The Ban: how the GAA came to rescind its prohibition on ‘foreign games’ 50 years ago

Fifty years ago in Queen’s University the GAA dropped its prohibition on other sports

Prologue: Belfast, 1971

By 1971 the Troubles were intensifying. Internment was introduced in August but from the start – in early February came news of the first British soldier to die, 20-year old Robert Curtis – to the end of the year when McGurk’s bar was bombed by the UVF, killing 15 people in what remains one of the era’s worst atrocities, Belfast became a battleground.

For Anthony McGonnell, chair of the Queen's GAA club and a future SDLP councillor, the city had few charms.

“Belfast in 1971 was a bloody awful place. I’m from a rural area out in county Tyrone between Dungannon and Ballygawley. You went to Belfast, stayed there during the week and got out on a Friday evening and didn’t come back until Sunday evening or Monday morning.

“Some of the student areas would have been relatively safe. That part of the city, the South, wasn’t as impacted by the Troubles as West and North Belfast. Of course East Belfast was a loyalist stronghold.”

Martin McAleese lived there. A science student and the first of his family to attend university, the role of Gaelic games in his life was central.

“I grew up in Loyalist East Belfast and you were always excluded. You were second-class and lived in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation as a minority Catholic family. During that time I felt aggrieved that I couldn’t express any sense of nationalism or ‘Irishness’ in the way that was so easy south of the border.

“We grew up in this twilight zone where you were marginalised. During that time the GAA was the real handrail that connected me to my sense of nationalism and Irish identity and played such a huge part in my life that it was the most important thing in it.”

McGonnell says that he used to worry about McAleese making his way home from Queen’s, something the latter wasn’t aware of at the time. “But I can understand why that concern existed.”

The McAleese family would be forced from their home later in 1971 on the night of August 9th, when Prometheus, the military operation to enforce the introduction of internment was launched. “A bunch of guys arrived and put us out,” Martin McAleese says.

“The Troubles started for us not in the late 1960s but aged four, five and six because we were totally isolated in a strong loyalist, Protestant community. We had to remain unnoticed, become almost invisible. You had to find a way of doing that and to sense danger and avoid it.

“I would still have those antennae. If I’m walking down Grafton Street today I’d always be on the lookout subconsciously for danger: street corners, who’s standing there, who’s coming towards me, who’s behind me?”

Congress

The 1971 GAA annual congress, on April 10th and 11th, is remembered because it formally ditched the infamous Rule 27 prohibition on what were known as “foreign games” – specifically rugby, soccer, cricket and hockey – and its bizarre associated provisions.

These included Rule 28 vigilance committees, whose members were empowered to attend rugby, soccer and other matches to spy on who else was there and Rule 29, forbidding clubs to host “non-Irish dancing”.

Ironically, host county Antrim was along with Sligo one of only two counties to vote for retention.

Also tabled for debate was Rule 26 –in later official guides to become Rule 21 – or the prohibition on members of the Northern security forces joining the GAA. There wasn’t the same wave of support for this and the worsening Troubles ensured that it would remain in force for another 30 years.

The 1971 congress was of great historical significance anyway, as the first to be held in Ulster. Given the worsening situation in Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular, the GAA checked at the start of the year with Antrim officials that the event could still proceed.

There are stories of delegates stopping off in Dublin to have their confessions heard but for former Sligo county secretary Tommy Kilcoyne, who was a young delegate, there were no qualms.

“It was a remarkable event, all the more so for being held in Queen’s. It was rare for any congress at that time to be held outside of Dublin. I have no recollection of any concerns about it and there was little visible security around the venue. I’m sure there was in the background but it wasn’t noticeable.”

Contemporary reports concur: “two uniformed RUC policemen were on duty at the entrance gates into the Queen’s University grounds”.

Delegates stayed on the Malone Road in Queen’s Elms, the university halls of residence half a mile away from the Whitla Hall, where congress took place, and which were empty during the Easter vacation.

Kilcoyne says it was a convivial affair.

“I do remember a concert that night. There was a man from Armagh, who seemed to be the MC. It was very informal and I remember him calling on a delegate from every county to do a party piece. It went on late into the night!”

