From Gaelic fields to poppy fields: the GAA’s hidden part in the Great War

The legion of GAA men who left for the Western Front have remained invisible until now

 

There was a bittersweet note to the 1967 Clare hurling championship victory for Newmarket-on-Fergus. Celebrations were still going strong throughout the town late into the summer evening when John Fox, a highly-respected elder in the club, decided he’d had enough and walked home. He was alone and fell, breaking his hip in the process. He didn’t recover from the fall and died shortly afterwards. He was 75.

“His balance wouldn’t have been the best by then,” says his grandson, also John Fox and also a Newmarket man. That was understandable. In 1914, Fox, an all-round athlete of some distinction, had played wing-back on Clare’s All-Ireland-winning hurling team.

The following year, he joined the Munster Fusiliers and suffered serious shrapnel wounds to the head while fighting in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was transferred to an infirmary in Dublin where his future wife came to visit him. “She said later that an older doctor told her not to let them operate on him. And she didn’t.” Fox returned to Clare and joined a legion of GAA men whose contribution to the Great War remained to all intents invisible until recent years.

“The modern word you’d use is airbrushed,” his grandson remarks.

It is only in the past number of years, with the centenary of the November 1918 Armistice approaching next autumn, that the complexity of the GAA’s involvement in the first World War has been treated to a more considered examination. On the surface, the idea of Gaels signing up to fight for the British Army flies in the face of the association’s strongly nationalist credentials and history, and deep-rooted involvement in the War of Independence. But life, as always, was messier than history’s tidy summations.

“What always strikes me about this period is that through all the politics and upheaval is how much sport continued throughout,” says Mark Duncan, a director at Century Ireland and co-author of The GAA: A People’s History and other key publications.

“There were smaller crowds and fewer games, but when you look through the minute books what you find is an organisation still consumed with the administration of games rather than one besotted with the politics of the period. What we don’t have is a concrete set of figures of the numbers who joined up.

“When the Irish Volunteers were founded in 1913, their numbers grew very fast and we know there was an overlap with membership with the GAA and it cut across activity. And all you can do is identify that disruption.”

It was considerable. Academic and author Donal McAnallen has, in his research, identified many instances across Ulster in which GAA men both prominent and obscure fought in the army. For instance, Patrick Holland, secretary of Tyrone GAA, enlisted for the Royal Flying Corps. Lance Sgt William Manning, who played for Antrim in the 1912 All-Ireland football final, was killed in France in May 1918.

Killed in action

The Gaelic Athlete periodical noted that Belfast club St Peter’s had lost “no less than nine of their best players” to the war while seven members of the O’Neill Crowley’s Athletic Club had been killed in action by July 1917. Ross O’Carroll, the former Dublin footballer, wrote an MA thesis on the subject. He points out in a paper included in The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923 (Collins Press), edited by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, that in the 130-year existence of the GAA, “the subject of the association and the first World War is one that has never been formally discussed, or at least documented at large”.

The reasons for that are manifold and were vividly outlined in an Ulster Council statement as recently as 2014. Given that that wing of the GAA’s provinces is most closely associated with the nationalist movement, it was notable that its council was highly engaged in a project entitled “Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers”, a conscious and conscientious recognition of the fact that many Ulster Gaels had also marched towards the Somme.

“For several reasons, this subject has not been researched in depth previously,” acknowledged an Ulster Council release on the project.

“First of all, there is the long-standing reluctance among nationalists to discuss or detail memories of the war. Second, several of the GAA clubs affected by recruitment were in junior leagues and no longer exist. Then there is the fact that most of the solders in question appeared to be in the lower ranks of their regiments, and therefore their military service or deaths were less likely to be recorded prominently.”

But for the diligence of local historians across the country, it would remain that way. The few GAA members whose contribution is known about were remembered precisely because they achieved prominence on the field of play.

Jimmy Rossiter played in and lost the 1913 and 1914 All-Ireland football finals with Wexford before enlisting with the Irish Volunteers. He was killed in France in October 1915, just as his erstwhile team-mates were beginning a four-in-a-row dynasty. Newspapers and periodicals carry reference to the ways in which the war impacted on teams and games. This from the Clare Champion in 1916: “Gaels of the Banner county will be glad to hear that Sergeant George Fitzpatrick, Connaught Rangers, who was seriously injured in the Dardanelles, is now recovered, and it is the famous Muff’s fervent desire that the war may soon be over in order that he may once again don the Green and Gold.”

And the Mayo News: “What has become of the Kiltimagh team of 1914? Have we to wait ’til the boys come home?”

Like a lot of young men at that time he had no real employment and this was a chance of work and a bit of adventure

“So many of the stories are fascinating,” says O’Carroll. “I suppose before I started researching I’d gone along with the narrative that the GAA was this strongly nationalist organisation, but having researched it and read a lot more about it, I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that it wasn’t as radical as was made out in my earlier histories of the GAA.”

Conspicuous event

John Fox’s departure was a conspicuous event locally because the Clare team had been so high-profile: in his essay High Prestige historian Dr Tomás Mac Conmara quotes a local journalist warning against the distractions facing the hurlers as they prepared for that ’14 final.

