The GAA and the 1916 Rising: Playing a major part in our history

While members were involved in the Rising, the association was a ‘broad church’

Michael Collins throwing in the sliotar to start a hurling game at Croke Park in 1921. Photograph: Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It appears like a different world. The 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising saw the GAA project a very conventional image of its role both in the struggle for independence and as a keeper of the national flame.

Speaking on the eve of St Patrick's Day in 1966, then GAA president Alf Murray spoke, partly in response to charges heard even then of divisiveness caused by its various bans, about what he saw as the association's mission.

“The GAA regards its national attitude as an essential part of the obligation that history and tradition impose upon us if we are to strengthen the Irish character and provide at least a part of the spiritual background that ensures the continuance of the struggle for the nation’s soul.”

Eamon de Valera throws in the ball to start a match at Croke Park. Credit: GAA Museum

Last October Murray's successor Aogán Ó Fearghail, also an Ulster man, spoke at the launch of the GAA's specially commissioned commemorative publication, The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923, edited by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh.


A historian himself, Ó Fearghail made the point that the GAA in those tumultuous times had in fact been a broad church even though some of its most senior figures had been active in the IRB. Politics were set aside, he said, in order to prioritise the games, which remained with a singular focus the association’s main business.

Elaborating on that recently, Ó Fearghail said: “There’s no doubt we were a broad church. I started a process in Ulster that is ongoing and I hope will be finished in the next year and a half to look at World War One.

"There were far more GAA members in the general sense involved in that than in the War of Independence or 1916. There's no doubt about that. Again focusing on Ulster a lot of GAA men were Hibernians. The Hibernian band was the GAA band but when you move farther south they become Sinn Féin bands. The GAA was very definitely a broad church. Very definitely."

Writing in the above history, Dublin hurler and Kilmacud Crokes All-Ireland football medallist Ross O’Carroll, whose post-graduate thesis was on the GAA from 1914-1918, spells out Ó Fearghail’s point: “The scale of enlistment of GAA members into the British army highlights the importance of looking beyond traditional interpretations of the GAA’s relationship with Irish nationalism.”

Even the contemporary GAA was cautious in its public associations. At the meeting immediately after the Easter Rising, Central Council was quick to release a public statement distancing itself from the insurrection and to emphasise the association’s “strictly non-political and non-sectarian nature”.

It’s a remarkable fact that the GAA – of all sporting organisations, established with a specific cultural remit – took so long to inquire into the nuances of its past.

Paul Rouse, of the UCD School of History, a pioneer of sports history in Ireland and author of Sport and Ireland: A History, details how sparse the field of GAA studies was for much of the association's history.

"If you go through the national library and the catalogue of books there, you find the first history book written by TF O'Sullivan, The Story of the GAA. Before 1916 you find How to Play Gaelic Football by Dick Fitzgerald, " Rouse says.

"After that you see a bit of an explosion in the 1940s by journalists like PD Mehigan and Séamus Ó Ceallaigh, again detailing aspects of the GAA but no professional historian wrote a history until an Australian, WF Mandle, wrote a book called The GAA and Irish Nationalist Politics 1884-1924, published in 1987."

Rouse was also a prime mover in the foundation of Sports History Ireland in 2004 and he explains why it took so long for historians to focus on the area.

“That’s in part a legacy of the way historians wrote history. What dominated was narrow, political history rather than broad, social history and the change in the way people wrote about history after the 1960s and 1970s eventually percolated through to Ireland,” he says.

“There were revolutions in the writing of history in what people wrote about in America and France and England and Australia before then but it came to Ireland eventually, if a little bit later.”


Another historian with a specific interest in sport and the GAA is Richard McElligott, whose book Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934 is an in-depth look into football's most famous county but also sets the local history in a national context. He points out the obvious contradiction in ignoring sport in history.

“Around the world and in Ireland from the end of the 19th century, far more people are involved in sporting activities than ever were in political parties or revolutionary bodies. A lot more people right from the 19th century until today have sport in their daily lives than they ever have any interaction with politics or governments or revolutionary organisations,” McElligott says.