Queen’s

Requirements for a venue began with the need for a big conference facility. The university’s Whitla Hall, named after Sir William Whitla, an eminent physician and unionist MP for Queen’s University, who lived between 1851 and 1933, would be able to accommodate the more than 300 delegates.

It was an incongruous setting. The hall is used for graduation ceremonies, which used to include playing God Save the Queen, a practice that ended only within the last 30 years and which guaranteed plenty of no-shows among the growing numbers of nationalist graduates.

Ian Paisley junior is remembered as playing the British anthem on a tape recorder at the conferring of his Masters degree in late 1994, in protest at the revised accompaniment of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Anthony McGonnell recalls that the Queen’s GAA club wasn’t involved in the organisation of the congress and, anyway, students were away on vacation.

“That was all taken over by the Antrim county board. One of the reasons it was held in the Whitla Hall, which was seen as a bastion of unionism at the time – remember in 1971 only a third of the population of Queen’s came from a nationalist persuasion; it would be 65 or 70 per cent now – because it was a large venue with plenty of parking spaces and relatively safe.”

Just weeks before congress, the main reason the Queen’s lads remember 1971 took place – what was just the third Sigerson Cup victory in the club’s history and at a time when it had yet to become the leviathan presence of today in third-level competition generally or even with the university.

In a turbulent tournament in Galway, the Belfast side beat a star-studded UCC in what is remembered as “a dogged game,” which they won 0-7 to 0-6.

Martin McAleese was a promising footballer, who played centre back and centrefield and had three years with the Antrim minors, the last in 1969 as captain.

At senior level he played with O'Donovan Rossa until a knee cartilage injury ended his football days in the mid-1970s. "I won a county medal with the Rossa in 1973, marking Gerry Armstrong (future Northern Ireland international and scorer of the famous goal that beat Spain in the 1982 World Cup). He was moved off me."

For Queen’s, he operated in a more advanced role and kicked 0-2 in the 1971 Sigerson final.

He remembers the weekend very well. His then girlfriend and future wife, law student Mary Leneghan (later President of Ireland) was kept abreast of developments.

“Afterwards I remember Fr Ambrose Macaulay, who was chaplain at Queen’s and a big, big supporter. He was there for the weekend and at the celebration afterwards in the Great Southern in Eyre Square. Mary couldn’t get down for some reason but she phoned and he said to her: “You needn’t worry about those Galway girls because the last time I saw Martin he was dancing with Moss Keane.”

In one of those interweavings of past and future, Keane – one of several Kerry men in the UCC team – would be a conspicuous beneficiary of the deletion of the Ban and go on to play rugby for Ireland and the Lions.

In another illustration of the Sigerson ties that bind, McAleese would go on to renew friendships with his opponents after heading for Dublin to pursue a career in accountancy.

“I shared an apartment with Moss Keane, Denis Coffey and Jim Coughlan - three UCC players from Kerry. I’m the only one still alive of the four but Moss became a great friend. Those friendships endured both amongst ourselves and with UCC, especially the ones from Kerry.”

The future Mrs McAleese did receive a memento of the occasion.

“Mary wore my Sigerson Cup medal on a chain and often wore it but it got lost - came off the end of the chain. Years later, Joe Lennon (captain of the 1968 Down All-Ireland winning team) was in the Áras for a reception and he presented me with a replica medal, which was very thoughtful. Mary used to say that I’d have preferred if she’d fallen off the chain instead.”

The Ban

It wasn’t as if the Ban just went quietly in 1971 even if that was what essentially happened.

In the weeks before congress Belfast was at the epicentre of a “foreign games” row. The two big Catholic schools in the city, St Malachy’s and St Mary’s –where McAleese had been a pupil and where McGonnell would go to teach later in 1971 – were drawn together in the MacRory Cup (Ulster schools) semi-final.

Malachy’s were holders and had lost the 1970 All-Ireland Hogan Cup final by a point. They also boasted a prodigy in the person of Martin O’Neill, who as well as coming from a prominent Derry GAA family and playing for the county minors, went on to captain Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup and manage the Republic of Ireland.

