A thread weaves itself through the glens, mountains, and coasts of Ireland. At its seams, that thread ties otherwise absolute strangers together through common bonds and shared passions. It offers rich and tangible links to the past and is sown deep into the very fabric of the Irish identity. That thread, of course, is the Gaelic Athletics Association. As Patrick Kavanagh observed, one cannot ‘adequately describe Irish life who ignores the Gaelic Athletic Association’.
Maybe we cannot speculate as to the genuine predictions of Michael Cusack, Maurice Davin and the other men who met in Hayes Hotel that Saturday afternoon in November 1884 of the organisation they had just formed, but if we were, those predictions would surely all fail to remotely capture the rate at which the GAA would take hold of towns, villages, hamlets, and parishes across the country. 10 years after its establishment, 875 GAA clubs had come into existence. For context, after their first 10 years, the Irish Football Association had 124 clubs affiliated with it, while Rugby Union had yet to reach 100 clubs.
But that comparison is rather unfair, I suppose, because the GAA was not and is not just a sporting organisation. While soccer and rugby were and remain vitally important aspects of Irish sporting life, they do not share a history or development remotely similar to that of the GAA. As Professor Paul Rouse highlights, ‘the GAA is a product of the particular history of Ireland. It was established directly in response to a very particular set of circumstances.’ Indeed, the GAA has and continues to be shaped by the circumstances, struggles and lives of its members, and therefore of the circumstances, struggles and lives of Ireland. The story of the GAA reflects the story of Ireland, the bad and the good. It is this living aspect to the organisation which makes it difficult to imagine Irish life without the GAA and from which the entire organisation draws its strength. Firmly rooted in communities across the country, it is at once both local and national; every volunteer, player, coach, tea-maker seems unique to their parish yet somehow ubiquitous because of the shared values they each espouse. This ever-present sense of collectiveness in the GAA means that their issues, the issues of the Irish people, are burdened both locally and collectively. This unique position has allowed the GAA to play host to the extraordinary. Where solace can be found, even in the saddest of times, and where a shared sense of identity and humanity can be sought. Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s poem, Munster Football Final 1924, reported on such an occasion. Con Brosnan, a Free State Army Captain, and John Joe Sheehy, a Republican on the run during the Civil War, agreed to truce for the duration of the game:
“Nothing polarises like a war, And of all wars, a civil war is worst; It takes a century to heal the scars, And even then some names remain accursed. The tragedies of Kerry, open wounds – John Joe Sheehy on the run in twenty four The Munster Final in Gaelic Grounds: There’s something more important here than war, John Joe Sheehy, centre-forward, Republican, Con Brosnan, free state captain, centre-field; For what they have they both put down the gun – On Con’s safe conduct, Sheehy too has the field. In an hour the Kerry team will win. Sheehy will vanish, on Brosnan’s bond, again.”
Fitzmaurice captures the transformative reconciliatory power the GAA is capable of. A power to bring comfort and healing through community. The poem also reflects the haven the GAA can be from struggle and hardship. During the course of the conflict in the north of the country, GAA clubs presented communities with an escape from the darkness of war. Like all sports, the GAA provided purpose and drive to all those involved. It proved a positive force, where people could express their identity and show pride in their jersey, their community, and their culture. Communities would spend the dark days of winter in eager preparation and anticipation of busy Sundays in the summer. The GAA was nothing less than a lifeline to those living through conflict.
Yet, it is those strengths which brought the GAA to the attention of others. The GAA was front and centre of a Gaelic revival in Ireland's revolutionary period, and so the colonialist forces in Ireland viewed its inherent expression of an Irish identity, seperate to that of an enforced British identity, with increased concern, and a movement requiring responding to. That response was most apparent on Sunday, 21st November 1920, when the British Army broke onto the playing field of Croke Park and opened fire indiscriminately. Killing more than thirty people, those responsible deliberately targeted a GAA match because they knew the victims would all share a collective identity; they knew they were killing proud Irish people. Their attack was not simply an attack on a game of football, it was an attack on the Irish identity.
Decades later, and intesnified as a result of partition, those same views of the GAA and those same tactics used against it were deployed in the conflict in the north of Ireland. The proscription of the carrying of hurling sticks as offensive weapons, the targeting of GAA members and clubhouses for attack, the occupation of GAA grounds, and the equivocation of membership of a GAA club with membership of armed Republicanism.
There too, were fellow Gaels killed during the conflict in the north where their association to the GAA was immaterial to perpetrators of violence but whose losses nonetheless were felt collectively as a community. Those safe havens of self-expression were violated, with each incident sending shockwaves through the community, where an attack on one is felt as an attack on all.
As with all issues surrounding conflict, conversations are difficult. But that does not mean they are not worth having. The conflict in the north of Ireland affected so many of our fellow Gaels, yet those experiences remain incredibly localised and otherwise unknown to the majority of us who find ourselves pitchside every Sunday. Our teams and terraces are filled with fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and friends of Gaels killed during the conflict who have an experience of harm and suffering deserving of acknowledgment. Collectively, we can seek healing through our powerful community and record our own history. That is what this project is about. People.