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Book reveals hidden history of impact of WWI on GAA - and link with The Irish News

Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers is the work of historian Dónal McAnallen

A new book revealing the hidden history of the impact of the First World War on the GAA has uncovered an unexpected link with The Irish News.

Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers, by historian Dónal McAnallen, brings together years of research which challenges the long-held view that the association, with its nationalist ethos and ban on members of the British Crown forces, was largely unaffected by the 1914-18 war.

Drawing from a vast array of newspapers, military records, census returns and oral evidence, the publication profiles dozens of GAA members from Ulster who enlisted to fight against Germany.

They shed new light on a forgotten period of Irish history, aiding understanding of the complex relationship between Ireland and the First World War.

The book profiles around 70 GAA members from Ulster, and lists another 80 from the other provinces.

A chapter also reveals the fascinating family history of John McKay, one of the founders of the GAA in 1884.

Born near Downpatrick, Mr McKay worked as a journalist for The Irish News and a plaque in his memory was erected outside its offices in Donegall Street in Belfast in 2010.

New research reveals that his two sons, John Paul and Patrick Joseph, both enlisted to fight in the First World War, with Patrick Joseph's career in the Crown forces spanning more than a decade in different continents.

At the age of 15, he joined the Royal Navy having convinced officers he was 18 - he even gave his date of birth as November 1 1884, the historic day his father helped found the GAA.

When Britain decided to come to the assistance of Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-06, Patrick Joseph found himself on board the battleship HMS Vengeance.

While on board he took appendicitis and started taking morphine, to which he became addicted.

During the First World War he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and fought in the Balkans. However, he would ultimately be discharged from the army, be imprisoned and die prematurely in 1929, his dependency having sent his life into a tailspin.

In 2009 a gravestone was erected by the GAA in the London cemetery where John, his wife Nellie, Patrick Joseph and his baby son were buried.

Mr McAnallen identified more than 40 soldiers with GAA links from Belfast, many of them members of the long defunct St Peter's club.

He also profiled a dozen from Tyrone, including the county board secretary and leading referee Patrick Holland, who enlisted in the RAF in 1918.

Other interesting personalities include Alexander Donnelly, a native of Cookstown, who had won an Ulster hurling championship medal with Antrim in 1902 and was a leading referee in Belfast.

He joined the Royal Engineers in 1917 as a 47-year-old father of seven.

When he returned from the war he became groundsman of MacRory Park. His nephew, William John Donnelly, was killed in action.

William Manning, a Down native who played for Antrim in the 1912 All-Ireland football final, joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was killed in France in March 1918.

Also included is Thomas Bradley from east Belfast, who returned from the Somme but left Belfast during the sectarian tensions of the early 1920s and settled in his wife's home town of Ballybay.

He took up Gaelic football in his late twenties and went on to win three Ulster championship medals and appear in an All-Ireland final as goalkeeper for Monaghan.

"In many areas, particularly in counties Tyrone, Derry, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh and Leitrim, the extent of recruitment caused a collapse of GAA activity during 1914-15," Mr McAnallen said.

The research also appears to question the narrative that ex-soldiers were shunned in nationalist communities on returning to a changed Ireland after the 1916 Rising.

"This does not appear to be true; quite a few returned home and integrated into their communities again, and became playing members or officials of their local GAA clubs. There were probably some others who did not integrate so well, but there are many reasons for this."

The book was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and launched at the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library and Archive in Armagh by Archbishop Eamon Martin, who described it as a "fascinating study" of the GAA and the First World War.

"It is touching to think of Gaels in the trenches sharing news of the championship," he said.

"And of those returning from the front unable to return to their local teams - out of trauma, shame, or fear of rejection."

Mr McAnallen said: 'This research demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, there were various different shades of nationalism within the GAA during the revolutionary period, as much as at any time.

"These were mostly men of modest means who held no high rank in any field, but they warrant to be recorded.

"Learning about the misfits and mavericks of history is often as important as hearing about the majors and the martyrs."

:: Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers by Dónal McAnallen is available to order directly from the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library and Archive, Armagh.

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