“The fact that you could ignore this huge part of people’s life when talking about the history of a country was pretty ridiculous when you think back to it. That’s what has changed in Ireland, this idea of social history but it’s only been really from the 1980s on that historians have looked seriously at it rather than political history.”

Yet hasn’t the GAA come closer than any other sport to providing a bridge between social, recreational history and the more conventional narratives of the past? Only up to a point, says Rouse.

"It's perceived that way but if you look at history books – even brilliant ones like Joe Lee's Ireland 1912-1985, an outstanding book but there's practically no sport in it. You leap forward 20 years to Diarmaid Ferriter's Transformation of Ireland and you do find sport in it quite regularly. It shows you that time changes what interests historians and how they cover it."

If the academic discipline of sports history only really achieved lift-off in the past 10 years, for the GAA there is a more significant starting point. In 1984 the association marked its centenary by encouraging units to research and write their own histories.

"There was a key moment in all of this, of course," says Rouse. "In the mid-1980s when the idea came about that each county and club would write its own history and that led to the publication of some brilliant books. This was in parallel at national level with the publication of Marcus de Búrca's history – the officially funded and authorised history of the GAA – and Pádraig Puirséal's The GAA in Our Time, which is I suppose an unofficial history of the association."

Some months ago Jim Gilligan and Patsy McLoughlin updated their 1984 club history, Black & Amber: A History of the GAA in the Parish of Dunshaughlin 1886-2014.

“Centenary Year was motivation,” says Gilligan. “People were saying, ‘What will we do?’ I had the idea about a history of the club. The initial reaction was, ‘Sure there’d be nothing to write about’. I had seen a club history of Dunmore McHales, which had impressed me as well but at that stage we didn’t even know where the colours had come from.”

New significance

The updated book, a handsomely produced hardback volume, was a more complicated project than simply tacking a few chapters on to the original. New material had been uncovered and previously unthought of developments had acquired new significance.

“We got updated information on the early years and moved the chapters around because the first time we ended up in 1984, which wasn’t a natural break in the club’s history. Then a whole lot of different things happened, like ladies’ football where there had been activity, which we’ve included but which wasn’t in the original because it was never brought to my attention,” Gilligan says.

“We did some research on it and discovered that there had been a pre-history back in the 1960s.”

The black-and-amber in the title refers to the club colours, which predate Kilkenny's and owe their origins to the colours of a local racehorse owner and well-known employer in the area, Stephen Kelly.

For Gilligan, who is currently working on a county history of Meath, the material had to extend beyond the strictly sporting.

“There was simply the way people lived in the past, the way they travelled and got to games. There were references to velocipedes – bicycles – being used. There were marching bands at games, parading teams onto the field – that sense of spectacle and colour, which presumably was important to people who were working 5½ or six days of the week,” he says.

“The GAA must have brought a great sense of colour and occasion to the lives of ordinary working people when it started up originally. There was the importance of railways, in Meath particularly, bringing crowds of about 2,000 in to Dunshaughlin. These events brought crowds out from Dublin as well as teams from Dublin. Railway was hugely important in bringing crowds to sports. I came across documentation recently showing that Nobber, the club in north Meath, going in to play a semi-final in Navan had hired a special train. Just a club.”

Richard McElligott says he set out with a specific task in mind when addressing the early history of the GAA in Kerry.

“A problem with the GAA is that you had the national history, the history of the Central Council or the history of the GAA in Dublin. That’s understandable; you’re always going to look at where a sport is based and the national view. But if the national history was Dublin-centric then the local history could be too local,” he says.

“Individual clubs were too focused on their village and parish, although there are wonderful club histories in loads of counties. There’s a big gap there though between the national and the local. Naturally enough. If you’re from my village of Kilflynn and you want to pick up the history of Crotta O’Neill’s, my local club, you’re not really that interested in what people in Kenmare are doing at the same time.

