Gaelic Athletic Association 1884 – 2009: 1 In Ulster…

A few years back I remember talking to a senior DUP politician about the fact that the two populations (despite a considerable amount of Peace Processing that’s what they substantially remain) in Northern Ireland each seem to have quite separate public lives that essentially remain locked to one another… it was that thought which prompted me to suggest to the Newsletter’s Sam McBride the small scale inert character of the Twelfth at the hub of many rural Protestant populations may have be obvious to those with family in the Orange Order, but little of it comes across to those of us on the outside… To a large extent, the GAA is an equivalent ‘private public life’ for Northern Irish Catholic society… Reviewing: The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009
My own first memories of the GAA was in trailing after my father to an string of county matches including the last time Antrim played at an Ulster final (at Casement Park when they were also soundly beaten by Cavan), and some club matches at grounds where sometimes it was far from obvious where the pitch began and ended. Sometimes in places (when the foreign games ban was still in places) where the soccer posts had to have extensions attached)… In my soccer/cricket/rugby mad father’s case it was the sport that mattered.

In fact the GAA is a simple but efficient bureaucratic organisation whose early history was often a lot more complex in its relationship to those foreign codes it once outlawed than is obvious at firs glance, as an excellent series of essays The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 from the Irish Academic Press outlines in some considerable detail…

I have to confess that when I first got the book I ripped straight to Chapter Six, The GAA in Ulster… before calmly going back to the beginning and reading patiently the whole way through… But, according toe David Hassan, Senior Lecturer at University of Ulster, it seems that there was a deal of support from Unionist circles right at the very beginning, which he argues was pretty much killed off when the Irish Republican Brotherhood effectively took control of the 1887 annual Congress after the tempestuous Michael Cusack was dismissed from his post as secretary.

There were no Ulster delegates (much of the early development seems to have taken place in Monaghan, Cavan and Fermanagh), but the Association received 150 letters protesting the take over from clubs across Ulster… The turbulence only drew to close with the formation of the Ulster Council of the GAA in March 1903… In fact right through the book you get a sense of several sets of creative tensions inside the organisation that in combination create the compelling force it has become in Irish society, both north and south.

In Northern Ireland, particularly after partitition. Hassan:

…the GAA in the north came to fulfil a range of fucntion for the people on the ground. Firstly, GAA Clubs existed as a repository of meaning for those interested in Gaelic games and keen to promote a sense of Irish nationalism. In a state where the very idea of expressing an Irish identity was problematic for some, the GAA provided a relatively safe haven around which like minded nationalists could cohere.

Secondly it is clear that the GAA was first and foremost an important, possibly the most important, cultural outlet for the nationalist community of Northern Ireland. Whilst it was undoubtedly politicall when it needed to be, for the most part it was – and still is – an organisation that affords considerable pleasure, pride and identity with all things Irish for its patrons.

Ultimately the GAA in Northern Ireland fulfilled an important counter hegemonic function for northern nationalists in the absense of any alternative outlet for them to protest their long-standing subjugation.

However he goes on to note the irony in how UK taxpayer’s money have gone into bolstering and improving the fortunes of Ulster Football in particular, both at club and county level through aid from Sport Northern Ireland. Support which Hassan notes “has allowed GAA grounds in Northern Ireland to develop at such a rate that they have become the envy of others throughout the rest of the island.” Anyone who knew the Holywood club in the 60s and 70s (then known as the Thomas Russells, now St Pauls) will remember the ‘plate-contoured’ pitch regularly brought under control by the good offices of the local Cricket club (not to mention arithmetically challenged referees), will understand the huge contrast with a modern pitch and facilities, and undreamed of successes on the pitch…

Hassan goes on to recount attacks on GAA clubs, the occupation of the Crossmaglen Club by the British army, and murder of prominent members of the Association throughout the Troubles… In some respects though after a few references in the first part of the Ulster chapter, there is little sense of how the GAA is perceived beyond its core community… There is no mention of the Darren Graham incident, or to the fact that amongst the few Protestant players there are in Northern Ireland tend to filter out long before reaching senior levels in the game…

This is probably the only disappointing aspect of the chapter’s treatment of Ulster, particularly given the powerful analysis by Gearoid O Tuathaigh in the book’s closing chapter, The GAA as a force in Irish Society: An Overview on the challenges facing both the organisation and wider Irish society in the future…

More of that tomorrow….

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty