The president, the ban and the truly Gaelic Gaels

The match in question: Éamon de Valera, Douglas Hyde and Oscar Traynor watch Ireland beat Poland 3-2 in Dalymount Park, Dublin, in 1938. photograph: getty images

The match in question: Éamon de Valera, Douglas Hyde and Oscar Traynor watch Ireland beat Poland 3-2 in Dalymount Park, Dublin, in 1938. photograph: getty images

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

HISTORY:The GAA v Douglas Hyde: The Removal of Ireland’s First President as GAA Patron, By Cormac Moore, The Collins Press, 250pp, €11.99

On December 17th, 1938, the central council of the Gaelic Athletic Association removed Douglas Hyde from the honorific position of patron of its organisation. Hyde, then president of Ireland, and a founder of the Gaelic League, had been a patron for 36 years, but on November 13th he had attended an international soccer match between Ireland and Poland at Dalymount Park. This, the central council decided, was in contravention of rule 27 of the association. Rule 27, or “the ban”, prohibited members of the GAA from playing games or attending functions organised by those promoting four named “foreign” sports: rugby, cricket, hockey and association football. In April 1939, after several months of controversy, the annual congress of the GAA confirmed central council’s decision. Hyde was not reinstated before his death, in July 1949.

In four chapters at the centre of The GAA v Douglas Hyde, Cormac Moore examines in detail these events and the contemporary debates, but his project is also a wider one. In placing Hyde’s removal in context, Moore offers a popular history of the ban. This is the first such history since 1967, when Brendán MacLua set out to defend The Steadfast Rule from the attacks of an increasingly vocal group within the GAA. Breandán Ó hEithir described reading The Steadfast Rule as “rather like entering the caves at Mitchelstown to find men dressed in bearskins painting little pictures on the walls”, and, despite MacLua’s efforts, the GAA removed rule 27 in 1971. By then it had been rendered ridiculous in the eyes of many GAA members, who, since the arrival of television, had with pleasure watched soccer and rugby in the privacy of their living rooms. In addition, the rhetoric that once sustained the ban had come to sound insupportably insular and old-fashioned. In 1938, however, the generation that led the GAA – headed by its general secretary, Pádraig Ó Caoimh, and its president, Pádraig MacNamee – had been born in the 1890s and come to maturity during the revolutionary decade. For them the ideas that informed the ban were once new and vital, and had become orthodoxy.

Ó Caoimh and MacNamee were skilled administrators, but when faced with the questions posed by Hyde’s attendance at Dalymount they were unable, or unwilling, to summon the flexibility of mind to find a response that would mitigate the inevitable hullaballoo. Moore points out that months earlier the GAA had rescinded a ban imposed on Garda George Ormsby, an inter-county footballer for Mayo who had attended a soccer match, when the Garda Síochána informed the GAA that Ormsby had been on duty. This, he argues, provided a precedent that the GAA might have returned to in the Hyde case. Instead, the central council removed Hyde, and during subsequent debates Ó Caoimh and MacNamee defended this decision in the language of truly Gaelic Gaelicism that Flann O’Brien would so mercilessly satirise three years later in An Béal Bocht.

For Moore, one of the more egregious, not to say illogical, aspects of the GAA’s treatment of Hyde was his status as one of the fathers of cultural nationalism. He had spent his life promoting the Irish language, while he had consistently offered support to the GAA. It was surely this, however, that ensured Ó Caoimh, MacNamee and many others within the GAA reacted as they did. Hyde was not just one of them: he was the best, the most admired, of them. He was their patron saint and yet, on becoming president, he had apparently abandoned them. In attending the Ireland-Poland game Hyde acknowledged that there was more than one way to express Irishness, and they felt betrayed, maybe even threatened.

In the short term, the Hyde incident caused division within the GAA, exposed it to embarrassing attacks from outside, and damaged the relationship between the leadership of Fianna Fáil and the association. As Moore shows, these relations were further strained during the war. In 1942, the GAA unwisely intervened in the political arena when it published a pamphlet entitled National Action, by Joseph Hanley, that advocated replacing parliamentary democracy with a one-party corporatist state. Then, in 1943, Oscar Traynor, the minister for defence, altered policies within the army that had not prevented the playing of “foreign” games but had afforded Gaelic games a privileged status.

Although anti-ban campaigners would regularly refer to the Hyde incident, it is doubtful whether this contributed much to the eventual removal of rule 27. In its coming and in its going the ban reflected the changing nature of Irish society and the GAA’s developing sense of how best to advance its cause. In between, as Moore demonstrates, ban rules were varyingly repealed and reintroduced, mythologised and contested, imposed and ignored.

In charting this, Moore uses contemporary press reports to considerable effect while drawing on the significant body of academic scholarship of the GAA that has appeared in recent years, most importantly Paul Rouse’s work on “the ban”. While Moore’s reading on the GAA is thoroughly up to date, he relies on more dated literature in some of the contextual sections – when discussing the development of the Gaelic League, for example – and these suffer somewhat as a consequence. Moore’s prose style is not always fluid, but he does know how to structure a narrative, and the chapters are cleverly arranged to bring the reader through the fascinating story he has to tell.

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