Along with his brother Eoin Roe, he also played in 1971 for Distillery in the Irish League.

Rule 27 didn’t extend to student competitions at either second- or third-level but the Antrim county board took exception to idea of a soccer player lining out at Casement Park.

So instead of what should have been a high-tide moment for football in the city, the semi-final ended up in Omagh at a private school’s grounds. O’Neill was well marked and Mary’s won before going on to win the Hogan Cup, the last time a Belfast school reached the final.

The controversy soured school’s GAA for Malachy’s coach, Phil Stuart, who had lined out with Jim McKeever in Derry’s centrefield for the 1958 All-Ireland final against Dublin. A teacher in the school, he had taken on the football team and was bitterly upset by the Antrim county board’s action.

In The MacRory Cup: The story of Ulster colleges senior football, JA Walshe’s exhaustively researched history of the famous competition, published in 2014, Stuart reflects on the episode.

“I remember with sadness and disappointment the sight of the two best college teams in Ireland at the time, based in the same city of Belfast, setting off on a 70-mile journey westwards to Omagh to play – on an unenclosed pitch in private school grounds.

“Such feelings were compounded by the fact that a mere six weeks later at the annual GAA congress in Belfast, Rule 27 was removed from the GAA Official Guide. For me it was the end of my MacRory Cup coaching days.”

Shortly afterwards that March, O’Neill starred in the IFA Cup final, scoring two goals as Distillery beat a Derry City side, featuring some of his school friends, 3-0. That autumn he scored against Barcelona in the European Cup Winners Cup and signed for Nottingham Forest with whom he would win two European Cup medals.

Meanwhile in Kerry, the county’s renowned centrefielder Mick O’Connell was caught in another Ban controversy. He had a keen interest in soccer and was – allegedly or otherwise – photographed at an FAI Cup match between Cork Hibs and Waterford in late February.

O’Connell refused to discuss what he as an amateur did in his spare time and was willing to walk away from football.

“No-one is obliged to account publicly for the actions of his private life and that includes attendance at any public performance, whether it be dog racing or the cinema,” he told Paddy Downey on these pages, in late February.

The GAA backed off.

These incidents were all the more ridiculous because in the space of the last two weekends of January that year, all of the GAA’s county conventions took place and by February 1st, all but two of them –Antrim and Sligo – had voted to do away with the Ban, mandated by a series of club plebiscites that had rejected it by a margin of 5-1.

De facto if not quite yet de iure, the Ban was history.

At Queen’s the GAA club supported change, remembers McGonnell.

“There was some support for it. We had our meeting and the vast majority were in favour of removing it but there were a few people who would have been very, very opposed to the idea – die-hard republican types. By and large though the majority of the student population in the Queens GAA club wanted it gone.

“A lot would have been playing for small-time soccer clubs and the reality of the situation was that it was time to go.”

In another of Martin McAleese’s connections with Kerry GAA, daughter Emma would marry Mick O’Connell’s son Micheál.

For McAleese the Ban was also part of his personal history.

“My father came from Portglenone and played for the local Casements club but he was also a keen supporter of Ballymena United. He and his brother Danny used go to the Showgrounds but one Saturday they were spotted by the vigilantes (from the GAA’s Vigilance Committees, essentially a spying operation to see what members were defying the Ban by attending ‘foreign’ games) and reported and sanctioned.

"My father never stood at a GAA match again. All the times when it was such an important part of my life he never saw me playing football. In the 1960s we think of England winning the World Cup in 1966, of Glasgow Celtic winning the European Cup in 1967 and think of Manchester United and George Best in 1968.

“I played soccer at primary school and at one stage I would have gone either way but you had this crazy, self-defeating ban, which meant you couldn’t play or attend these other games. You weren’t even allowed go to ‘foreign dances’. That was the context.”

Due process

At 11.45 on Saturday April 10th, GAA congress quietly brought the era of the Ban to an end. Con Short of Armagh proposed its deletion, which was seconded by Dublin delegate and long-time campaigner on the issue, Tom Woulfe.

Pat Fanning, the GAA president and a supporter of the rule, declared that Rule 27 had been deleted.

