The controversy that flowed from the GAA’s initial decision not to allow the Liam Miller testimonial be played at Páirc Uí Chaoímh is a legacy of history.
More precisely, it is a legacy of the introduction in the early years of the 20th century of a series of rules that came to be known as ‘The Ban’.
‘The Ban’, although never constant in strength and character, ultimately decreed that anyone who played, promoted or attended ‘foreign games’ (the listed ‘foreign games’ were cricket, hockey, rugby, and soccer), or who was a member of the British security forces, was prohibited from membership of the GAA.
Further, no GAA club was allowed to organise any entertainment at which ‘foreign dances’ were permitted, and any GAA member who attended dances run by either the British security forces, or by ‘foreign games’ clubs, was liable to a suspension of two years.
Although it was in the five decades after independence that these rules were at their strongest, the very first ban rules were introduced in January 1885, within two months of the founding of the GAA, and banned athletes who competed in athletics meetings run by other organisations from competing at GAA meetings.
A similar ban relating to clubs involved in field games was introduced in March 1886.
Essentially, both rules were intended to increase the administrative and organisational power of the GAA in its struggle to gain control of sport in Ireland.
The Land War and political turmoil in 1887 then brought the GAA to ban members of the police, though not the army, from joining the GAA.
In general, the foundation of the GAA amid the tumult of the 1880s shaped its origins as a nationalist organisation. The ‘Britishness’ of large swathes of Irish popular culture was undeniable and the GAA was — in part — an Irish cultural nationalism reaction against this.
Having briefly been abandoned on the 1890s, ‘The Ban’ was reinvigorated in line with increased nationalist sentiment in the GAA after 1900 (reflecting increased wider nationalist sentiment across Irish society).
The rule was now expanded for the first time to include the exclusion of army, navy, and prison officers, and all who watched ‘foreign games’ — this time with the stated
intention of drawing a divide between Irish-Ireland and those portrayed as ‘West-British’.
Indeed, the GAA sought to make Irish people choose between ‘Irish laws’ and ‘English laws’, between ‘native’ and ‘foreigner’.
This was a potent rhetorical flourish in the divided politics of Ireland as it pitched
towards revolution — even if it was a that obviously elevated propaganda over history.
Basically, this was ‘cultural nationalism’ in the sporting sphere, but defined in the negative as well as the positive — it was not enough just to play Gaelic games, to be truly Irish was to shun all other games as well.
Sporting bigotry operated on both sides of the divide, of course, but in terms of the GAA ban rules, they were the making of those members who saw the GAA as central to a project of national liberation.
These members constituted only one section of the GAA, however, and ‘The Ban’ did not enjoy unanimous support within the association in the pre-independence era.
Indeed, there were almost annual attempts to have the rules weakened or removed — several of which failed only narrowly.
After 1921 support for ‘The Ban’ hardened and Vigilance Committees were established to police the rules, which were broadened to include the ‘foreign music’ aspect between 1929 and 1932.
For all that there was an idealism that underpinned these rules — and for all that the GAA’s sporting opponents were themselves also culpable of their own forms of opposition to Gaelic games — they were capable of exposing the GAA to popular ridicule.
The greatest example of this came in 1938 when the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, (chosen in light of the passage of the 1937 constitution) attended an international soccer match in Dublin in the course of the duties of his office.
As well as being the President of Ireland, Hyde was celebrated as a founding father of modern Ireland; he was a distinguished Gaelic scholar and the intellectual driving-force behind the founding of the Gaelic League.
He had been friends with Michael Cusack, the GAA’s founder, whom he had come to know in Irish language circles in Dublin in the 1880s.
As long ago as 1892, Hyde had written that the progress of the GAA had “filled him with more hope for the future of Ireland than everything else put together”. Time and again, Hyde had lauded the GAA for its “brave and patriotic” work in rejuvenating Ireland.
In return, the GAA had made Hyde one of its patrons in 1902. Now, though, in 1938, his attendance at a soccer international between Ireland and Poland (accompanied by Éamon de Valera) was raised at a Central Council meeting of the GAA.
In response, the president of the GAA, Pádraig MacNamee, ruled that because of Hyde’s actions, he had “ceased to be a patron of the Association”.
In the public uproar that followed, the GAA was widely castigated for its decision.
