Wednesday 19 June 2019

A century on, GAA honours the fallen Gaels of the Great War

Sport was of the few recreations that soliders had during World War One – here a game between Officers and Other Ranks in Salonika on Christmas Day 1915. Photo: Getty
Sport was of the few recreations that soliders had during World War One – here a game between Officers and Other Ranks in Salonika on Christmas Day 1915. Photo: Getty

Richard McElligott

As the daylight of an unseasonably mild first Sunday in November 1915 receded, a crowd of 30,000 rose to acclaim the Wexford footballers. After suffering defeat in the previous two finals, they had finally captured the All-Ireland and now began the most remarkable run of inter-county success yet seen - winning the first four-in-a-row in GAA history.

But this moment was bittersweet. Their era of domination had literally kicked off with James Rossiter's dramatic last-minute goal in the 1913 Leinster final which saw Wexford dethrone the reigning All-Ireland champions Louth by a point. Over the next two years Rossiter became the GAA's most illustrious young player, scoring an incredible 8-3 in ten championship appearances.

Having lit-up Gaelic football, Rossiter made his final appearance in the replay of the 1914 final. A committed political supporter of his fellow countyman, John Redmond, Rossiter followed the Irish Parliamentary Party leader's call for Ireland to support Britain's struggle against Germany.

Aged 22, he enlisted in the Irish Guards Regiment. He was badly wounded during the Battle of Loos and later died. Two weeks before their All-Ireland appearance this news reached his former team-mates. Poignantl,y the press reported on his last letter home in which he declared he had felt more nervous before an All-Ireland than about the upcoming battle.

The tragic end to Rossiter's young life was not unusual in the Ireland of 1915. He was merely one of the 210,000 Irishmen who fought and the estimated 35,000 who died in the conflict.

Charlie Duggan of Tralee was another. A veteran of the Boer War, he was recalled to active duty aged 37 in 1914. Nine years earlier, Duggan had been a staple of the Kerry team that captured the county's inaugural football All-Ireland. He was injured by a German bayonet during the Battle of Mons but survived the war and returned home in 1919.

While we will never know the true extent of GAA enlistment in the War, ongoing research by Dónal McAnallen has shown that it numbered into the hundreds. How could it not? The average age of GAA players, their socio-economic background as well as their physical fitness made them prime targets for the incessant recruitment drives British military authorities conducted across Ireland. Recruiters tapped into the popularity of the GAA. Addressing a rally in Tralee, Captain Laurence Roche of the Munster Fusiliers, and former chairman of the Limerick County Board, expressed the hope that the war-cry 'Up Kerry' would be heard "when they made the last attack on the Germans' goal."

Across Ireland the enlistment of GAA players had a telling effect. The once thriving St Peter's of Belfast was forced to disband their senior team as 20 players were done to war. In Clare, the Killaloe hurling club also shut its doors due to player enlistment.

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This seems remarkable for an organisation which had always draped itself in nationalistic garb and since 1905 actively banned members of the British armed forces. Yet at the GAA's 1915 annual congress, the Laois County Board attempted to put forward a motion that "volunteering in the Army for the present European war should not entail any disqualification".

This was an illustration of the impact recruitment was now having on the GAA. Despite the political sentiments of those who ran the Association, the factors which drove rank and file members to the battlefields were the same that enticed other young men - political conviction, economic necessity, the prospect of adventure and the chance to escape the dullness, even oppression, of Irish life.

One fascinating example of the imprinting of the War's culture on the GAA occurred in 1915 when the newly-developed terracing in Croke Park was popularly christened 'Hill 60'. The name was taken from an area of high ground in Gallipoli which saw vicious fighting involving the Connaught Rangers. As the battle dominated headlines, the name stuck in the popular consciousness.

Yet despite all of this, the Great War has remained a mostly hidden part of the GAA's history. Given subsequent events, perhaps that is understandable. Following Easter 1916, the leadership of the GAA moved ever closer to radical nationalism. In November 1920, Croke Park was the scene of one of the worst atrocities of the era, when 13 spectators were shot dead by British security forces.

At a Central Council meeting in September 1931, Dan McCarthy voiced his utter disapproval at the continued popular use of the name Hill 60 to describe part of a "sacred ground… sanctified by the blood of martyrs". It was renamed Hill 16 in honour of the Easter rebels. Within a decade the myth of it being constructed from the rubble of the Rising was popularly accepted. Evocative fiction replaced cold fact.


And just like that Hill 60 moniker, stories of GAA men like Rossiter and Duggan were uncomfortable reminders of the complexity of Irish history - one that many found easier to erase than confront.

A century on, the Association has moved to acknowledgetheir place in its story. For the 11 days preceding Armistice Day, the GAA's historical committee has been releasing a short online biography of a player who fought in the War To End All Wars. It is a commendable, if belated, attempt by the Association to acknowledge the nuance of its history. It is also a lesson that we, as a society, need to learn quickly as the difficult commemorations of our War of Independence and Civil War loom. Dr Richard McElligott (tweet @RichardMcEll) lectures in Modern Irish History in UCD. He is the author of 'Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934'. For anyone looking to highlight the role of GAA members in the War, contact Dónal McAnallen at

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