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Gaelic Athletic Association - Oral History Project

Religion

gaa oral history project

For many people over a certain age the formalities attached to major match days now appear different to those they remember from their youth. While the parade of players, the national anthem and the musical accompaniment of a band such as that from Artane have not changed, there are two significant omissions nowadays. The first was the singing of the Catholic anthem, Faith of our Fathers, and the second was the sight of a bishop throwing in the ball to begin the game.

The absence of such obvious symbols of Catholicism from major GAA days speaks volumes about the changed place of the Church in Irish society. The bishop throwing in the ball on All-Ireland Sunday symbolised the relationship which developed between the GAA and the Catholic Church after the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. It is unsurprising that two organisations of such importance in independent Ireland should have sought to share a mutually-beneficial rapport. The nature of that rapport was shaped by those same forces which shaped wider society. The Catholicism of the southern state was reflected across the operations of the GAA. For all that the Association’s constitution proclaimed the non-sectarian nature of the Association, the overt Catholicism of its symbols ensured that the GAA was perceived as an organisation for Catholics. After all, the men who stood for the Catholic hymn, Faith of our Fathers, on All-Ireland Sunday and who knelt to kiss the bishop’s ring on the field of play were invariably Catholic.

The first patron, and one of the main movers behind the early success of the GAA, was Archbishop Croke of Cashel. His role as patron is something that has been filled ever since by a leading cleric. That Cusack saw the Church as a major force to rally behind his new sporting organisation was a masterstroke. The Church and the IRB fought out a major battle for control of the GAA during the late 1880s and the early 1890s. Although the IRB was initially successful in wresting control of the GAA, clerical denouncement of the IRB-controlled Association nearly led to its complete collapse by 1892.

In the early years of the twentieth century clerics resumed involvement in the GAA, however it was after 1921 that the Catholic Church and the GAA became more closely identified with one another as key institutions in independent Ireland. The fact that the GAA used the Catholic parish system as a territorial divider facilitated the involvement of clerics in the day to day life of clubs across the country. As well as committee and organisational roles, the clergy were also – despite rules to the contrary – often players and coaches at local and county levels. The Church’s involvement in schools was also of great importance to the GAA – while some leading Church schools chose rugby over Gaelic – many others championed the cause of the native games and these schools remain key incubators for successful county players. These included St. Jarlath’s, St. Kieran’s, St. Mel’s, North Mon, the Carmelite in Moate, and the Sem in Killarney.

That the Church has undergone profound change in recent years is undeniable. Equally the GAA has often had difficult relations with the other religions in Ireland, and men such as Sam Maguire stand out as one of the few leading Protestants to have been involved in the GAA at its upper levels. That said, the GAA is alive to all the challenges that accompany the complexity of religion in Ireland, and is aware how profoundly important the Catholic Church was in its foundation and in sustaining it, in many ways, across the last 125 years.

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