Book Review: The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923.

The_GAA_&_Revolution_in_IrelandGearoid O Tuathaigh, editor

Collins Press, Cork 2015.

Reviewer: Barry Shepperd

Now that we have collectively entered that all-important and much discussed year in Irish history, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, we appear  to already be at saturation point in this ‘Decade of Centenaries’ in terms of commemoration, political proclamations, and efforts at claiming ownership of events.

In this collection Gearoid O Tuathaigh has assembled some of the most prominent Irish sports historians to explore aspects of the association’s history during Ireland’s turbulent revolutionary decade.

This edited collection by Gearoid O Tuathaigh seeks to explore those less well known stories of the period with specific focus upon the Gaelic Athletic Association.  Of course the GAA has long been associated with advanced nationalism as far back as the association’s inception in the 1880s.

Since that time many myths have been played up in the various regional histories of the organisation.  This reached a peak with the proliferation of official histories of local, regional and national studies which hit the shelves during the Association’s centenary year in 1984, some of which were sanctioned by various county boards and fed into long-standing myths.  Myths that have since been challenged by a number of sports historians.

In this collection O Tuathaigh has assembled some of the most prominent Irish historians (Ferriter) and sports historians around today (Rouse, McElligott, McAnallen etc.) to explore aspects of the association’s history during this turbulent decade.  While every chapter brings new themes to the table, it is perhaps more useful to look at chapters thematically where two or more chapters cover overlapping themes.

Paul Rouse states that “the story of the GAA in the years immediately before the 1916 Rising is, ultimately, the story of the triumph of play” rather than militant nationalism.

Paul Rouse’s chapter (Ch. 2) rightly acknowledges the GAA was primarily rooted in the development of a modern sporting organisation.  He states that “the story of the GAA in the years immediately before the 1916 Rising is, ultimately, the story of the triumph of play”.  While it was no doubt a sporting body, Rouse shows that the generation who saved the organisation after the 1890s from near collapse were nationalists, men who believed in an independent Ireland, and who accordingly incorporated nationalist ideals into the rules of the organisation, with bans on foreign games and membership of the British Army coming into force.

Similarly  Darby in his chapter echoes Rouse in arguing that a major part of the success of the GAA in the US is that it can be explained in purely sporting terms.

Darby’s chapter illustrates how in the Irish community a in the United States, as in Ireland, the GAA attracted both Constitutional and Advanced Nationalism, and at various points in its history acted as a platform for culture and the politics of both branches.  The split and reunion of the Irish Parliamentary Party were both keenly felt among GAA communities in America.

Nevertheless, Rouse points out the nationalist aspect of the GAA is just one part of the story.  Rouse expertly provides an analysis of the development of both sporting strands (football and hurling) on county and national levels, as well as changes in playing rules which elevated skill development and helped propel the sport as a viewing spectacle.

This took place in a larger picture, with the growth in other field sports such as Rugby and Soccer in Ireland at the same time, indicates that the rise of the GAA towards the revolutionary decade cannot be explained by an increase of nationalist fervour alone.  The increased nationalism was a factor, but not an overarching one, as it varied among GAA circles between counties.

There were conflicting ideas among members,some pushed a more radical agenda through the branches of the organisation and others were happy to see it merely as a sporting body.   These conflicting ideas are shown here on a local club level.  This approach is noteworthy because it illustrates how the GAA at this point permeated almost every level of life in Ireland, and it shows how the problems of trying to maintain a broad-based organisation were beset with conflicts on both a parochial and national level.

A Gaelic football match in the early 20th century, (Courtesy of GAA Museum).
A Gaelic football match in the early 20th century, (Courtesy of GAA Museum).

This chapter also explores the problems with attempting to produce a professional sporting spectacle while maintaining an amateur ethos.   The problems of balancing a work and sporting life, as well as increased adherence to nationalism show a multi-layered organisation; an organisation beset with local conflicts at the same time as trying to show a united national purpose, as well as a need to compete as a sporting spectacle with professional rivals.  This is an important opening chapter which illustrates the complexity of the association and its affiliates, a theme which runs through the collection.

The GAA as a sporting success story

There was an increase in  the leisure  time available for different classes of people, some of whom now chose to spend that leisure time engaged in spectator sports such as the GAA.  Citing the draw of inter-county Gaelic games, Duffy and O Tuathaigh argue that with crowds of 18,000 to 20,000 being accommodated in watching football and hurling finals in the various grounds which the GAA used, this put the organisation in a healthy financial position.

