GAA a lead player in independence struggle

Tim Pat Coogan’s new book underlines the association’s huge role in galvanising people against British rule, and how it acted as an important unifying force, writes Ryle Dwyer

The role of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the quest for Irish independence has undoubtedly been underplayed over the decades.

The Gaelic League was largely recognised as the great motivating force behind the Easter Rebellion, probably because of the attitude of Patrick Pearse, the recognised leader of the rebellion.

“The Gaelic League will be recognised as the most revolutionary influence that has ever come into Ireland,” Pearse wrote.

The Irish revolution really began when the seven pro-Gaelic Leaguers met in the back room in O’Connell Street. The germ of all future Irish history was in that backroom.

In his new book, Tim Pat Coogan takes issue with Pearse crediting the Gaelic League. “That accolade belongs to the Gaelic Athletic Association,” Mr Coogan argues.

Nobody should be surprised that Coogan credits Michael Collins as one of the great driving force of the ensuing struggle for independence, but he notes that the Big Fellow credited the GAA with providing the pioneering influence.

Michael Collins throws in the ball to start a hurling match at Croke Park, Dublin, in 1921. Picture Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty

“The GAA was the pioneer body in the defence of the national interest,” Collins wrote in September 1921. The GAA was actually established nine years before the Gaelic League.

The author could have made much more of the GAA’s early influence. He does suggest, for instance, that Maurice Davin, one of the driving forces in the formation of the GAA, was primarily motivated “to bring order into the chaotic state of Irish athletics”.

Mr Coogan notes that “the GAA was initially mainly concerned with athletics”, as the organisation’s name suggests.

He does not mention that the GAA enjoyed phenomenal success during its early years when athletes born and reared in Ireland, won 16 gold, 12 silver and three bronze medals at the seven Olympic Games before 1921. This compares with four gold, and two silver won by athletes representing Ireland in the 21 Olympiads since independence.

The earlier winners were no less Irish because they had to emigrate, or compete under the foreign flags. Their success undoubtedly boosted the national confidence in what this country could achieve with its independence.

The author emphasises the role that Cork and Kerry played in both the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.

Although Michael Collins was responsible for the appointment of Eoin O’Duffy as chief of staff of the Free State Army, the author is quite critical of the selection. O’Duffy absurdly stated that the shooting of a British soldier in Killarney on the morning of the truce, was the only thing that happened in Kerry during the War of Independence.

While the ambush at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, in January 1919, is usually considered the first act of the War of Independence, Mr Coogan argues that a case could actually be made for citing the raid on the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks Gortatlea, Co Kerry, eight months earlier.

Of course, Tom McEllistrim, who led the Gortatlea raid, was a quiet man who never bragged publicly about his involvement. He was also involved in the highly publicised ‘Battle of Ballymacelligott’, which took place near Tralee on November 12, 1920.

An “alert Sinn Féiner” noted that the published photographs were actually taken on Vico Road, Dalkey, Co Dublin, according to Mr Coogan, who missed the real story behind the fake.

The person, who detected that much of the camera work was done in Dalkey, was Edward Carson, who recognised the entrance to his ancestral home in the footage.

The Auxiliaries had been escorting a Pathé news film crew near Tralee that day, when the IRA fired some shots as a warning to colleagues on the roadside of the approach of Auxiliaries. Believing they were under attack, the Auxiliaries jumped from their lorry and began returning fire. The Pathé crew then claimed that they filmed the first live ambush ever.

Afterwards, they embellished the whole thing in Dalkey, but they made a pathetic mistake. Before the end of the clip, one of two men supposedly killed in the ambush could be seen in the background to rise and brush himself off. That was real “fake news”.

In March 1921, McEllistrim played a leading role in the ambush at Headford Junction, near Killarney, which Coogan describes as “one of the most significant events of the War of Independence”.

Being from Kerry it might have seemed reasonable to link McEllistrim closely with the GAA, but no GAA links were even mentioned in his detailed witness statement to the Bureau of Military History.

There is no doubt, however, that the GAA played a magnificent role in the aftermath of the Civil War in Kerry, where three of the worst atrocities of the conflict occurred. Those outrages were never forgotten, but the GAA in Kerry helped to alleviate the bitterness.

Con Brosnan, a Free State officer, managed to get safe passage guarantees for Republican players like John Joe Sheehy and Joe Barrett to play football games. While they were together, there was no mention of politics.

Within a year, Kerry won the All-Ireland football title with players who fought on both sides of the civil war. Six of that team went on to win six All-Ireland championships together.

In 1931, when Barrett was selected as captain for a second time, he gave the captaincy to Brosnan in a magnificent sporting gesture. Brosnan went on to lead Kerry to its first three-in-a-row.

In the circumstances, the whole county got behind the Kerry team. This helps to explain how the civil war wounds were largely healed in Kerry, and also why Kerry people became so passionate about football.

Cork people figure prominently in the story, with Michael Collins taking pride of place. The author brings the story right up to the controversy of the GAA tribute match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the late Liam Miller. There are many similar interesting nuggets which really have little or nothing to do with the title of the book.

Tim Pat Coogan’s The GAA and the War of Independence is out now, €23.99.


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