TAOISEACH Éamon de Valera told a dinner of the Past Pupils Union of his old school, Blackrock College, at Shannon in Apr 1957: “I have not been at a rugby match since 1913 because I do not want it being raised as a political matter and having rows kicked up about it.”
This was the era of the GAA’s ban on foreign games.
“There is no football game to match rugby. If all our young men played rugby not only would we beat England and Wales, but France and the whole lot of them together.”
de Valera retained his interest in rugby, but he confined himself to listening to matches on the radio. On Nov 13, 1938, however, he did accompany the then president, Douglas Hyde, to a soccer match between Ireland and Poland at Dalymount Park. This was to have unfortunate repercussions.
Hyde’s first public appearance at a sporting event since his inauguration in June had been at the All-Ireland football final between Galway and Kerry at Croke Park in late September. The game was held during the Munich crisis, which was probably the greatest diplomatic crisis of the inter-war period.
de Valera was in Geneva at the time attending the League of Nations, where he was elected president of the assembly. As a result, he returned home at the height of his international prestige.
He met officials and players of the Polish team on the eve of the soccer international. “Our officials and players experienced the greatest thrill of their lives when introduced to Ireland’s prime minister, Mr de Valera,” according to Jainina Rotwandowna, a Polish sports reporter. They were flattered to learn that de Valera planned to accompany Hyde to the game.
The president and taoiseach received a standing ovation from a record crowd of 34,295 people at Dalymount Park. Ireland had been trounced 6-0 by Poland at Warsaw in May, so the return game was crucial in terms of team pride.
Ireland’s 3-2 win may have saved national pride, but people were in for a rude awakening in the following days, with rumblings within the GAA over the president’s attendance. He had been a patron of the GAA since 1902, and there were calls for his expulsion for violating the rules of the association by attending a foreign game.
The GAA’s Central Council discussed the issue at its final meeting of the year on Dec 17. Pádraig McNamee, who had become president of the GAA during the year, presided. The Galway County Board called for Hyde’s position as patron to be considered, because his “duties may bring him into conflict with the fundamental rules of the association”.
Peter O’Farrell of Roscommon objected, but McNamee intervened to kill any further discussion. He insisted that Hyde had failed to observe the rules of the association by attending the soccer match, so he had therefore ceased to be a patron, or even a member, of the GAA.
“The belief that the national soul is injured by the presence of the Head of State at a game of this kind is cant of the worst kind,” The Irish Times thundered in an editorial.
A number of county boards wished to raise the issue at a GAA Congress in Apr 1939, but most withdrew their motions. Kildare insisted “Congress makes amends to the President of Ireland by replacing his name on the roll of Patrons”. The motion was rejected 120 votes to 11, with five abstentions.
As this was shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, the issue was essentially parked for the duration of the conflict. Hyde retired and was succeeded by Seán T O’Kelly in Jun 1945.
Seamus Gardiner, who took over from McNamee as president of the GAA earlier that year, asked general secretary Pádraig Ó Caoimh to arrange a courtesy call on O’Kelly at Áras an Uachtaráin. The president did not respond.
Instead, de Valera invited Gardiner and Ó Caoimh to his office, where he explained that O’Kelly could not ignore the insulting way in which Hyde had been removed as a GAA patron. The president of Ireland represented all segments of the community, so everyone should realise that accepting any GAA invitation could not be interpreted as impairing the president’s ability to accept invitations from other sporting bodies.
“The Hyde incident had been most unfortunate,” Gardiner and Ó Caoimh admitted.
When the Central Council met on Aug 17, 1945, it agreed that O’Kelly “should be invited to its principal functions” and that he “cannot in any circumstances put himself in such a position as to seem, by implication or otherwise, to discriminate against any section of the community”. In effect, the GAA accepted the ban on foreign games no longer applied to the president, but de Valera still dared not attend a rugby match while in active politics.
As a Protestant, Hyde became the victim of another petty ban when died in 1949. The Irish Catholic hierarchy banned Catholics from attending Protestant services, much like the GAA banned its members from attending at foreign games.
With the exception of then health minister Noel Browne, all government members declined to enter St Patrick’s Cathedral for the Protestant service. de Valera, then leader of the opposition, remained outside, just as he stayed away from rugby games.
If he was the personification of Ireland, what kind of Ireland was it? He may not have been afraid of the British, but it seems he was terrified of the GAA and the Catholic hierarchy.
* Ryle Dwyer is the author of de Valera: The Man and the Myths
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