By 1916, the GAA was Ireland's largest sporting organisation with more than 500 clubs affiliated across all 32 counties. In the previous decade the All-Ireland football championships had become the dominant competition in Ireland's sporting landscape.
Dedicated training camps for intercounty teams were now commonplace and successive finals witnessed record attendances and unprecedented media coverage.
As 1916 dawned, few within the association could have predicted how that year’s All-Ireland championship would be played against the backdrop of a country gripped by political turmoil.
Yet the politics of the age were never far from the GAA’s fields. Kerry and Wexford had contested the previous three All-Ireland finals with Wexford finally prevailing in the 1915 decider on November 7th.
Austin Stack, chairman of the Kerry GAA and leading figure in the Kerry IRB, had used that final as cover for an operation to bring weapons from Dublin to Kerry, in order to adequately arm the local Irish Volunteers in preparation for a planned German arms landing which would coincide with the Rising.
The weapons were smuggled aboard the returning supporters' train to Tralee on the Monday evening. For Wexford, their victory was bittersweet. Before the final, news reached Ireland that James Rossiter, the brilliant young forward on the 1913 and 1914 Wexford teams, had been killed while serving with the Royal Irish Regiment at the Battle of Loos. Poignantly, the press reprinted his final letter home in which he wrote he felt more nervous when facing Kerry than about the upcoming battle.
Yet as Easter 1916 approached, the leadership of the GAA remained blissfully unaware of the dramatic events which were about to transpire.
On Easter Sunday, the GAA held its annual congress in Dublin. Perhaps tellingly, the Cork Examiner noted that attendance was poor and "the business of the Convention was on the light side when contrasted with previous Congresses".
Among those present were Harry Boland, chairman of the Dublin GAA and leading figure in the IRB, who would fight in the GPO.
On returning to his home town of Kilkenny the next evening, the GAA's president, James Nowlan, was arrested for his membership of the Sinn Féin movement the authorities now believed was rebelling against them. GAA matches also went ahead as normal that weekend. In Thurles, over 3,000 watched the hurlers of Clare, Cork, Laois and Dublin take part in a special tournament.
In all, 302 GAA members from 52 separate Dublin GAA clubs numbered among the 1,500 rebels who fought in Dublin. Many more would take part in rebel actions outside the capital at Ashbourne, Enniscorthy and Galway. These were of course radical nationalists whose views did not reflect the politics of the vast majority within the GAA at this time.
Yet because of their actions, the GAA would find itself targeted by the authorities in the aftermath of the Rising. Over 3,400 people were arrested in the weeks which followed for their supposed participation.
Because of the perceived close connections between the GAA and the Irish Volunteers, those targeted included hundreds of the association’s members. Most were deported to the Frongoch internment camp in Wales. Due to their shared incarceration with extreme nationalists, many GAA members now became politically radicalised.
In July an article in the Kerryman entitled, "Keeping the Flag Flying: Football Games at Frongoch", reported that "the intense Gaelicism of the Irish prisoners of war is clearly demonstrated in their zest in pursuing Gaelic games arranged by well-known GAA men in their midst". Owing to the large numbers of GAA players among the camp's 1,800 prisoners, Gaelic football contests were arranged to keep up discipline, fitness and morale.
The concentration on Gaelic games was also designed to be a deliberate statement, symbolically emphasising the prisoner’s rejection of British rule and their commitment to the continuing struggle for independence.
Dick Fitzgerald, Kerry's legendary captain, and Michael Collins, who had been an active member of the London GAA, helped arrange the contests. A league competition was started among four teams called after the leaders of the Rising.
Intercounty contests were also organised and the pitch the prisoners levelled out for themselves was renamed Croke Park. In the weeks before the Rising, the Kerry and Louth footballers had each qualified for the semi-finals of a newly organised secondary GAA competition, the Wolfe Tone tournament.
As so many players from Kerry and Louth were now incarcerated, it was decided that both would contest the unofficial Wolfe Tone final of Frongoch. Dick Fitzgerald led Kerry, while Tom Burke captained Louth.
Attendance at the game was compulsory and posters advertising the event informed prisoners that: “Wives and sweethearts should be left at home!” A brief report of the match, recounting Kerry’s one-point victory, was smuggled out and reprinted in the national press.
While many remained incarcerated, the association had to defend itself against accusations that it was complicit in the recent rebellion.
A royal commission, established by the British government to uncover the causes of the insurrection, concluded that the Irish Volunteers had gained “practically full control” over the association.
Due to the commission’s findings, the authorities conducted a campaign of harassment towards the GAA for several months.
With martial law already in force across Ireland, the holding of GAA matches was outlawed. On June 4th, a meeting of the Munster Council in Limerick was raided and broken up by the city’s police.
However, lobbying on behalf of Irish MPs resulted in the military authorities withdrawing their restrictions on GAA activity two weeks later.
As a result the 1916 All-Ireland football championship finally got underway that June. In Ulster, Monaghan qualified to meet Antrim in the provincial final in September in front of a large crowd in Clones.
The game, which witnessed a seven-point Monaghan victory, was a tempestuous affair and in a fractious second-half three men were sent off.
The Anglo-Celt condemned the "reprehensible and unjustifiable" antics of the Monaghan spectators who began "shouting for reprisals" because of the persistent fouling of the Antrim players.
