gaa oral history project
From its inception, supporters and opponents of the organisation were agreed that the GAA was more than simply a sporting organisation. The unambiguous identification with Irish nationalism was apparent from the very first meeting, held in Thurles on 1 November 1884. At this, the GAA chose as its patrons the key figures in Irish national life– Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party; Archbishop Thomas Croke, the leading Catholic cleric in the country and Michael Davitt, the leader of the Land League.
It is unsurprising, then, that the IRB saw in the GAA a fertile ground from which to recruit new members. The IRB began a concerted campaign to gain control of the association, the success of which is evidenced by the fact that by 1887, only one member of the central committee of the GAA – Maurice Davin – was not a member of the IRB. However, the Catholic Church was opposed to the activities of the IRB and even avowedly nationalist clerics fought to prevent that movement gaining traction. This campaign was further strengthened when, in 1891, the GAA’s central committee (dominated by IRB men) decided to support Parnell, in the wake of the Home Rule Split caused by Parnell’s affair with Catherine O’Shea. It was a disastrous decision – the GAA imploded as members left in their droves. Only 14 men attended the 1893 convention and as few as three teams entered the hurling championship played in that same year. That the GAA survived the 1890s was due in no small part to the secretaryship of Meathman, Dick Blake. Elected secretary at the GAA’s annual convention in April 1895, he moved to make the Association avowedly non-political, and banned all political discussions at convention.
This did not, however, mean that all GAA members withdrew from political involvement and discussion. Throughout its history, GAA members were involved in various political groups. Many, though by no means all, GAA members joined the Irish Volunteers, and, when that body split in 1914 some followed their volunteer leaders into the First World War, while others joined the leaders of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. Despite the association’s non-political stance the realities of Irish political life were brought home with the attack by members of the British security forces on the players and spectators at a Dublin and Tipperary match in Croke Park on the 21st Nov 1920. Indiscriminate firing at players and spectators left fourteen people dead, amongst them the captain of the Tipperary team, Michael Hogan. During the Civil War, as in the War of Independence, the activities of the Association were severely hampered. It would be wrong to simplify or to overstate the role that the GAA played in healing the bitterness of the civil war (or at least taking the edge off that bitterness). Nonetheless, it seems clear that by offering a neutral space for its members to play the games that they loved, irrespective of their political loyalties, the GAA played some part in smoothing national reconciliation.
In the aftermath of the setting up of the Free State, the GAA attempted to help create the ‘Irish Ireland’ which was supposed to flow from political independence. For some within the Association, the promotion of gaelic games and the other cultural activities were insufficient. Instead, they hardened the ban rules and forbade any GAA club from holding social functions at which ‘foreign dances’ were engaged in. A groundswell of opposition to the rules eventually led to the removal of many of their aspects in 1971 – though only after a decade of furious debate.
Meanwhile, in the North, the GAA was facing a whole new set of challenges. The decades after 1970 saw the escalation of the Troubles, the murder of GAA members and the destruction of GAA property. It was not until the peace process of the 1990s that the direction of northern politics turned. The end of large-scale violence, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the establishment of the Northern Assembly redrew the parameters of life in the north. This change was reflected in the GAA, where Rule 21 was removed allowing members of the British security forces to join the GAA and Rule 42 was suspended paving the way for the playing of rugby and soccer internationals at Croke Park for the first time in February and March 2007.
Of course, the GAA has not only been impacted by national political issues, many of its members have pursued successful political careers, both locally and nationally. Jack Lynch, who was elected as Taoiseach in 1966, stands as the ultimate example of one who enjoyed success in the GAA and in politics, but he was far from alone. Having a profile as a leading member of the GAA was a useful headstart for aspirant politicians, particularly where constituency boundaries were contiguous with the counties whose jerseys had been sported. It was by no means a guarantor of success, however, for there were many GAA members who did not enjoy electoral success.
For the vast majority of GAA members who eschew wider political engagement, there was always the inner political working of the Association. This is no less fascinating or intensely contested. As a democratic organisation, every rule change and amendment, disciplinary offence and fixture change is hotly debated, at club, county and national level.