“Our boys being so good-looking, and, of course, such heroes in the eyes of the fair sex, attract quite a number of fair ladies to the vicinity of their training quarter every evening, and as a result we have some ‘tripping the light fantastic toe’, which is all very well in its own way, taken in moderation . . . but it should not come off every night and on no account be prolonged after ten.”

John Fox believes his grandfather’s reasons for enlisting were pragmatic rather than ideological. “Like a lot of young men at that time he had no real employment and this was a chance of work and a bit of adventure.”

Clare historian Keir McNamara believes most young men who joined did so for similar reasons. Precise figures are difficult to establish, but he estimates that up 3,000 men left directly from Clare for the war – and probably twice that if the diaspora is included. They tended to be from rural rather than agrarian backgrounds. Some may have been swayed by John Redmond’s rhetoric. And all would probably have been on the front for the 1916 Rising, after which the GAA’s nationalist credentials became more overt.

“If there was a criticism you would level at the GAA in the post-independence period – and journalists were very much part of this propaganda – it was emphasising the role of their membership in the independence movement, and they leveraged that for favourable treatment in the early years of the new State in terms of exemptions from things like entertainment tax. And that was cultivated right up until the 1970s and beyond,” says Mark Duncan.

“To be fair to the GAA, what they have actually done in the last number of years in a number of initiatives takes account that it was a much more complex narrative. When they are confronted by evidence they have acknowledged that.”

For soldiers returning from the front, the enforcement of Rule 21 (which banned members of the British forces from membership of the GAA) was probably the least of their concerns. McNamara believes the aftermath of the wartime experience had an impact on local families and communities that lasted generations.

He has a number of medals from the war which . . . well, I won’t say they were discarded but they certainly weren’t on display

“The stories are broadly similar. You had the guys shell-shocked and with physical wounds who were never right again. In Kilrush, there was housing built for returned soldiers and it became known as ‘Shellshock Alley.’ Others went on to join the IRA and fight the British Army afterwards. About 10 per cent died and about half came back with wounds of various descriptions and, of that number, 30 per cent had serious long-term issues.”

Games and funerals

John Fox went everywhere with his grandfather as a young boy and that entailed attending a lot of games and funerals. The war was almost never spoken about, although he has one clear memory of his grandfather discussing the use of quinine, a drug administered to soldiers to treat malaria, with men of his own generation at a funeral. But for the vast majority of his life, it simply wasn’t mentioned.

“He certainly never talked about the trauma of the battlefield. He has a number of medals from the war which . . . well, I won’t say they were discarded but they certainly weren’t on display.”

Fox had the wherewithal – and zest – to resume hurling after he returned. According to Joe Power’s Clare and the Great War (History Press Ireland) he played in the 1919 Munster championship, when Clare lost 6-6 to 4-1 to Limerick. After that, he confined his activity to Newmarket-on-Fergus, winning county finals against Ennis Dalcassians and O’Callaghans Mills before retiring. It is known that he was subjected to heckling in some of his early club appearances and taunting that he had taken “John Bull’s soup”.

“What I heard was that he walked over to the sideline to the few lads who were at him,” John Fox says. “And he just said, ‘Come down here.’ And that finished it.”

By the 1950s and 1960s, Fox was a figurehead in the Newmarket club, often leading out the teams for county finals – in which they were a habitual force. By then, he belonged to a rarefied group: no Clare hurling team would win the All-Ireland until Ger Loughnane’s wild bunch came along in 1995. Fox’s grandson is sanguine about the elements of rancour that were directed towards Fox during the turbulent period of the War of Independence.

“I think you have to accept that the events of 1916 made for a significant change to the general attitude. And to be fair to the GAA, when the Civil War situation came, they were extremely important in creating an atmosphere of unity. In relation to the service in the Army, I think it took a while to accept. Okay, people did things for different motivations. They weren’t of the same mind as us. But there was nothing improper in what they did. If you look at recent history, England playing in Croke Park, the Northern Ireland police force being allowed to play . . . there has been significant change in the last 20 years.”

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. In 2013, Clare stormed to a surprise All-Ireland that was defined by a hat-trick of goals by Shane O’Donnell. It was the county’s fourth-ever senior title and, strangely, it mirrored the events in their very first, back in 1914, when James Guerin, a 20-year-old from Newmarket, was included as a late pick in trainer Jim Hehir’s (father of the voice, Michael O’Hehir) starting team. Guerin shot three goals and kept hurling as his club mate John Fox headed off for the Western Front. He played in the Munster final of 1918 but was dead just three months later – a victim of the Spanish Influenza that claimed up to 50 million lives. They were fraught, precarious days in all sorts of ways.

The many GAA men like John Fox, who had survived the war, got on with life, parcelling away those four years and, mindful of the prevailing mood, keeping their memories and experiences to themselves.

“I don’t think it was ever a source of shame,” says Mark Duncan. “But people are beginning to explore things for the first time. It is a complex story and it’s not just people who fought in the first World War or 1916: there was a huge swathe of Irish life not caught up in that. But what we don’t know a lot about is of the experiences of those who returned and the reception of the GAA.”

Maybe now, from the distance of a century, the association and country in general can further acknowledge those members who swapped the Gaelic fields for the churned-up poppy fields – in many cases for good.

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