Later in 1938, Pádraig MacNamee — known around GAA circles as a principled and decent man who devoted his life to service of the Association — set out the ethos that underpinned the decision.
“On one point I agree with our critics, and that is when they say that we are intolerant. My only complaint is that we are not half intolerant enough. We and all Irishmen who value the inheritance of the Gael must always be intolerant of everything foreign in this country.
"We can never rest until the last vestige of foreign dominion is gone beyond recall … I dream of the day when a Gaelic Front will come into existence — a Front consisting of a union of organisations, each looking after its own particular part of the Gaelic revival, and all united in the ultimate aim — a Gaelic Ireland.”
In essence, the leadership of the GAA did not blink in the face of criticism — and Hyde remained banned.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there was widespread evasion of the rules across the decades. Indeed, ‘The Ban’ was widely defied, not least, it would seem, by GAA men who worked in banks and other institutions.
For example, in the summer of 1955, the annual cricket match between teams representing the married and single men of the Bank of Ireland was played in the grounds of the Pembroke Cricket Club in Dublin.
One of the stars of the show was a “former star of the GAA” who was credited with some “lusty batting”.
The Irish Banking Magazine teasingly gave his name as “Dxn Bxcxlxy”, to ensure he was not the subject of ban-related controversy. It was a reminder that the pleasure of sport retained a great capacity to over-ride the ambitions of ideologues who sought to invest in it a particular importance.
The arrival of TV in the 1960s entirely destroyed the ambitions of those who wished to see only Gaelic games prosper.
Television allowed people to easily access sports that had never been previously available to them.
When the 1966 World Cup, held in England, was broadcast on television in Ireland, a general growth in interest in soccer was noted in the Irish press.
One GAA columnist, ‘An Fear Ciúin’, wrote in The Sunday Press that the World Cup was having “disturbing effects here amongst those followers who contaminate their minds with such world-disturbing, unnatural and degrading recreations. Every effort will be made to preserve our Gaelic people from falling into boisterous belligerency… The GAA has too long and too noble a record to allow any fraternity with unworthy causes”. In the debate that ensued through the 1960s, defenders of ‘The Ban’ said — once again — that the rule was designed to promote the idea of an Irish-Ireland and was forcing Irish people to choose between being Irish and being a West-Briton.
Its opponents simply pointed out that a man was no less of an Irish man because he played rugby or soccer. They noted that the likes of Kevin Barry and Eamon de Valera had been rugby players.
Either way, television effectively ended the debate with RTÉ showing rugby and soccer internationals. No amount of contortions could disguise the ridiculous position that one could be banned for going to Lansdowne Road to watch a match, but not banned for sitting at home and watching on TV.
In 1971, the GAA voted in Belfast to remove its ban on members playing “foreign games”, and also removed its “foreign dances” ban.
The context of the Troubles allowed that the ban on members of the British security forces being members of the GAA was retained, and despite infrequent attempts at deletion, it remained until November 2001.
Equally, as Sean Moran has written, the ban on the playing of ‘foreign games’ on GAA pitches was then established, apparently as something of a sop to those who were appalled that ‘The Ban’ was being lifted at all.
It is not entirely clear why this was deemed necessary, nor was the rule constructed with the sort of clarity that legitimately might be expected.
Later, in this millennium, when Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped, the GAA acted under immense pressure and opened Croke Park to rugby and soccer, and subsequently allowed for Central Council to decide how Croke Park, alone of its facilities, should be used in relation to other ‘field games’.
Attempts to extend this approach to the association’s other grounds have failed.
Why is this?
It is not simply the case that the GAA does not allow certain other sports be played in its pitches as some attempt to preserve competitive advantage, although this plays a part.
This is true — and so is it true that government policy continues to be predicated on the notion that there are GAA grounds and there are other grounds. Every penny given to the GAA and to other sporting organisations has understood the divide and has never sorted to bridge that divide. The idea of municipal stadia — so central in other countries — has never been attempted in Ireland.
Allowing for that, that the GAA enshrines in law its rule on the use of its pitches only for Gaelic games is rooted in the legacy of the enduring relationship that the GAA has with Irish nationalism and Irish national identity.
The GAA’s Official Guide is absolutely clear that such a relationship exists and is fundamental to the GAA in much of its imagery.
