There are many questions to ask about Cork GAA’s new commemorative jersey.
These are questions that relate to its composition and its purpose.
The jersey — for those who have not seen it — carries the photographs and signatures of Terence MacSwiney and Tomás Mac Curtain, a photograph of a monument to the Kilmichael Ambush and a photograph of the Burning of Cork.
Tomás Mac Curtain was elected Lord Mayor of Cork in January of 1920, and in March of that year he was murdered by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
In fact, Mac Curtain was shot dead in his bedroom and his wife (held down by his killers) suffered a miscarriage.
He was succeeded as mayor by Terence MacSwiney, who was arrested in August 1920 and imprisoned in Brixton Jail in London, where he went on hunger strike and died in October 1920.
MacSwiney had been on hunger strike for 74 days and his story was covered by media across the world. Many people called for his release
by the authorities, including Ho Chi Minh and various moderate unionists.
Even King George V is reported to have “privately favoured mercy”.
The British government declined.
The appalling manner of their respective deaths and the positions that they held make it entirely understandable that Mac Curtain and MacSwiney should be commemorated in Cork.
That they should be specifically commemorated by Cork GAA begs a whole host of questions, however.
This is particularly the case because neither man was significant in the GAA.
Certainly, they did not do anything like the work for the Association of JJ Walsh, a revolutionary who overhauled the administration of Cork GAA and who later became a government minister, or Michael Collins, who was a committed hurler through his teenage years and his early twenties.
In the case of MacCurtain and MacSwiney, it was the Irish language, Irish music and Irish literature that were more important: the first was a Gaelic Leaguer who was also a fiddle player and a piper; the second was also a Gaelic Leaguer, a playwright, and a poet.
Both men were also leaders of the Irish Volunteers and were committed, active revolutionaries.
It can be claimed by Cork County Board that insignificant involvement with the GAA is irrelevant, that the vast outpouring of sympathy in the city and county that attended the deaths 100 years ago, as well as the struggle which they came to embody, merits commemoration.
This presumably helps explain the presence on the jersey, also, of the monument to the Kilmichael ambush (arguably the most violent episode in the War of Independence) and the photograph of the Burning of Cork (the orgy of destruction that saw scores of buildings destroyed when British forces ran amok through the
city centre in December
The observation of the County Board is that they are marking “the centenary of a tumultuous 12 months”.
Indeed, much more than tumultuous, the actions of the British state in Cork 100 years ago were an outrage and
GAA members were among the many who suffered.
But the question stands: what do Cork County Board hope to achieve by this form of commemoration, by their new jersey?
Effective commemoration demands time and care, and the exploration of nuance and complexity in a manner that requires more than photographs reproduced on a jersey.
At the very least, it is to be hoped that Cork GAA have more to offer in this matter than their replica jersey.
After all, the story of the GAA in Cork, the GAA in general and of wider life in Ireland a century ago is exceptionally complicated in the reality of its shades of political belief and identity.
For example, there was a fascinating debate at the Cork GAA annual convention of 1919 about a motion relating to the banning from the GAA of any civil servant who took the oath of allegiance to the British state.
There were many devoted GAA men all across Ireland — including in Cork — who had taken that oath and in the ensuing debate there was flexibility and compassion displayed, not least when it came to judging supposed “hierarchies of Irishness”.
During this debate, there were, of course, those who could brook no compromise — but there were many more who could and who did not seek to paint their colleagues as lesser Irishmen.
The radicalisation of Cork during 1919 and, especially in 1920, had a profound impact on the GAA in the county. Exploring that story would be a welcome move beyond the superficial.
When you go past the surface, the layers of truth reveal themselves. Patrick Maume, a biographer of Terence MacSwiney, notes that he was “ill at ease with guerrilla warfare, which did not accord with his romanticised image of insurrection”; for his part, Mac Curtain, similarly, dissociated himself from the killing of off-duty policemen, according to his biography.
A jersey that unites MacSwiney, Mac Curtain and the Kilmichael ambush in reality actually demonstrates an internal tension on the nature of Republican violence. This is something that is worthy of proper consideration and not simplification in the form of some sort of synthetic mural.
Outside Cork, does this new jersey have any wider significance for the GAA in general?
In truth, the jersey fits snugly into the sentiments that underpin the three-paragraph “mission statement” which is at the front of the Official Guide.
In these lines, it is claimed — for example — that the “primary purpose of the GAA” is that it should act as “a means to create a disciplined, self-reliant, national-minded manhood” and that it is “the expression of a people’s preference for native ways as opposed to imported ones”.
The Official Guide also notes 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.”
Allowing for the anachronistic language, the GAA is entitled to have this as its aim; although it may come as a surprise to many of its newer members that the GAA’s expressed “primary purpose” is nationalist rather than sporting.
But where is the line to be drawn when it comes to a commemoration? There is a new jersey planned for Tipperary for November. There is talk of a new jersey in Clare. Will similar jerseys be produced in other counties and in other clubs? Where are the boundaries?
There is general sympathy, indeed admiration, for James McClean regarding his stance against wearing on his jersey the commemorative poppy, something which is now ubiquitous in England. Yet, what would be the reaction if a GAA player chose not to wear a particular jersey for whatever reason?
In the case of the GAA, does this jersey-based approach to commemoration help achieve the repeatedly expressed desire to draw more unionists into the association?
In all of this, the Cork GAA is of course entitled to sell a commemorative jersey, but it must be acknowledged that the action does have a wider contemporary context.
The desire of politicians and political parties to use sport and sporting organisations for their own particular ambitions is not new.
Usually, it comes across as merely self-serving, rather than poorly-informed. The Sinn Féin MP for South Down, Chris Hazzard, managed both in a tweet he sent last weekend.
Hazzard wrote: “This weekend Cork GAA will honour 2 IRA men who gave their lives in the pursuit of Irish freedom — the media & political establishment of the time used language that fellow Cork man Micheál Martin has parroted recently. I’m guessing Micheál won’t be purchasing himself a jersey.”
In his rush to score a cheap political point, Hazzard presumably did not know that Micheál Martin’s son plays for the Cork senior footballers who will wear the jersey in a league game this weekend.
It is striking that Sinn Féin’s public representatives repeatedly ask people to move on from talking about “legacy issues” dating from the Troubles (and indeed ones dating from much more recently), and yet at the same time routinely use particular events from 100 years ago for their own political ends.
There is a fairly basic question that looms large: how precisely does any of this help bring about a United Ireland?
Sinn Féin wish for there to be a border poll, a positive result for which would lead to Irish unity. Leading members of the GAA have also stressed in unambiguous terms their view that the GAA should take a proactive role in campaigning for such a result.
But success in that poll depends upon the persuasion of a lot of people — many, but not all, of whom are political unionists — who are not currently disposed to a United Ireland, to change their mind.
Across Irish society, there is almost nothing in the recent reaction to commemorative events that suggests how that persuasion towards a United Ireland might happen — or that it is even being thought about.
Indeed, the opposite is the case.
Specifically, in the case of Chris Hazzard, did his tweet about the Cork jersey help change the mind of any of his constituents in Co Down? Or did it just further underline the age-old divide among those who read it?
Naturally, though, it’s much easier to bang tribal drums and recite tribal chants and bathe in the warm and familiar water of populist rhetoric than it is to engage with the cultural preferences and identity choices of others.
Wrap the green flag around me, lads, and ask no questions.