GAA Football

How the GAA survived times of war

Since 1889, the GAA has not had an All-Ireland championship in football or hurling that hasn't finished. Through two world wars and the tumultuous years that followed the Easter Rising in 1916, they've had to be inventive in getting some of them played. Cahair O'Kane looks at how the association dealt with the difficulties they faced at the time....

A minutes silence is held commemorating the 95th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015. Picture by Niall Carson / PA

THESE are truly extraordinary times. People locked away in their homes, the vitals running low because of panic-buying, and social gatherings being placed in a hold that may not be released for many months.

We are in the early days of the coronavirus and no-one knows how it will pan out. Best case scenario in a sporting sense, we’ll have boots back on grass coming into the summer. But some of the early evidence suggests that it will be a longer haul.

Euro2020 has been postponed. The Australian Football League is looking at the virus’ peak being in June and July. Efforts are underway to stem the spread but without a vaccine, and the possibility of it being 12-18 months before one is developed, nobody knows quite when this will end.

The only period in recent history that you can begin to compare it to, particularly in terms of its impact on sport and society as a whole, is war time.

World War One had a greater impact on Ireland than World War Two, but for such a small country, the toll was far from insignificant.

Roughly 200,000 Irish men and women fought in World War One, and across the two wars around 40,000 were killed and many thousands more injured.

The relative lack of physical warfare on the island allowed daily life for those at home to go on with some form of normality, but while games continued to be played, the GAA was unavoidably impacted.

‘The GAA & Revolution in Ireland’’, edited by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh and containing chapters by Paul Rouse, Donal McAnallen, Páraic Duffy and Ross O’Carroll among others, is a treasure trove of information from the time.

Amid a period of sustained growth, 1913 had been recorded as one of the most successful years in the GAA’s history, particularly in Ulster, but the progress was certainly slowed by the way.

The Great Southern and Western Railway company that primarily serviced the country had to curtail its normal passenger services, leading to sporting cancellations.

From a position of prosperity, county boards found themselves struggling to make ends meet. Munster was hardest hit, with both Limerick and Cork sports field being commandeered.

Yet when Clare won the All-Ireland hurling title in 1914, they were reputed to have been the best-prepared team in history. In a time before collective training, they headed for a week’s training in Lahinch before the decider. Money flew in, but some felt Icarus was flying close to the sun of professionalism.

Dónal McAnallen’s work in recent years has uncovered the impact in Ulster.

St Peter’s club in Belfast had lost as many as 20 players who had signed up to go to war and disbanded by the middle of 1915. Seven members of O’Neill Crowley’s GAC in the city had died in action by July 1917.

Lance Sergeant William Manning of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who played for Antrim in the 1912 All-Ireland football final, perished in France in May 1918.

Other famous players involved included Wexford’s James Rossiter, who played in the 1913 and 1914 All-Ireland football finals.

The aforementioned book records: “In one letter home from the front, he wrote how he felt more nervous before playing an All-Ireland final than in an Irish Guard attack on the Germans.”

Clare wing-back John Fox played in the county’s All-Ireland hurling success in 1914, their first, and then enlisted in the Irish Guards and was injured in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

He took shrapnel to the head, which remained there until his death in 1967 as doctors advised against surgery to remove it.

When he returned home, he found himself victim to Rule 21.

Those that signed up to fight with the British Army found themselves initially blacklisted by the GAA.

“Some GAA members saw enlistment into the British Army as akin to treason, but countless others did not,” records Ross O’Carroll.

“The differences noted across clubs and counties reveal the Association’s highly localised nature in terms of its cultural and political identities.

“For many, the GAA was a sporting organisation with a strong local ethos. It imbibed nationalist ideologies, encompassing the politics of John Redmond and Home Rule, along with the more radical nationalism of the period.

“This resulted in some members going to war, while others rejected the call. However, there were also those who were merely pragmatic.

“Going to war provided a livelihood, which took precedence over politics. This dichotomy between the political and the pragmatic, in its own peculiar way, may have ultimately allowed the GAA’s hierarchy to distance itself from the politics of the Great War and remain focused on its raison d’être – the games.”

And yet in terms of the overall impact on the GAA’s ability to function through the war, it was a blow they were able to take and go on.

The second world war had less of an impact in terms of players leaving to go and fight, but did cause problems once again, particularly in terms of transport.

Travel and fuel restrictions “severely curtailed” the playing of Gaelic Games between 1939 and 1945, but at national level, the GAA got all of its All-Ireland finals played in its now traditional September window.

The most significant impact, unsurprisingly, came during the period between 1916 and 1923, which covered the Easter Rising, the war of independence and the Irish civil war.

Michael Collins shakes hands with GAA President James Nowlan before the Leinster SHC final between Dublin and Kilkenny in 1921. Also pictured beside Collins is Harry Boland, who played the 1908 hurling final for Dublin, refereed the 1914 football decider, and would subsequently be shot dead by Free State Army forces during the Civil War, less than a year after this picture was taken.

The record books show an All-Ireland champion in football and hurling for every year since 1889, but not all those years contained All-Ireland finals.

1916’s events started to force the games into a corner and the All-Ireland hurling final for that year was played on January 21, 1917.

Come 1923, there were five All-Ireland finals played in the space of seven months, and three of them inside three weeks.

The 1921 and ‘22 All-Irelands in both codes, and the ’23 hurling decider, were all run off in that period. It was simply impossible to get them playing during the war of independence, but the GAA never forgot about the games.

It was 1926 before the whole schedule properly levelled out, but those were very different, less prescriptive times. There wasn’t the same prestige attached to the GAA as a whole, which struggled greatly for coverage in the press at the best of times.

Even the war never forced Ireland into a nationwide lockdown such as the one we’re facing at present. The playing of games was difficult in those times a century ago, but literally impossible right now.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t last anywhere near as long as is feared.

It would be hard to envisage the GAA pushing this year’s championship into next year, but that’s what it might come to.

It’s even harder to imagine that the Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy cups would have no inscriptions to add for 2020.

These are truly extraordinary times.

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