What has been the relationship between Protestants and the GAA in the Republic of Ireland?
After all, for all the talk of the decline of the importance of religion in Ireland, it is the case that (at least until Covid struck) some teams go to mass together on the morning of matches, that players talk of going to mass and even that the rosary is said in the dressing room before games.
The matter has been considered in a recent book, edited by Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne, called ‘’.
Milne has written a fascinating chapter in the book entitled: ”The jersey is all that matters, not your church”: Protestants and the GAA in the Rural Republic.’ The context of the chapter is that for much of the 20th century, the Catholic aspect of the GAA was undeniable.
It is true that the GAA has had – almost from the beginning – a clause in its constitution committing it to non-sectarianism.
But the lived reality of life in the GAA mean that overt Catholicism could be witnessed at every level of the Association.
Most ostentatiously, the bishop throwing in the ball on All-Ireland Sunday symbolised the relationship which had developed between the GAA and the Catholic Church after the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.
The Catholicism of the southern state was reflected across the operations of the GAA.
After all, the men who stood for the Catholic hymn, Faith of our Fathers, on All-Ireland Sunday and who knelt to kiss the bishop’s ring on the field of play were invariably Catholic.
Basically, such symbols ensured that the GAA could be perceived as an organisation only for Catholics.
On a local level, the most obvious identification between the Catholic Church and the GAA was the notion of one-parish, one-club. Rooting the GAA to the geographical structure of the Catholic church, of course, was a matter of convenience not one of religious devotion. In some parishes, the Church played a prominent role in GAA affairs; in others, it played little or none. In general, it was considered a boon to a club to receive into the parish a priest who would help with the running of the club.
Like every other voluntary organisation, GAA clubs and county boards, were invariably delighted to get whatever help they could. All the more so when it came from a figure of stature within the community – and one with flexible working hours who was uninhibited by the constraints of raising a family.
Men such as Fr Tom Scully – who trained Offaly to reach the All-Ireland Football final in 1969 – were dedicated to GAA and this was a dedication that was rooted in a love of the game.
In this respect, just as many priests were involved in the GAA, so was it that many more had no interest or involvement. Most usually, it came down to a matter of personal taste.
Either way, there could be no denying the broader relationship between the GAA and the Catholic Church.
But did this exclude Protestant involvement? Ida Milne writes: “The GAA was and is part of my cultural background. The fact that our family went to a different church on a Sunday didn’t seem to impinge on that. We were Church of Ireland, part of the Anglican Communion (although we were not comfortable with the term), whereas the archetypal GAA player was Catholic. For our family, the GAA was and is part of the ordinariness of life, not the difference.”
Milne explains how she was brought up on a farm in north Co Wexford.
Her early GAA memories were of the triumphs of Wexford hurling in the 1960s. She remembers welcoming victorious teams arriving into Ferns with huge plumes of black smoke lifting off a mountain of burning tractor tyres.
She recalls being star-struck when the great hurler, Nicky Rackard, a vet, came into their yard to treat their cattle.
Her father and other local men played hurling in a field on their farm, and later her father ploughed and rolled the field in Ferns where the new field was being made for St Aidan’s GAA Club.
In general, her father and her grandfather loved hurling, Gaelic football and handball, playing them all, “as did other Protestants in the parish.” Her mother, too, growing up near Enniscorthy, said that in her family, playing Gaelic games was also the norm.
For Ida Milne, her own interest and that of her family was part of a broader identification with Irishness that also included activities such as Irish dancing: “The idea that any of our co-religionists might be viewed as having a closer cultural or political affinity with Britain than with Ireland would have seemed preposterous through the eyes of a Wexford Protestant child of the 1960s.”
This is, of course, one story. And there are others, set out my Milne, which tells a contrasting tale.
For example, one person whom she interviewed in her research noted that the most important object in the home he grew up in was a photograph of the Enniscorthy RFC team that won the Provincial Towns’ Cup in 1963 – there were 12 Protestants on that team.
Within this story of contrasts, it is tempting to see this as a thing that shifted depending on the tastes of a family.
But there are also wider factors. For example, as Milne points out: “Typically, the Protestant GAA player is someone who has not ‘gone away’ to school; that is, that they attended the local, usually Catholic, secondary school rather than going to a rugby- or hockey-playing boarding school with a Protestant ethos.”
There are also many exceptions to this rule, however – Jack Boothman, former President of the GAA, being one.
And the reality is, of course, that most Protestants went to school locally, rather than going away to a boarding school.
And in all of this, the enduring reality was that – presuming an interest in play – “most people play the sport that is played in their community, rather than choosing to travel distances to play another code.”
A great example of this can be found in the great hurling village of Kinnitty in the Slieve Bloom mountains. Tom Mitchell, a member of the Church of Ireland, won an Offaly senior hurling championship in 1930 and later said that no Kinnitty team had won an Offaly championship without a Protestant in the team: “When it comes to hurling, religion makes no difference; hurling is the religion around here.”
In all of this, Milne is clear that the history she tells is not a comprehensive one, rather it is based on people whom she knew were interested in the GAA. Nonetheless, they reveal Protestants participating beside Catholics in Gaelic Games across rural Ireland during the highpoint of the GAA’s overt Catholicism.
A more detailed study remains to be completed on this issue, as it does on the participation of Protestants who lived in rural areas. And, of course, the matter of engagement with the GAA of non-Catholics north of the border is another story unto itself.
In this new millennium, the symbols of Catholicism no longer predominate on major GAA occasions. The broader decline of the Catholic Church is reflected in the GAA. Echoes of the past live on, however.
The Archbishop of Cashel and Emly remains a patron of the GAA, and presents the cup to the All-Ireland minor hurling champions. This is a much less exciting prospect than throwing in the ball to start the senior final – an image which is now lost in a different age.
Other echoes can be found in the GAA’s ‘Official Guide’, which still carries in the appendices 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’.
In general, though, it is clear that there are many more religions visible within the GAA than was previously the case. This is most obvious during Cumann na mBunscoil finals every year.
It is here that the demographic shifts of Irish society over the past 20 years are made plain. This is a reminder of the extent to which the GAA reflects the changing nature of Irish society – some 13% of the population of the Republic of Ireland are non-Irish nationals. That amounts to some 622,000 people.
How successful is the GAA at attracting these people into its ranks? In the year to April 2019, some 35% of immigrants came from outside the EU. This number includes a wide diversity of religious faiths. How are these people accommodated within the GAA? How are they attracted to the Association in the first place? Is there a way to ensure that the diversity on view in primary schools’ matches is recreated in clubs?
Across the north, the traditional association of religion with competing national identities continues to serve as a block on recruitment to the GAA (albeit with some slight change); in the south, the question has shifted to complexity of a different sort. And, again, it is a challenge which will not disappear, rather it is one that must be embraced.