In the appendices, for example, there are short portraits of the men who founded the GAA, in which they are lauded for the commitment to the creation of a “Free and Gaelic Ireland”.
Also in the appendices, there is a reprint of Archbishop Thomas Croke’s letter, written in support of the GAA in December 1884, in which he pledges his support for the GAA against the “degenerate dandies” of the Empire and their games which were mere “effeminate follies”.
But these are sentiments that also find modern expression in the very first page of the Official Guide.
In what amounts to a three-paragraph ‘mission statement’, it is claimed that those who play its games and who run the organisation see the GAA as “a means of consolidating our Irish identity."
More than that, it sees the “primary purpose of the GAA" as being “a means to create a disciplined, self-reliant, national-minded manhood”. And more than that again, all of this amounts to “the expression of a people’s preference for native ways as opposed to imported ones”.
The Official Guide then moves on to note that, because of partition, “Ireland’s claim to nationhood is impaired” and concludes: “Today, the native games take on a new significance when it is realised that they have been a part, and still are a part, of the Nation’s desire to live her own life, to govern her own affairs.” It is one thing, of course, to have a mission statement and altogether another to have actual rules that give meaning — or attempt to give meaning — to broader ambitions.
The thing is that every working constitution of every sporting organisation is an uneasy manifestation of historical experience, present realities, and attempts to
imagine the future.
The reality of the GAA’s Official Guide is that it is almost entirely consumed with the practical operation of a modern sporting organisation.
It could not be otherwise.
So it is that the rules of the Association are spelled out in the sort of minute detail in everything from disciplinary procedures to membership and affiliation processes.
The enduring sporting success of the GAA is rooted in the smooth and proper operation of all of these rules.
But — as the mission statement and the rules in respect of Irishness and national identity that flow from it demonstrate — the shadow cast by history is a real one, This is a legacy that is plain to see in the Official Guide.
Accordingly, the GAA has a slew of rules which are framed around ideas of Irish nationhood.
Partly, this is done in a broader cultural way: the GAA commits itself to “actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of national culture”.
’It also commits to “use all practical endeavours to support Irish industry, especially in relation to the provision of trophies and playing gear and equipment”.
And it also uses rules in a negative way: ‘The Ban’ on the playing of soccer matches on GAA pitches — as evidenced in the immediate reaction to the proposed Liam Miller match.
To deny the history of the GAA as an organisation filled with nationalists would be entirely wrong (even if the GAA’s contribution to 1916 and the War of Independence has been grossly overstated).
Equally, the impact of partition and the violence of the post-1969 decades have inevitably shaped the nature of the modern GAA.
That being said, do the great majority of GAA members actually agree that their involvement in the GAA is, ultimately, the expression of their preference for native ways over imported ones?
It is undoubtedly true that GAA members are extremely proud of their games.
Part of that pride comes from the fact that these games are Irish games and are a badge of distinction.
There is, however, a limit to which this pride can be accepted to extend.
It is one thing to be proud of the games you play and altogether another to imagine that such games are inherently superior to what the GAA still officially describes as “imported games”, just because they are Irish.
Is there any other justification for the enduring presence of ‘The Ban’?
Is this how the modern GAA sees itself?
Is it not the case that the rule — as with the broader nationalist rhetoric that is set out in the early pages of the GAA — does not properly fit with political shifts and the evolution of ideas around identity, not least those revealed in the Good Friday Agreement and all that has flowed from it?
What is the purpose of the GAA? What is its place in Irish life?
That the GAA is more than just a sporting organisation is clear. At a most basic level, the role of clubs as the focal point of many communities makes this point with practical eloquence. Equally, though, it should be acknowledged that the legacy of history and the practicalities of past inheritances mean that the GAA’s communities in Ireland essentially exclude unionists.
The rulebook as it now stands also facilitated the exclusion of those who wished to honour the memory of Liam Miller with a soccer match. How can that be right?
When a rulebook exposes a membership to embarrassment (and worse) and ridicule, and when it leaves its leadership issuing statements that seek refuge in legal opinion and struggling to find a way to respond with basic decency and dignity, then it is not fit for purpose.
Apart from anything else, as well as being wrong in itself, it also leaves the GAA exposed to the posturing of bandwagoning politicians and other commentators, themselves exposing their own prejudices.
It is time for the GAA to revisit its Official Guide.
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