Gaelic Sunday: When the GAA took on the British empire

It’s 100 years since one of the most unified acts of defiance in the face of British rule

Michael Collins, Luke O’Toole and Harry Boland at Croke Park for the 1921 Leinster hurling final. Photo: ‘The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923.

Michael Collins, Luke O’Toole and Harry Boland at Croke Park for the 1921 Leinster hurling final. Photo: ‘The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923.

 

Sometimes history happens and nobody notices. The moment is missed and passes unacknowledged. This was not one of those occasions.

The reporter for the Limerick Leader may not have written under his own name – ‘The Hurler’ was his preferred non de plume – but he called it for how he saw it. August 4th 1918, he informed his readers some days later, will be ‘remembered in the annals of the GAA forever as one of the greatest days in its history’.

This dizzy sense of historical achievement was, to an extent, understandable.

The association had just delivered an organisational triumph by staging a nationwide programme of games – ‘Gaelic Sunday’ they billed it – in protest against what the writer described as an ‘unjust ban’ that had been placed upon them by the British administration in Ireland.

No ban had actually been imposed, yet the introduction – at the beginning of July 1918 – of a proclamation prohibiting all ‘meetings, assemblies, or processions in public places’ without written authorisation from the police had much the same effect once the GAA refused to co-operate with the permit requirement.

‘Gaelic Sunday’ was the GAA’s riposte to this order and though, much as ‘the Hurler’ had predicted, it has been well remembered by historians, its centenary is shaping up to be a rather low-key commemorative affair.

It will of course be marked by the GAA centrally and valiant efforts have been made to engage with clubs – a stirring short film has been produced to encourage localised events – but there will be no repeat of the large-scale pageantry and spectacle laid on by the GAA for the 1916 Rising centenary, when the Croke Park pitch was given over to a lavish theatrical production that filled the pitch with performers and the stands with spectators.

The contrast in the commemorative profile is all the more striking given that ‘Gaelic Sunday’ is the only event across the current decade of centenaries to which the GAA can lay a singular claim. True, it had members who participated in the Rising and the subsequent struggle for independence and, yes, it provided the stage upon which the ‘Bloody Sunday’ atrocity played out, but this was the event for which it bore organisational responsibility.

It owned it and organised it. ‘Gaelic Sunday’ was theirs alone – ‘the greatest single act of defiance outside the purely political sphere between 1916 and 1922’, as the association’s official historian put it some decades afterwards.

Radical drift

To understand the source of all the bother and what drove a sporting body into a clash with the country’s then British masters it is not sufficient to merely cite that body’s long-established and complex relationship with Irish nationalism.

That’s part of it, of course. But the GAA’s actions around ‘Gaelic Sunday’ require anchoring in the specific set of political circumstances that emerged in the spring and summer of 1918. A British government that had done itself no favours with Irish nationalists with the severity of its response to the Rising two years earlier, was then doing its damnedest, or so it appeared, to antagonise them further.

Unsettled by the radical drift of Irish political sentiment and with war as a backdrop, they defaulted to a policy of coercion and repression. It was introduced in instalments.

If it was the conscription crisis that erupted in April 1918 that really galvanised nationalist opinion, uniting its often competing strands in a frenetic period of popular public protest, it was the order relating to public assemblies, introduced on July 4th, that raised the GAA’s hackles.

The great meeting held at Ballaghaderreen to protest against the extension of conscription to Ireland. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
The great meeting held at Ballaghaderreen to protest against the extension of conscription to Ireland. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

With good reason: the measure had a wider application than simply sporting activity, but there was no disguising its impact upon the association, which continued to schedule games without reference to the now necessary permit.

The disruption to Gaelic games was widespread. In Banagher, Co. Offaly, baton-charging police rushed a field to halt a match that had started without their say so. In Dublin’s Phoenix Park, nine young boys were picked up by a military wagon and removed to the Bridewell where they were held for five hours before release. Their offence, the Manchester Guardian reported, was failing to ‘go to a policeman and ask leave to kick a football’. The Camogie Association described the stoppages at their games as ‘just a petty piece of the absolute tyranny exercised over the whole country just now’.

It wasn’t just low-level sporting activity that was targeted.

On July 8th, the Ulster senior football semi-final fixture between Cavan and Armagh at Cootehill was abandoned when armed police and soldiers intervened with 3,000 spectators already gathered and the two teams in the dressing-rooms set to start.