The paper opined: “If some Antrim players broke the rules it should have been left to the referee to deal with. It is unchivalrous to subject a visiting team, having naturally very few sympathisers in the crowd, to abuse and threats, as was done on Sunday.”
Out west, Mayo continued their recent dominance, dispatching Roscommon to claim an eighth Connacht title in 15 years. Despite several of its prominent players residing in Frongoch, Kerry still accounted for Tipperary in the opening game of the Munster championship in mid-July.
However, the following week the Kerry Board informed the Munster Council that it was withdrawing.
While many assumed this decision was due to the number of Kerry players languishing in internment, the Kerry GAA instead explained that they were in dire financial straits and simply could not afford the cost of the team’s continued involvement in national competitions.
With Kerry withdrawn, the Munster final pitted Cork against Clare on a wet, miserable day in Clonmel. The Cork Examiner noted that Cork "though they fought hard were lucky to have won on the smallest margin" (2-8 to 1-4).
By now GAA events were displaying some of the earliest examples of the growing public surge of sympathy with the dead of Easter. In July, the Tipperary hurlers played in the Munster championship with rosettes on their jerseys symbolising their solidarity with the executed leaders. Across Ireland, clubs from Tyrone to Limerick rechristened themselves in memory of the martyrs of 1916.
Because of the Rising, the Leinster championship was much disrupted with only six counties taking part.
On September 3rd, Dublin were to play Wexford in the semi-final in Wexford Park but nearly 5,000 spectators at the ground were left disappointed when the match was called off.
Several of the Dublin team had missed the train that was arranged to take them to Wexford and as a consequence they could not field a team. Awarded a walkover victory, Wexford then met Kildare in the Leinster final on October 15th.
The Freeman's Journal described Wexford's 1-7 to 1-0 win as "decisive" over a "plucky" Kildare side. It represented the fourth of the seven Leinster titles this remarkable side claimed between 1913 and 1918.
Since the Rising, the military in Ireland had put severe restrictions on rail services, banning all non-essential travel.
This had a hugely detrimental impact on GAA teams and supporters who depended on the special trains run for matches each Sunday.
In November, the Central Council sent a deputation to meet with General John Maxwell, who was appointed military governor during the Rising and oversaw the rebel leaders’ executions.
Maxwell turned down their plea to relax rail restrictions. His decision was probably understandable given the rapidly changing political sentiment among the Irish public.
As one police report noted: “A discontented and rebellious spirit is now widespread and frequently comes to the surface at Gaelic Athletic Association tournaments.”
The All-Ireland semi-finals, fixed for October 22nd, saw Wexford agree to Monaghan’s request to play their game in Carrickmacross, the hosts losing 0-9 to 1-1.
Meanwhile, in Athlone, Cork took on Mayo. Expectations of crowds exceeding 10,000 were dashed by the military’s decision to again ban special trains, leading to severe disruption.
Several Mayo players had to arrange alternative transport and one player was forced to hire a motorcar to travel the 90-mile journey. A sparse crowd saw Mayo record a maiden semi-final victory.
Yet a replay was ordered when Cork officials highlighted the ineligibility of one Mayo player who had already played for another county during the past year.
The game was re-fixed for Croke Park on November 19th, with the All-Ireland postponed until December 17th.
The Cork Examiner described how the replay was contested in torrential rain. The pitch became waterlogged and a huge pool of water developed in front of the railway end goal, "much to the discomfort of the players".
Again the combination of bad weather and train cancellations contributed to a meagre crowd. Mayo were said to have dominated far more than the final score of 1-2 to 1-1 suggested.
All eyes now turned to the final which represented the first ever appearance of a Connacht team.
In the weeks before, Mayo's Western People reported that the Leinster Council had awarded Wexford a £25 grant to organise a training camp.
The Mayo GAA also sought training funds and appealed for donations from “all who are anxious for the success of our gallant fifteen and are desirous of seeing the blue ribbon of Gaelic football coming to Mayo”.
With relief the GAA was told on December 14th that Irish MPs had secured permission from the British government to allow special match-day trains to run. Despite this, only 3,000 eventually showed for the game. It was the worst attendance of any All-Ireland in 15 years and little more than a 10th of the number which was present in 1915.
The Freeman's Journal remarked that many were deterred from making the journey "owing to the prevailing conditions".
This was not a reference to the dramatic events of the previous Easter but rather to the horrendous weather conditions in which the final was contested.
That morning, temperatures in the capital plummeted and an “abnormally severe frost” descended on the city.
Journeys through the frozen streets became treacherous and more than 300 people were admitted to hospital that day due to injuries caused by the frost and ice.
Rumours abounded that the final would be cancelled. However, after inspecting the pitch, the teams agreed to play, a decision which “showed extraordinary hardihood on the part of the Wexford and Mayo players to risk taking the field”.
While the press was full of praise for Mayo’s “magnificent fight”, they nevertheless succumbed to a comprehensive Wexford victory, 3-4 to 1-2.
Led by their great captain, Seán Kennedy, Wexford secured their second title in what became a unique and unprecedented four-in-a-row of All-Ireland victories. In 1917, Kennedy would become the only footballer in history to captain his county to three All-Irelands.
Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Modern Irish History in UCD. He is the author of the acclaimed, Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934. His study of the role of the GAA in the 1916 Rising was published in Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh (ed.), The GAA and Revolution in Ireland: 1913-1923 by Collins Press.