GAA’s role in 1916 Rising: Separating fact from fiction

Aligning association with separatist tradition jars with a more complex historical reality

For those making their way to Jones’s Road for the National Football League finals on Sunday, Croke Park is promising to serve up a day out with a difference. It’s not just that the Dublin footballers will be cast in the rare role of support act; it’s that they will be followed by a theatrical spectacular that aims, with no little ambition, to tell the ‘story of Ireland’.

There will, as the pre-publicity around the ‘Laochra’ event trumpets, be special effects and a cast of thousands, in addition to which the expected large attendance itself is sure to be asked to play a part.

What is striking about so much of the mostly well-judged, nuanced and splendidly delivered 1916 centenary programme is the extent to which ideas that were first given a run out on the occasion of the 50th anniversary have been revived and remodelled for modern audiences.

What we’ll see in Croke Park will doubtless be a thoroughly original and flamboyant artistic endeavour – the producers, Tyrone Productions have quite the track record after all – but the idea upon which it is based is straight out of the 1966 commemorative playbook.


Then, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the Rising, Croke Park played host to not one, but two, large pageants which emphasised the heroism of 1916 and its leaders and which sought to ignite in young audiences, at whom they were both principally targeted, a renewed sense of patriotism.

Dispute over actors’ fees

Perhaps significantly, neither of these pageants was tied to the crowd-pulling appeal of a major game. Instead, they were stand-alone events, attractions in their own right. The first of them was the GAA-commissioned, Bryan McMahon-scripted ‘Seachtar fear, Seacht lá’ (Seven men, Seven days), which was almost overshadowed by a dispute over actors’ fees and whether or not it would or could be televised.

Almost, but not quite: this 90-minute show was staged at night with specially installed lighting helping to create an atmosphere that was described as “haunting” and “heroic”. Reviewers were clearly impressed by the visual spectacle, and the pageant, which involved 250 boys and girls from Dublin GAA clubs, ran over three days in March 1966 before transferring to Casement Park in Belfast.

Within weeks, it was followed by an even more grandiose spectacle: the religiously titled ‘Aiséirí – Glóir réim na Cásca’ (Resurrection: the Easter Pageant) was produced by Tomás MacAnna and performed over five days in April, with one performance laid on specially for 20,000 Dublin schoolchildren, who, in preparation, paraded to Croke Park from a rain-drenched O’Connell Street – past the GPO and the Garden of Remembrance – behind a colour party involving 16 bands.

Aiséirí was big in both its scale and its story-telling scope. The Croke Park field was laid out with three stages facing the Cusack Stand and with 16 super-sized portraits of the executed leaders along the Hogan Stand side. Above them, as MacAnna recalled in the pages of this newspaper 25 years ago, was a "running title board ... spelling out, in Brechtian fashion, the times and places and events, from the battle of '98 to Emmet and the Fenians, the Famine, Home Rule and Parnell, the inspiration of the GAA and the Gaelic League, Edward Carson's defiance, John Redmond's betrayal, and the final declaration of Poblacht na hÉireann."

This was quite the dramatic range. In essence, what MacAnna was staging was a potted political history that highlighted key milestones on the path to Irish independence – independence for the southern part of the island at least.

In 1966, the GAA was in no doubt as to the significance of its contribution to the push towards this independence. At the annual congress of that year, GAA president Alf Ó Muirí told delegates that the Association’s “great achievement has been that, in the years immediately before and immediately after ’16 it gave the separatist movement a part of that spiritual backing which made the fight for freedom something more than a mere attempt at changing the form of government and turned it into a people’s struggle for national identity.’

That the GAA nurtured – and continues to nurture, indeed – a sense of Irish cultural distinctiveness is undeniable, but the keenness with which generations of GAA officials, aided by journalists and historians, sought to align the association with the separatist tradition jarred with a more complex historical reality. Yes, over 300 GAA club members participated in the 1916 rebellion and many more might have done so had the country risen on the Easter Sunday as originally envisaged.

But membership of the GAA in 1916 equated neither with being of separatist mind nor revolutionary intent. Not even close to it, as is obvious from the significant numbers that, for whatever reasons, chose to enlist in the British army during the first World War. Moreover, what drove participation in the GAA was the essential appeal of its games. And it was the management of these games, and the mundane matters of fixtures and finance, that dominated the deliberations of those charged with the GAA’s administration, even where radical nationalists were among those doing the deliberating.

Evidence of this abounds.

War effort

In the very weeks before the Rising, indeed, a deputation of leading GAA officials travelled to London where, accompanied by John Redmond, they met with the British chancellor of the exchequer to press their case for exemption from an entertainment tax that had been introduced to help fund the ongoing war effort.

These were not the actions of ideologues, but of pragmatists and men concerned, for the most part, with the fortunes of their games and those who played them.

A similar pragmatism is discernible in the GAA’s public statements in the immediate aftermath of the Rising. Even as popular sentiment began to shift in response to the excesses of British policy in suppressing the insurrection, the GAA was adamant in its denials that its aims and objects were anything other than sporting. To suggest otherwise, as some had done before the official commission set up to investigate the rebellion, was, the association insisted, both “untrue” and “unjust”.

Above all else, what governed GAA policy throughout 1916 was the service of its sports rather than separatist politics.

The mere acknowledgement of such fact does nothing to take from undoubted bravery of those GAA members who fought during Easter week. However, what it does – and what the plurality of perspectives recently being brought to bear on the GAA's past does – is to guard against a repetition of a 1966-style commemoration when, as historian Mary Daly put it, "the GAA tried to claim a special place, as the inspiration for the Rising and a major force in keeping the flame of republican idealism alive".

It’s hard to believe the ‘Laochra’ event, notwithstanding the preponderance of military uniforms and guns in the press launch photographs, will to do anything of the sort. Instead, where it may well claim a special place for the GAA is on the impression that has been made on both Irish identity and the social and cultural experiences of Irish people at home and overseas. The theatrical challenge is whether it can do so in a way that is at once entertaining and respectful of a historical record that is complex, contested and, in very many ways, extraordinary.

Mark Duncan is a historian and a director of the Century Ireland project (