The GAA and the War of Independence

By Tim Pat Coogan
  • Irish History
  • Non-Fiction

Amidst the successful late 19th century "Land War" which pitted the Irish Parliamentary Party, led by Charles Stuart Parnell with support from the majority of rural Irish Catholic tenant farmers against the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884 in Thurles Co. Tipperary. Nationalist fervour revived interest in all things culturally Irish especially Gaelic games in reaction to the Anglicizing influence and popularity of British sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket played by Irish regiments of the British Army and wider Irish society. The first meeting of the GAA was attended by veteran Irish nationalists and republicans and as well as Archbishop Thomas Croke of Cashel and Emly reflecting its broad support across the Irish spectrum.

Gaelic games were traditionally the preserve of the rural labouring classes and small farmers, but gained popularity among an ambitious separatist Catholic middle class that were the backbone of the Gaelic League movement in the decades ahead. Political opposition to the Royal Irish Constabulary and the British Army, the majority of whom were themselves Irish Catholics led to the exclusion of their membership from the sporting organisation, a rule that would remain until the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland many years later.

The Home Rule Crisis in 1912 meant that the rank and file of the G.A.A. and the Irish Volunteer movement that formed in the opposition to the Ulster Volunteers heavily overlapped. Due to the scarcity of rifles the hurley stick was used as a substitute during military drilling and as an offensive weapon in melees with Crown forces. During the bitter War of Independence 1919-21, GAA sportsmen around the country were a recruitment pool for the Irish Republican Army guerrilla campaign and indeed this link was emphasised in the infamous massacre at Croke Park on "Bloody Sunday" 21st November 1920. After British agents were assassinated that morning by the IRA on the orders of Michael Collins, a football match between Tipperary and Dublin was attacked by the RIC killing 14 including Michael Hogan a player on the Tipperary team after whom a stand in Croke Park is now named.

When the Irish Civil War 1922-23 followed after a bloody split within Irish nationalism and republicanism over the 1921 Anglo Irish Treaty the GAA emerged as largely apolitical and a hugely popular outlet for a war weary public helping to heal the divide in the newly independent Irish Free State.

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