“It didn’t go to a vote,” says Tommy Kilcoyne. “Pat Fanning handled it well and just said, ‘it’s time for it to go’. There was no acrimony but a few words of dissent. I remember a delegate from Wexford, saying there should be more debate about it.”

Fanning has been praised for the manner in which he accepted a decision that ran deeply against his own conservative views and those of a significant minority but the overwhelming verdict of 30 counties couldn’t be gainsaid.

“In a short while now,” he said to delegates, “you will acknowledge the expressed will of the association and delete a rule, which for many of us was a rule of life and reflected and epitomised the very spirit of the association. The rule deleted – what then? Do we the reject the past and with deletion, proclaim ourselves a mere sports organisation?”

He then went as far as to say that had he known of such a development before taking office, he would have found it very difficult to accept the presidency.

“Are our clubs, their roots deep in parish, town and city to cease to be GAA units as our fathers moulded them? Is it possible our Gaelic fields, purchased and developed with GAA money so that Irish boys should play Irish games, may be used for other purposes to weaken and perhaps ultimately destroy the association?”

He did ask that congress approve the appointment of a committee to restate and reaffirm the association’s national attitudes and policies – and undertook that this would not be used to re-introduce the deleted rule by a back door.

That committee came up with the provision that would be used to keep other sports out of GAA venues until Croke Park opened to international rugby and soccer in the mid-2000s.

It was never an ancient item in some 19th-century suite of prohibitions but a palliative for conservatives after the deletion of the Ban.

Endgame

Ireland's most famous rugby player of the time, Mike Gibson greeted the news pragmatically, expressing the hope that it "would encourage any player who previously has been precluded from playing the game – hoping that some big Kerry men turn up".

Three years later Moss Keane turned up and made his debut for Ireland. At the end of the 1977 Lions tour of New Zealand, in which he played for the test team, he was asked by the BBC’s Nigel Starmer-Smith what had been his outstanding memory.

“Hearing that Kerry had beaten Cork in the Munster final.”

When Moss Keane, just 62, died in 2010, a number of jerseys, rugby and GAA, were laid on his coffin, including the famous skull and crossbones of UCC.

“At his funeral in Portlaoise I was honoured to be asked by the family to deliver a little reflection at the end of Mass,” says Martin McAleese, of the man who marked him in the 1971 Sigerson final.

What was the Ban?

Although the shorthand was ‘the ban on foreign games,’ this was never the official terminology. The prohibition referred to rugby, soccer, cricket and hockey and in its first form was introduced in 1886. Lifted 10 years later during the internal struggle to reduce IRB influence, it was re-imposed in 1905, as separatist sentiment rose. It existed controversially for another 66 years.

Excluded

The operation of the Ban gave rise to countless controversies: players suspended or deprived of medals for playing other sports or even attending. Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland, was removed as patron of the GAA because in his official capacity he attended an Ireland-Poland soccer match at Dalymount Park in November 1938. Vigilance committees enforced it by authorising vigilantes to attend other sports events and report on who was there.

Limerick county board, terrified by Mick Mackey’s fondness for rugby, appointed him to the Vigilance Committee to give him clearance.

Queen’s GAA webinar

On Monday, April 12th, and Thursday 15th, both at 7.30 Queen’s GAA club will be conducting two online discussions to mark the 50th anniversary of the university hosting the 1971 Congress.

The first evening features The Steadfast Rule: The GAA’s ban on rival games 1920s-1960s, a talk by Cormac Moore, historian and author of The GAA v Douglas Hyde: The Removal of Ireland’s First President as GAA Patron and The Birth of the Border.

Opening remarks from the special guest Larry McCarthy, the new president of the GAA.

The second, How the Ban was broken: The road to abolition at Queen’s in 1971, will be delivered by the historian and author Dónal McAnallen, whose works include The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen and The Cups That Cheered: A History of the Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Gaelic Games.

There will also be a discussion with former international soccer player and manager Martin O’Neill on his experience of The Ban and the controversy surrounding the MacRory Cup schools semi-final in 1971.

Link here to register for one or both events.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times