknowledge this basic truth - and accommodate it in any meaningful history of the Easter Rising.

Dr Paul Rouse is a lecturer in Irish History and Sports History at the School of History at University College Dublin (UCD)

Irish Independent

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