’Gaelic Sunday’ is described on the GAA’s website as “one of the most remarkable and significant days in the history of the GAA”, writes Paul Rouse.
“It will be forever remembered as … the day when the GAA peacefully stood against the British Empire — and won.”
That’s a nice, catchy line, but it reeks of hubris. So is it accurate?
The only way to examine the history of Gaelic Sunday is to place it in the context of the way history was turning in the years after 1916.
The basic story of Gaelic Sunday itself is a straightforward one: At the beginning of July 1918, a British government order prohibited all “meetings, assemblies, or processions in public places” unless written authorisation had been received from the police.
Basically, this meant that if the GAA wished to play a match, it would have to apply to the local police for a permit. The GAA declined to comply with this and instead arranged a series of matches for Sunday, August 4, 1918 — it was to be a form of largely peaceful protest.
It is claimed by the GAA that some 54,000 players then took part in matches across the country and that more than 100,000 people spectated at those games.
No convincing evidence has yet been produced as to how those numbers have been arrived at. Indeed, there is no adequate list of matches that were actually played on the day.
Nonetheless, even allowing for what seems like a significant exaggeration, it is still the case that the GAA, under the instruction of its leaders in Croke Park, organised a serious rejection of the proposed permit scheme across most — if not all — counties.
The response of the British government was essentially to abandon its plans.
Indeed, it abandoned the plans even before the day itself. Understanding that it could never hope to police an extensive series of games across the country, the British government announced that GAA matches were not now considered to fall under the remit of the permit scheme.
The end result was that the day’s matches went ahead essentially unchallenged.
The right of the GAA to organise matches as it wished was clearly established.
It was enough to bring contemporary journalists to predict that it would be remembered as one of the “greatest” days in the GAA’s history.
This was a prediction which chimed with the views of the GAA’s official historian in the 1980s who went so far as to claim it as the greatest single act of defiance outside of the political sphere in the years between the 1916 Rising and the establishment of the Irish Free State.
The GAA likes to imagine that it was in the vanguard of the revolution but what Gaelic Sunday really tells is the story of an Association which reflected the growing radicalisation of Irish society.
The truth is that it had some members who were radical before and during 1916 — but almost all were not involved and were not even sympathetic to the rebels.
Indeed, the number of GAA men who were fighting for the British army in the Great War emphasises the extent to which the GAA was made up of moderate nationalists.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of how this changed during 1917 and 1918 is to look at the relationship between the British government and the GAA’s leading officials.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising, the GAA sought to engage with the British authorities to safeguard the organisation’s sporting operations.
The first episode concerned the attempts of the government to enforce an entertainments tax on sporting and other recreational bodies throughout the UK.
As the relevant bill was being moved through the House of Commons, an amendment was introduced exempting any organisation founded “with the object of reviving national pastimes”. This amendment was introduced specifically in response to GAA efforts, through John O’Connor MP, to avoid payment of the tax.
The British Chancellor of the Exchequer intimated that it would be a matter for Inland Revenue to decide if the GAA warranted exemption.
While awaiting this decision, the Central Council of the GAA took the initiative and sent a deputation to General John Maxwell in an attempt to secure GAA exclusion from taxation and to arrange for provision of special trains to GAA matches.
It speaks volumes for the priorities of the GAA that it should attend a meeting with Maxwell.
After all, it was Maxwell who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in Ireland during the Rising. Using extensive martial law powers, he crushed the rebellion. In its immediate aftermath, he was the chief architect of government policy and oversaw a series of court-martialing which saw 171 prisoners tried and 90 death sentences imposed.
Fifteen of those death sentences were carried out over 10 days in May 1916.
It was also Maxwell who had presided over the internment of more than 2,000 of the 3,500 men and women arrested after the rising.
Most of this number had no connection with the Rising and included hundreds of GAA members.
And yet the Central Council of the GAA was prepared to meet Maxwell, and prepared to do business with him.
But as the Great War lingered on and as public sentiment became to change in respect of how the rebels of 1916 were viewed, the GAA began to shift position.
As the wind changed, so did the GAA.
Indeed, it began identifying with the emergence of Sinn Féin as a potent political force, one that was in the process of destroying the old Irish Parliamentary Party.
When Clare paraded before matches in the 1917 All-Ireland Football Championship, they did so in front of a banner which read: ‘Up de Valera’; it was a marked change from 1914 when they had paraded behind the name of Willie Redmond, the Irish Parliamentary Party MP.
By 1918, any possibility that the GAA might seriously consider negotiating with the British authorities in Ireland had vanished.
The upturn in militant nationalist sentiment in the country as a whole permeated the GAA.
When the secretary’s position of the Leinster Council of the GAA came up for election in 1917, it boiled down to a contest between the devoutly Republican Jack Shouldice and the apolitical AC Harty.
Shouldice had been interned and was spoken for at the meeting by his fellow radical Harry Boland.
The result was a victory for Shouldice by 16 votes to 1 (with Harty presumably being the one who voted for himself).
This increased militancy came to the fore in April 1918, when the GAA joined a broad alliance of nationalist bodies and the Catholic Church in opposing British government plans to introduce conscription to Ireland as the Great War dragged on.
The GAA pledged ‘to resist, by any means in our power, the attempt conscription of Irish manhood, and we call on all our members to give effect to the foregoing resolution”, and its leaders shared campaign platforms with trade unionists, church leaders, and politicians.
Gaelic Sunday was part of the evidence of this new outlook.
This militancy was further evidenced by the playing of numerous matches in support of the Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund, with Republican leaders such as de Valera and Michael Collins frequently in attendance.
It was in evidence also on the retrospective admonishment of the Central Council of the GAA for having entered into negotiations with Maxwell in 1916.
The Central Council of 1918 was not likely to make such a move; indeed, it worked instead to push the GAA towards greater militancy.
At a meeting in December 1918, it resolved to exclude from membership of the GAA anyone who signed the new Oath of Allegiance, pending a definitive decision by Congress in the spring of 1919.
The Oath of Allegiance had been introduced for civil servants and other state employees in early November 1918 under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act.
The difficulty for the GAA was that many of its members — including some of its most prominent ones — worked in the civil service or as teachers and were now placed in the invidious position of having to choose between their livelihood and the Association.
It meant that, for example, the president and chairman of the Leinster Council of the GAA now stood down, despite the service they had given the Association for many, many years.
In early 1919, the Annual Congress of the GAA duly debated whether civil servants who took the Oath of Allegiance should be banned from the Association.
There was much opposition to the move but, after a long and acrimonious debate, it was the speech of Harry Boland that was remembered as eventually swaying many delegates in favour of the ban.
In a passionate oration, Boland claimed that the GAA “owed its position to the fact that it had always drawn the line between the garrison and the Gael”.
Amidst a torrent of rhetorical patriotism and appeals not to break ranks and capitulate to British designs, the decision was taken to retain the ban on civil servants being members of the GAA. By then the War of Independence was in full swing.
It is a reminder of the manner in which sporting organisations reflect the way in which society changes.
And, when it comes down to it, ‘Gaelic Sunday’ matters for how it reflects the changing nature of Ireland in the summer of 1918 and how that changing nature remade the GAA.
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