These are strange — but not unprecedented times — for GAA, writes
The situation we find ourselves in because of the coronavirus, with sports events of all kinds postponed or cancelled, has some precedent in Ireland.
For instance, every hurling fan worth his or her salt knows that while Cork won the first of their four senior hurling All-Irelands in a row in 1941, they didn’t win the Munster title that year.
An outbreak of foot and mouth that year caused widespread chaos with fixtures, and in an interesting echo of recent days, some sporting organisations moved faster than others while government direction was also sought on postponing or cancelling games.
Tipperary was particularly affected, with noted GAA historian Seamus King writing some years back of the 1941 outbreak: “Racing and the public sale of horses had been banned as early as March. The North Tipperary County Council wrote a letter to the Minister for Agriculture in April calling for greater restrictions on many sporting events which hadn’t been cancelled.
The Minister replied that he didn’t want to interfere with people’s enjoyment but it was up to the council to make representations to the promoters of events.
In May of that year there were 11 outbreaks in the county, King recalls, causing creameries and schools to be closed, and “the first mention of the cancellation of GAA matches. All games scheduled for Littleton, Moyne and Carrick-on-Suir for May 18 were called off...
“There was a meeting of the (Tipperary) county board of the GAA on May 20 and it was decided to stop all county matches. No teams were to leave the county. There was a request to the Munster Council to postpone the Waterford-Tipperary senior hurling championship game. On May 31, 14 more cases were reported.
“The game, a first round tie, scheduled for Thurles on June 1, was postponed and eventually played on the last Sunday in July. Tipperary won by 4-7 to 3-4. They were to play Cork in the Munster semi-final at Limerick on August 17 but the match was called off the previous Monday by order of the Department of Agriculture.”
King goes on to point out that Tipperary and other counties affected wanted the GAA to put back the All-Ireland hurling final, “but Central Council would not agree.
The council ruled that teams be nominated and if a nominated team won the All-Ireland that team would be awarded the 1941 championship.”
This led to Cork being nominated to represent Munster and Dublin representing Leinster, the two sides duly meeting in the All-Ireland hurling final. Cork were beaten by Tipperary in the delayed Munster final, which was eventually played on October 26.
Fifteen years later another epidemic had a serious impact on the GAA championships.
Throughout the ’40s and early ’50s, polio had been the terror of the age, with fatality rates in some outbreaks reaching as high as 27% of cases — the old name for the disease, ‘infantile paralysis’, was a nod to the fact that many of those infected were children under the age of five.
There were cases noted in Cork in June of 1956 and, by July, the city’s medical officer of health (MOH), said “an epidemic was imminent” — by August there were 90 cases in the city, and the outbreak has since been described by academics as the largest localised epidemic in the history of the State.
In a piece for History Ireland, Laurence Geary expanded on the effect on Cork of the outbreak: “...School reopening was deferred. Tourism and business suffered, especially in the wake of advice by some government departments against unnecessary travel into or out of Cork.
“Many Cork people who worked in places like Dagenham, especially those with young children, cancelled their annual visit home.
Attendance at cinemas, dance halls and sporting events dropped dramatically; children under 12 years of age were not admitted to cinemas; a scheduled visit of Buff Bill’s circus to the city was cancelled; and swimming and tennis tournaments and GAA activities were either postponed or abandoned.
The GAA activities concerned were the showcase games of the year. Cork were in line for qualification for both hurling and football deciders, but the authorities in Dublin were conscious of a large influx of people from the area of the country suffering most severely from the polio outbreak.
Geary pointed out: “On 1 August, following a request from Dr J. B. O’Regan, Dublin City MOH, the chairman of Cork County GAA Board appealed to supporters of the Cork football team not to bring children under 14 years of age to the Cork-Kildare All-Ireland senior football semi-final at Croke Park on the following Sunday.”
(When this request became known letter-writers displayed little fellow feeling for their southern cousins. One correspondent criticised the Minister for Health for failing “to prevent the entry of Cork people, en masse” into Dublin for the match, adding: “Let Cork’s own town keep their polio and not infect our clean city.”)
Cork got past Kildare in the football game but couldn’t organise a challenge before the final itself, with at least one team refusing to travel.
The hurling final, when the Rebels lost to Wexford, was played at the unusually late date of September 27th.
The football final, which saw Galway get the better of Cork, was not played until October 7.
More recently, foot and mouth returned to Britain in 2001, when much of the sports focus was on the Six Nations, which was in full swing when a case was eventually discovered that March in the Republic (on a farm in Louth).
However, there were implications for the GAA’s national league — for instance, the games administration committee of the GAA decided London would not complete their League programmes because of the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain.
With teams from Ulster competing in the leagues there were delays and postponements — last week John O’Mahony, who was then Galway football manager, recalled that Tyrone weren’t allowed to play in the league semi-finals of 2001.
In the end O’Mahony’s Galway were beaten by Mayo in a delayed league final at Croke Park which was eventually played on April 29.
O’Mahony saw some parallels between 2001 and the current situation — and some vital differences: “We were all kind of living in suspended animation, like we are now, and wondering was it going to go ahead at all.
Tyrone couldn’t travel or couldn’t play or whatever because obviously there were cases in the north.
"My memory of it was that there wasn’t as much panic as there is now, you had all the precautions, we had the mats and stuff for the players coming into training and all that.
But you got the sense that the competition wasn’t as important because you had teams excluded from it.”
Few people view the 2001 GAA season as seriously compromised in terms of its competitive integrity because of the foot and mouth restrictions of the time.
It remains to be seen if 2020 will be seen in the same light.