In a letter to the Freeman’s Journal, Eoin O’Duffy , the GAA’s provincial secretary in Ulster, decried the heavy-handedness of the authorities in denying those who had simply come together to ‘witness a harmless football match’. They had not, he insisted, come for ‘an engagement with the forces of England’, the self-styled “Defenders of Small Nationalities”.

Downright defiance

Less than a fortnight later, on July 20th, the GAA’s Central Council met to consider their response to such incidents. They settled on a strategy of non-compliance and downright defiance. It comprised of two key measures and was communicated to the membership and beyond in a statement issued by Luke O’Toole, the GAA’s full-time secretary.

For a start, the already established practice of not applying for permits to play now became official GAA policy, breaches of which were to be punishable by automatic and indefinite suspension.

More eye-catching, however, was the announcement of plans for ‘Gaelic Sunday’. County boards were instructed to hold a meeting of their club delegates within 10 days with a view to organising a programme of club matches within their county to be held on August 4th. All these games were to start simultaneously at 3pm and nowhere was a permit to be sought.

This focus on club fixtures was deliberate.

By ensuring that the matches were ‘localised as much possible’, ‘Gaelic Sunday’ was intended to showcase the GAA’s organisational reach and strength.

It did just that. In advance of the day, the press reported that about 1,500 hurling, football and camogie matches had been scheduled, that over 50,000 players were expected to participate and that many thousands more would turn out to watch.

It seems likely that the actual activity on the day fell short of these pre-publicised numbers but what did take place was undeniably impressive. In Dublin, 22 venues – from public parks to Croke Park – were used to stage about 30 games. In Cork, 40 fixtures were arranged though many were scuppered by heavy rainfall.

Limerick ran off 14 games, seven were planned for Kildare, six for Armagh. And so it went. The inmates in Belfast Jail even got in on the act, organising themselves into interprovincial teams for a game that ended with watching prisoners letting out a shout of ‘Up Ireland’.

What it was not, however, was what it had been widely anticipated beforehand to become. It was not a showdown between the GAA and the British authorities. Why? Because the latter failed to show up; they capitulated in advance.

Faced with the impossibility of adequately policing so many events, the British authorities relented in the days before ‘Gaelic Sunday’, a circular being sent out to the police to the effect that Gaelic games were no longer to be considered to fall under the terms of the July 4th proclamation.

So complete indeed was the British retreat that the word went out from Dublin Castle that such ‘suppression of Irish sports’ as had already been experienced had been based on a police misunderstanding of their instructions – a ‘curious telephonic mistake’, as John Dillon MP, leader of the Irish Party, sceptically observed it in the House of Commons.

Volte-face

The effect of Britain’s policy volte-face was that ‘Gaelic Sunday’ passed off in an atmosphere of calm rather than conflict. There was no police interference and no trouble.

But the damage to the already lowly standing of British authority in Ireland had been done – as the success of the separatist Sinn Féin at the December 1918 general election would soon confirm.

For the GAA, meanwhile, ‘Gaelic Sunday’ earned it a privileged entry into the narrative of nationalist resistance. It would burnish its reputation as revolutionary era player.

In reality, however, ‘Gaelic Sunday’ owed more to the GAA’s concern with sporting autonomy than to a desire to strike a blow for political principle. Moreover, in setting about a defence of their right to organise their games without recourse to permits or police permission, the GAA conceived of an idea that not alone prioritised the playing of those games; it actively celebrated them.

And maybe that’s just how we should mark the centenary of ‘Gaelic Sunday’. Maybe there is no requirement for a big commemorative fanfare. Maybe the best way to honour the spirit of that day in 1918 is to simply settle upon a proper calendar of games – and start with the clubs.

***

It’s a cliché, of course, but a stubborn one. You know the one about history repeating itself. It doesn’t happen. The past doesn’t repeat, but it can instruct.

The challenge is always to discern what its saying and what the lessons are we should heed.

For the American sportswriter Charles P. Pierce, who dipped into GAA history for a recent Sports Illustrated piece on the vexed matters of Donald Trump, the NFL and recent anthem controversies, the lesson taken from ‘Gaelic Sunday’ is the power of passive resistance.

But, after excoriating the NFL for wedding itself for so long to a ‘corporate, militarized patriotism’, Pierce is downbeat that they’ll organise their own ‘Day of Defiance’ anytime soon. The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ‘could use a little Luke O’Toole in him’, he concludes. If you haven’t yet seen it, seek it out.

You can read Pierce's piece HERE.

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