“What I was trying to do with my book was bridge the divide. You have to look at the local to understand the national but you have to look at the national to understand the local. I suppose the model I used was that if you look at the way the Irish revolutionary period has been studied: for decades it was the national story, the Dublin-centric story of the IRA and the struggle for independence: the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War.”

Local research

McElligott believes the time is right, if not overdue, for the GAA to encourage another round of local research, writing and publication on local and county histories.

“The GAA did it in 1984, but I think they could do it again now. I think there could be another push because there are a lot of clubs out there; even since I’ve written my book, people have been contacting me asking for advice as to how to go about writing their own history,” he says.

“It might be a good idea for the GAA coming up to the next big anniversary or even any time to say, ‘We can help you if you’re thinking about writing your club history or updating it’. I think a campaign could be launched on that because 1984 is a long time ago now. There’s so much more access to material, resources online now, which would make it far easier to write a history now than it was in 1984.”

It's also popular. Michael Foley's account of Bloody Sunday, The Bloodied Field outsold its initial print run of 4,000 and was in the best-seller lists the Christmas before last.

For GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail history is a continuous presence.

“I wouldn’t miss a day without visiting or being in contact with a club or a school. One of the biggest things that gets mentioned is the Bloody Sunday commemoration last November involving myself and Páraic Duffy [director general]. It made an impact,” he says.

“GAA clubs are strengthened by knowing their history and where they’re from. If you came from outer space and read the GAA rule book you’d find it hard to understand. “The preamble and the origins have to be seen in the context of the GAA’s history. Not everyone in a GAA club can be a historian but I think that GAA officers need to have a certain broad understanding of how we developed and how we grew with Ireland and how we changed.”

‘Ghostly presence’ Snapshots of the Rising

"Patrick Whelan, President of the Ulster Council from 1912 to 1918, was the man who introduced, supported and protected Eoin O'Duffy. He was a complete and total Irish nationalist. He had to step down as president of the Ulster Council at the convention in 1918 because the GAA had brought in a motion that anyone who took an oath of allegiance to the British crown couldn't be a member of the GAA and he was the coroner for north Monaghan.

“The Ulster Council, led by Cavan, opposed this motion at congress, arguing that it was going to lose teachers and many others who were important to the GAA, especially Patrick Whelan who was widely acknowledged as an important figure in the association.

“But the congress voted by quite a strong margin to introduce that motion in 1918 and he was disqualified. One of the sad things from a GAA point of view was, I discovered going through the minutes that the Ulster convention doesn’t even refer to him when he steps down. He simply fell on his sword and moved on.”

– GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail

"The captain of that Drumree club in the 1880s and 1890s, PJ Fox – his son James Fox was part of the Irish Citizen Army and was shot dead on Easter Tuesday outside the College of Surgeons on Stephen's Green.

"His father, who was a member of the committee of James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army, accompanied him to Liberty Hall on the morning of the Rising saying to Frank Robbins, a sergeant in that army: 'Here is my lad; take him with you for the Irish Citizen Army. I am too old for the job.'

“James was shot dead on the morning of 25th April. He is buried in Knockmark Cemetery.”

– Jim Gilligan, co-author of ‘Black & Amber, A History of the GAA in the Parish of Dunshaughlin 1886-2014’

"There is stuff that has been written about the GAA and the revolution and there is this perception that the GAA was more involved than it actually was and that it was the only sporting organisation involved in the revolution. This would have come as a surprise to the various soccer players who fought in the revolution, like Oscar Traynor or rugby players like Kevin Barry.

“It’s shown to be a nonsense. There were GAA members involved and the GAA was targeted on Bloody Sunday but the GAA’s involvement in 1916 was more as a ghostly presence.”

– Paul Rouse, UCD School of History

“In some areas, the police continued to obstruct GAA activity months after the ending of the Rising. By September 1916, it was still reported in Kerry that local police were forcing entry into GAA events.

“The arrest and detention of many within the association also hardened members’ views of the British government. The rise of the Sinn Féin party between 1917 and 1918 would provide the catalyst for the political radicalisation of Irish society and with it the GAA.”

– Richard McElligott, writing in 'The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923', edited by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times