Indeed it was the 60,000 aggregate crowds which attended the 1913 Croke Memorial football final and replay showed the need for the GAA to address the problem of a lack of suitable headquarters which was capable of hosting such numbers of spectators.

The acquisition of the ground on Jones’ Road Dublin (ratified in October 1913) from a former secretary of the organisation, Frank Brazil Dinneen illustrated tensions within the GAA which were also examined in the previous chapter. Dinneen had strong republican leanings and was unpopular among some within the GAA for this reason. However any feelings of advanced nationalism among officials were carefully muted to keep Croke Park accessible for as broad a spectrum of nationalism as possible.

The GAA tried to stay out of the acrimonious splits within the Irish nationalist movement.

This broad-church approach was tested with the outbreak of WWI when the split in the Irish Volunteers occurred between those who listened to Redmond’s plea and those who rejected his call to arms, the GAA would maintain its non-political and non-sectarian stance right through this period.  Indeed this was not the last time the organisation would be at the forefront of attempting to bring different sides together.

In the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War the GAA made strides at the seemingly impossible task of reconciliation.  The draconian measures brought in by the British in the aftermath of the Rising had pushed moderates to the margins, and the GAA wasn’t much different in that respect.  Many of the restrictions brought in, such as curtailment of rail travel and public assembly without a license put a severe dent in GAA business.  Therefore many within the organisation drifted from the Irish Parliamentary Party to the ever more popular Sinn Fein movement.

Chapters by Ross O’Carroll on the First World War (Ch. 6), the 1916 Rising and Aftermath by Richard McElligott (Ch. 8), and the War of Independence period by Mike Cronin (Ch. 9), all show the GAA during a period of war and upheaval.  O’Carroll rightly points out that the subject of the GAA and what was looked upon as a war involving exclusively foreign powers had never been formally discussed or documented at large.

O’Carroll explores a GAA on the eve of world war in its strongest position, with games flourishing in all provinces.  With the commencement of hostilities, the GAA’s programme of events were interrupted, despite a steely determination to carry on regardless in an effort to show that the association was far removed politically and ideologically from what was seen as a war for imperial gain.

While the GAA was no different from the IRFU or the Irish Football Association (at that time an all Ireland body), in that they were severely interrupted by the war, especially when Britain entered, they were different in the stance the adopted.  The IRFU were, as a body pro-war. Of course, the GAA could not adopt such a stance given its nationalist history over the previous thirty years.  This did not exempt the association from the impact of war time with many activities curtailed.  O’Carroll explores this impact alongside the sports of Rugby, Soccer and athletics to show the uncertainty and sense of crisis during the period.  There was little chance of future planning when daily life was so severely interrupted.

In this chapter it is shown that Redmond’s call for Irish Volunteers to join the war effort infiltrated the GAA despite its pronounced nationalist leanings.  Numerous examples are provided of men who fought and in some cases died during the period, alongside details of their clubs in the various counties shows how Redmond’s plea fell upon receptive ears throughout the country.


The GAA, the Easter Rising and the Great War

Croke Park in 1928.
Croke Park in 1928.

The immense upheaval from the outbreak of WWI until the cessation of the Civil War a decade later provided the organisation with numerous problems.

Throughout the disruption the vision to complete the necessary work on the headquarters never waned, and the massacre in the grounds in November 1920 cemented the GAA and Croke Park’s place within the broader narrative of the Irish revolutionary period.

McElliggot’s chapter on the effects of the Easter Rising show an association which was reflective of wider Irish society on the eve of the rebellion with the majority of members adhering to the constitutional nationalism of the Irish Parliamentary Party.   This constitutional leaning was however, in grave danger of usurpation with the growing appeal of armed revolt and frustration with constitutional nationalism which had been growing in the years prior to 1916.   While the split among the Irish Volunteers was decisively in favour of Redmond and his brand of constitutional nationalism, McElliggot shows that the pattern of this split did not follow an even path through all clubs and indeed county boards of the association.

While the Central Council of the GAA remained officially outside of the Rebellion, many within the association’s membership were actively involved.

While the Central Council of the GAA remained officially outside of the Rebellion, many within the association’s membership were actively involved.  McElliggot shows that the GAA, like the wider society was caught unawares by the events of the Rising.  Indeed, this chapter shows how the Rising was indeed ‘a conspiracy within a conspiracy’ with the association’s central body unaware of what was about to transpire, highlighted by the fact that some of the combatants such as Harry Boland and J.J. Walsh were attending the association’s annual conference only the day before the Rising with central figures blissfully unaware of certain member’s intentions.

