The dark past behind our Polish friendship

As Ireland play Poland for the 25th time tonight Dermot Bolger recounts how the sides' first meeting led to a shameful attack on then President Douglas Hyde

Tonight's friendly against Poland is the 25th time that soccer matches have been played between our two nations – a remarkable record when you realise that only two were competitive internationals.

Some friendlies were more memorable than others. In 1973 I saw a Polish team applauded onto the pitch as heroes because they stopped England qualifying for the World Cup Finals, thanks to the brilliant goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski.

Tomaszewski further won our hearts by then conceding the goal that allowed Ireland to conquer the team that had just conquered England.

Friendlies in Poland were less memorable. Some were rumoured (most recently in Eamon Dunphy's memoir) to have had less about football and more about some now-deceased FAI officials enjoying the sexual and other perks of being foreigners with foreign currency in communist oppressed Poland.


But one friendly in 1938 stands out as among the most controversial soccer games played in Ireland. That November, Poland played for the first time on Irish soil.

The unwitting central character in the drama was Douglas Hyde, acclaimed by Time magazine as a "78-year-old, tall, erect, walrus-moustached Gaelic scholar" when praising his election as Ireland's first President.

The position of President was hotly disputed when de Valera produced his 1937 constitution. There was fears that, with his signature needed to pass all laws, de Valera could appoint a puppet figure and become a de facto dictator.

This was why all parties unanimously selected Hyde as a unifying figure beholden to no one in a divided country. Attending the Polish game was a duty this elderly Protestant could have done without. His beloved wife had been too gravely ill to attend his inauguration and just weeks after the Poland match he was widowed. In 1940 he suffered a stroke and spent his remaining term wheelchair-bound.

Perpetually courteous, he asked de Valera's government not to attend his wife's funeral, avoiding the later, farcical scenes at Hyde's funeral, where Irish politicians hid in state cars outside the St Patrick's Cathedral, afraid to break the Catholic Church's ban on entering Protestant churches.

But another ban caused Hyde's undoing after that 1938 Poland game. Hyde knew nothing about soccer, but knew that his job involved representing all Irish people.

He also wished to show respect to Poland, which – like Ireland – had recently gained independence, and would lose it, under Nazi jackboots, 10 months later.

The Polish players greatly appreciated Hyde's presence, deeming it a mark of respect not just to them but also to their fledgling nation.

In contrast the response of the Gaelic institutions that Hyde spent his life fostering lacked any generosity and typified how the hard men who hijacked his life's work invariably treated him.

Although Hyde had founded the Gaelic League, it became so politicised by IRB infiltration that militaristic figures like Patrick Pearse forced his resignation.

Now in 1938, GAA hard men like Padraig McNamee used Hyde's presence in Dalymount as an excuse to remove this Protestant as the GAA's venerable patron, accusing him of being a traitor to their bigoted tribe - one that had no room for the Gaelic Ireland he devoted his life to.

Recalling Hyde's huge contribution to the GAA, one commentator said "it was a child turning on its father". Hyde's vilification is explored in Cormac Moose's book, The GAA v Douglas Hyde which revealed numerous hypocrisies in the GAA's decision.

Hyde broke their ban on attending foreign games, but did so merely to fulfil an official duty, just like gardai, who were GAA members, and regularly on duty at soccer games.


The instigator of his removal, Padraig McNamee saw no problem separating his own "Gaeldom" from his paid work, by blithely swearing an Oath of Allegiance to an English king as a Northern Ireland schoolteacher.

Although undoubtedly sincere, McNamee was guilty of sickening hypocrisy by later accepting the Douglas Hyde medal for his contribution to the Irish language.

The Hyde incident caused deep division within the GAA. Belated attempts were made to undo the insult, with Roscommon's GAA ground named in his honour.

Looking at today's confident, outward looking GAA it is hard to believe it was once capable of such vindictiveness against a man loved by every Irish person except those who hijacked the organisations he fostered.

But looking back, we should be grateful that Hyde made his gesture to the Polish people.

Some 18 games and 53 years would pass before we could welcome them back on Irish soil as a free nation again.