Acknowledging that many of its members fought in the British army does not diminish the GAA’s contribution to Irish society or the fact that many others of its members fought in 1916 and in the War of Independence, writes Paul Rouse
For many years, the GAA sought to paint a portrait of its own history that was a false one. This portrait imagined that the members of the GAA had nothing to do with the First World War because they were too busy freeing Ireland.
It is a portrait that was perfectly rendered by the anonymous author of Sixty Glorious Years: The Authentic Story of the GAA (1946), who claimed that “efforts were, indeed, made to recruit GAA men for the British army, an especial appeal being made to the hurlers and footballers of Munster, but there was no response.”
And in respect of the GAA’s contribution to freeing Ireland, the Cork GAA official and then Postmaster General, JJ Walsh, had got the revision of history underway in 1922 when he told Dáil Éireann that the members of the GAA “had been the principal contributors in the fight against England. I think you will all agree with that”.
In the Irish Free State, it now became an article of faith that the GAA had been central to the project of achieving Irish independence. And during the middle decades of the 20th century, in its language and its actions, the GAA adopted a trenchantly nationalist position that demolished any sense of complexity or contradiction in its own past.
Part of this demolition of complexity involved changing the name of a terrace in Croke Park from Hill 60 to Hill 16 in the early 1930s. To aid this transition from calling the terrace after a battle fought at Gallipoli in 1915 to one that was fought by Irish rebels in Dublin, a myth invented that the Hill was built from the rubble of the GPO.
That the terrace had been finished in time for the 1915 All-Ireland finals was not let stand in the way of this invention.
Reversing time’s arrow is not yet known to be possible — unless of course you are seeking to rewrite your own history in a particular light.
It is now a credit to the GAA that this rewriting of history is being challenged by the GAA, itself. This was a process which gathered considerable momentum when the GAA supported the publication of The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923 (2015), which was edited by the brilliant Galway professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, which included essays on the GAA and unionism, the GAA and the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the GAA and World War One, as well as on its links to revolutionary nationalism.
The initiative reflects the GAA’s desire to mark the Decade of Centenaries in an inclusive and nuanced manner, reflecting all aspects of its history.
Publishing a series of 11 profiles on the GAA website of GAA players and administrators who fought in World War One, one each day for 11 days, culminating on 11 November, was an idea that originated at the GAA’s History and Commemoration Committee, which is chaired by Damian White.
The figures were selected because their individual stories are interesting, but also in an attempt to tell a story that is representative, at least in the sense that it included a range of counties, provinces, and British army regiments.
Building on the extraordinary work of the Tyrone scholar, Dr Dónal MacAnallen, who is a member of the GAA’s History and Commemoration committee, the biographies of the GAA men who fought in the First World War underline the diversity of Irishmen who fought in the war.
It is a reminder that in history, any tendency towards easy categorisation usually collapses in on top of itself at the earliest hurdles.
Perhaps the most prominent GAA man to fight in the First World War was the Limerick player and official, Larry Roche. Roche came from a family of large farmers, who worked the land near the town of Kilmallock.
He came to prominence as a sportsman in the mid-1890s when he won a succession of Irish weight-throwing championships. In the course of these victories, he defeated men such as John J. Flanagan, who later won Olympic weight-throwing championships while representing America.
Roche was also a footballer who was on the Limerick team that won the 1896 All-Ireland football championship. As the biography of Roche records, however, his greatest contribution to that championship success probably came in a game in which he did not play: the Munster final:
While he was a player, Roche served the GAA as an official: he was elected to the Central Council in 1894 and as a GAA Vice-President in 1896.
He also took the exceptionally brave step of refereeing hurling matches. And it almost cost him his life: In February 1906 he was assaulted while refereeing a match at Ballyagran, Limerick, with near fatal consequences.
As the politics of Ireland became increasingly fractious in the years after 1912, he joined the Volunteer movement established by Eoin MacNeill in 1913. The Volunteers were formed in support of the introduction of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin and were formed, also, in response to the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers who were sworn to oppose any such parliament.
In the summer of 1914, Larry Roche was the secretary of the Volunteers in County Limerick and he followed John Redmond in his support for the war effort. Always a man to follow his words with actions, he enlisted and was commissioned as a captain in the 8th Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
By 1916, he had spent a considerable time at the Western Front, in northern France.
Indeed, at the very moment that the Easter Rising was being fought in Dublin, Larry Roche — by now a major and second in command of his battalion — was engaged in fighting with the Germans near the French town of Hulluch.
Because of his fame as a sportsman, Roche was also important to recruitment at home.
His face was put on posters around Munster and stories of his exploits were printed in the local newspapers. Due to ill-health, his war was ended in December 1917. He was then employed by the British government to run a facility for disabled soldiers in Tipperary on a salary of £500 per annum.
Other GAA players never made it home from the war. Perhaps the best known of these was the Wexford footballer James Rossiter, who played in two All-Ireland football finals for Wexford in 1913 and 1914.
Wexford lost both those final, but Rossiter was their best forward, scoring eight goals and three points in 10 championship matches. His Wexford team duly won their first All-Ireland in 1915 and went on to become the first four-in-a-row team in Gaelic games. Not alone did Rossiter not play in any of those matches, he did not even live to hear of them.
He joined the Irish Guards after the First World War began. He was mortally wounded by a grenade during the Battle of Loos in October 1915 in France, dying some days later.
In his last letter, he had written that he was more nervous playing in an All-Ireland football final than going into battle against the Germans.
The lives of Roche and Rossiter were transformed and — in the case of Rossiter — defined by their involvement in the First World War.
The cartoon version of Irish history which cast this involvement in a very particular light is no longer plausible.
Any adequate exploration of the lives of the people of any generation demands sensitivity, humanity, and a patient understanding of the decisions that people make. That the GAA has been willing to revisit its own past is a credit to the Association.
Acknowledging that many of its members fought in the British army does not diminish the GAA’s contribution to Irish society or the fact that many others of its members fought in 1916 and in the War of Independence.
Instead, it is not just a more honest appraisal of the past, it is also a more interesting one.
Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at UCD and his book The Hurlers is now on sale.