The aftermath of the Rising shows how GAA games were curtailed by the announcement of martial law on 25 April 1916.  Many leading members as well as the grass roots were arrested in the aftermath of the failed rebellion.   This chapter argues that this had the effect of radicalising many within the association’s membership.

The Frongoch prison camp has become well known as the location where the forthcoming Irish war of independence was in effect planned and prepared for.  What has been less well known was the flourishing of Gaelic games within its walls.

This is shown here to have had another galvanising effect upon internees along with the Irish language classes which prisoners attended.   This aspect is further explored admirably by Mark Reynolds (Ch. 10) who shows the role Gaelic games played among internees of various prison camps from 1916 right through to the War of Independence.   He further explores the politics of support for political prisoners and its impact upon an organisation which throughout the period attempted to balance itself between many interested parties which were often on opposing ideological sides.

Cormac Moore’s chapter on Luke O’Toole is another chapter which explores elements of both the GAA and the period which have to date remained relatively unexplored.  O’Toole endeavoured to court all shades of nationalist opinion.

These sentiments were reciprocated by the various factions who sought the GAA’s galvanising powers when needed.  Factional politics was never far from the surface and this chapter illustrates how O’Toole put the GAA above his own particular brand of national politics in order to see all shades of nationalist opinion utilise the association (provided of course that they didn’t associate with foreign games).

Luke O’Toole was central to the GAA’s development after the Easter Rising

O’Toole was central to the GAA over the period of the Rising.  With a number of high-ranking officials arrested, he even contemplated taking on the task of running the association single-handed.  He was notably part of a delegation which travelled to London to meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer to lobby for exemption to the proposed British Entertainment Tax.

The GAA and the nationalist revolution

O’Toole was also central to one of the milestones of the GAA during this period, ‘Gaelic Sunday’, 4 August 1918, when approximately 100,000 Gaels took part in an act of defiance against the British administration by refusing to apply for licenses to play Gaelic Games.  This day, and the success of it have become central to the story of an organisation which defied the British Empire.  This, along with other incidents such as Bloody Sunday in effect wrote the GAA into the central narrative of the fight for Irish independence.

James McConnell’s chapter (Ch. 5) on the relationship between the GAA and the Irish Parliamentary Party explain much about the politics which shaped the period outside of the sporting sphere.  It explores what could be termed the battle for the soul of the GAA between those aligned to the Irish Parliamentary Party and the infinitely more secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood. [2]

On ‘Gaelic Sunday’, 4 August 1918, approximately 100,000 Gaels took part in an act of defiance against the British administration by refusing to apply for licenses to play Gaelic Games. 

While the IRB faction perhaps won out, McConnell points out, with the example of the IPP’s Willie Redmond, that the GAA wasn’t used solely for political gain.  Redmond was seen to be a huge fan of the Clare All-Ireland winning team of 1914.

Donal McAnallen notes that the GAA in the North (Ch.7) had to face up to a ‘new and heavily protected frontier’ with the partitioning of the country.  He argues that divisions between Gaels and Unionism were long established before the revolutionary decade by exploring some local examples where opposition to Gaelic games were formed as tit-for-tat reactions to objections to Orange walks, sadly showing problems which exist right up to this day.

Restrictions imposed upon Gaelic games on Sundays show religious and cultural differences which were difficult to overcome in their own right, while the infiltration of Gaelic clubs by Irish Volunteers were more problematic.  The latter issue led to mass distrust of the organisation by Unionists, especially at the outset of WWI.

The stifling, at times paranoid and increasingly poisonous atmosphere between members of the association and northern Unionists is illustrated through the use of contemporary newspaper reports and various minute records from GAA meetings show how keenly felt these divisions were at a grassroots level.


Mike Cronin shows the makeup of membership as almost wholly non-combatant (with an estimated 0.006 per cent of the total IRA membership being actively involved in the GAA

The chaos of the Rising and its aftermath leads into the following chapter, Mike Cronin’s look at the association in a time of guerrilla warfare which took in the War of Independence and the Civil War.  Cronin shows the makeup of membership as almost wholly non-combatant (with an estimated 0.006 per cent of the total IRA membership being actively involved in the GAA[3]).

This chapter also shows that despite the period of upheaval, killing and splits, the GAA endeavoured to keep to as normal a programme as possible, while trying to remain above any factional strife.  Perhaps one of the most notable efforts of the central board was to try to see Gaelic games take root and flourish in Ulster in what was a hostile territory during a very turbulent period.  This chapter shows an organisation under immense strain, trying to mend splits and promote the sport under the most trying of circumstances.  Cronin endeavours to show, not a revolutionary organisation, but an organisation trying to effectively manage the membership body which contained a number of revolutionaries.

It is of course, impossible to tell the story of the GAA during this period without the mention of the Bloody Sunday killings on 21 November 1920, in which British forces broke into a GAA match at Croker park and killed 14 people, including a player. The incident gave the GAA headquarters at Croke Park almost mythical status in the fight for Irish independence.

Eoghan Corry’s chapter (Ch. 11) on Camogie,  sheds some light women’s experiences in the GAA during the period.  Corry’s study of Camogie in Revolutionary Ireland puts forth the interesting argument that not only were adherents of this branch of Gaelic Games part of the larger movement which was involved in the national struggle to which the GAA has become central to.  They were, as Corry argues, fighting on all fronts at once, with perhaps the most dominant obstacles being the masculine ideology of the GAA which was organised in conjunction with several patriarchal institutions.

Auxiliaries in Cork city.
Auxiliaries in Cork city.

This chapter is a very interesting one mainly due to the exploration of conflict outside of the national and traditional political struggles of the period.

It charts the struggle of camogie against the larger, male dominated branches of the ‘Gaelic family’.  Not only that, it shows how branches of the sport were in conflict over whether to stand alongside the rest of Gaelic games with people of all classes or move from the traditional Sunday play in order to shield the lady participants from the ‘rough working class crowd’ associated with spectators.[1]

The exploration of elements of gender politics and class is something which should be welcomed in the historiography of the Irish revolutionary period as it reflects a more complex time when not only national politics was facing challenges but also domestic and gender-based politics was in a state of flux.

The closing chapters by Seán Moran (Ch. 13) and Diarmaid Ferriter (Ch. 14) give fine overviews of the association and the period respectively which compliment the proceeding chapters.

Like the rest of nationalist Ireland, the GAA was divided over the Civil War of 1922-23. Darby explains how the signing of the Treaty was looked upon as an endpoint in terms of interest in Irish politics in the GAA in America.  The Civil War further alienated the majority of Irish-America who couldn’t understand why Irishmen were killing other Irishmen; a reaction that was not uncommon in Ireland itself.

Throughout the various chapters in the book reproductions of letters, posters and sections of pamphlets are employed.  This feature enhances the reader’s experience by engaging in primary source material that many lay readers may not be familiar with.

This has the effect of engaging both the serious scholar of history and the sporting fan.  Perhaps one element which could be construed as negative is the absence of any female historian voices.  This does not detract from the quality of the historians which do contribute to this edited collection; it is perhaps a reflection of the fact that sporting history in Ireland remains the domain of the male academic.



Despite overlapping themes, which are of course unavoidable, this edited collection does much to dispel some of the myths which have arisen over the years around such an iconic organisation, many of which were promoted in regional and provincial studies during the centenary year of 1984.  The overall picture of the GAA is an organisation which attempted to remain dignified during the period, a period which witnessed much hardship for all concerned, including central members of the GAA as well as many grass roots supporters.

The overall picture of the GAA is an organisation which attempted to remain dignified during the period, which witnessed much hardship for all concerned.

I felt that chapter on Irish America, while it provides an excellent insight into Irish America and the GAA, and the freedom with which the organisation could exert power and influence (sharply contrasted with the stifling atmosphere on Irish soil in the North of Ireland), the chapter may have been enhanced to see what, if any, conflict there was between Irish American GAA circles and the British diaspora in the United States.

Overal, the book shows shows an organisation which attempted to stick to its ethos while those around it attempted to use the association for political ends.  This book will not appeal to all who are interested in this pivotal decade, especially those who seek out purely military studies.  Nevertheless, using the GAA as a barometer of Irish opinion in the period (as some of the contributors do), this collection gives a great insight into various strands of Irish life such as political, cultural and social, in a decade which will be dissected and discussed vociferously for a number of years to come.



[1] Cormac Moore, Chapter 11, p. 214

[2] T. Garvin, The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics

[3] Mike Cronin Chapter 9, p. 156.

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