Written by Matt O’Donnell
Whether you come to the GAA or Gaelic games through Irish or American heritage (which we are lucky to have both of in our Nashville club), it’s easy to feel connected in self-determination, defiance, and revolution. That connection is easy to embody by remembering that when our oppressors came to keep us in line, they came for our leisure.
For Americans, they will think back to when the British government came to profit from our tea. For the Irish, memory may be best served by considering when they came for our games.
This year, August 4th will continue the glacial, yet powerful drive of Ireland’s “decade of centenaries” with commemorations of what we know as Gaelic Sunday. That day, which represents a vibrant balance of bold, systematic defiance and thankfully peaceful protest, is underrepresented as one of the tentpole acts of defiance against the rule of London in Ireland.
Scholarship on the GAA and the Irish Revolution has done much in recent years leading up to the centenary of these events to pull together the dual narratives of the organization as a driving revolutionary force and of its failure to adopt any official stance into one much more realistic view.
August 1918 was not the first time that we could have seen action taken against GAA fixtures. As early as 1914, during debates for the Day of Rest bill (regarding the legalities of work and activities on Sundays), an argument was made that Ireland deserved special dispensation for the principles that led Gaelic games to thrive and entertain. It was worried by many MP’s that holding the GAA in contempt of the bill for fixing matches on Sundays would cause great harm to Irish society, particularly to the working classes.
While it can never truly be said that all members of the British government were unsympathetic to the self-determination of Ireland, attitudes would change at its higher levels as the tide of revolution moved in. It’s important to remember that Gaelic games returned to prominence and organized in 1884 as part of a greater move to increase Gaelic identity in a time when a great number of the population could close their eyes and remember the Great Famine, its subsequent widespread emigration, and the holding down of any calls for Ireland being ruled locally from Dublin. It would only make sense that members of the GAA would be incredibly likely to join organizations such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Irish Volunteers, and others who lit the tinder box of Ireland.
It was easier to see the ties out in the open during the aftermath of the Easter Rising in April 1916. As many members of the GAA participated, Dublin Castle began to keep more of an eye on meetings held in Dublin, which were dubbed the “Central Council of the GAA.” Matches were a routine part of the day for prisoners held in Frongoch, Wales. Tournaments were held in November 1916 and March 1917 to benefit the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund, which overwhelmingly supported all political prisoners interred for Nationalist activity. In fact, the GAA rapidly because the highest source of finance for the fund, both through these tournaments and from collections taken at matches.
As the situation in Ireland began to be too much of a surge for the British government to hold back, it was decided in July 1918 to prohibit the holding of any public meetings in Ireland except under official permit. The GAA fell under this order, having been dubbed a “dangerous organization.” Shortly after, soldiers caused confrontations over matches in Offaly, Down, Kildare, and Cork. And so, on July 20th a unanimous decision was taken by those present at a GAA meeting that “no permits would be asked for under any conditions; and provisional councils, county committees, leagues and clubs were to be notified accordingly; and also, that no member was to participate in any competition if any permit had already been obtained.” Furthermore, they arranged that a mass fixture of matches would be set for 3pm on Sunday, August 4th.
When August 4th came, practically every hurling and football club affiliated with the GAA took part. Thanks to the size of the participation, exact metrics are hard to pin down for certain. The general accepted number of matches of either sport that occurred is placed at 1,500 (though numbers as high as 1,800 have been commonly used as the high end, as well). The August 5th edition of the Freeman’s Journal reported that 54,000 players took part, while speculation of any number between 45,000 and 100,000 was claimed by the newspaper Sport. The number of spectators that came to support the matches was titanic, and no attempt at putting a number on the crowds is readily available.
Dublin alone would see 24 matches played (22 football, 2 hurling). Seventeen matches were played in Kildare, where the county board decreed that any club that did not participate would face certain suspension. Cork would fix around 40 matches, though heavy rains would force most of them to be abandoned. Matches were also played between nationalist prisoners in a Belfast jail. In one minor victory for the authorities, Camogie players were barred from entering Croke Park. Instead, they played a match in the middle of Jones’ Road to a large crowd.
At this level of widespread civil disobedience, the British authorities were utterly powerless. One match report notes that there were a large crowd of police at a match, but only as ticketed spectators.
Gaelic Sunday is a true triumph in many ways. We can see it as a victory for the GAA in multiple ways. Not only did this mark an overt look towards a true statement by a previously a political facing organization, but as a beautiful expression of the way the sport is organized given that it was left to each county board to fix its own matches. The level of participation by every county is a mindblowing statement of the dedication to Gaelic games, whether you were standing up because the GAA represented something greater to your national identity or whether it was the fruition of the (likely long forgotten) debate on the Day of Rest bill in 1914. August 4th, 1918 is arguably the “largest, most widespread and successful act of public defiance against British rule in Ireland in the period between 1916 and 1922”. As previously stated, the fact that an act this size can be looked back on with clear certainty as a day of peaceful protest should gain it a greater place in the Irish Revolution.
How glad we are that the centenary of Gaelic Sunday again falls on a weekend so that every club, no matter where, can remember this as we watch the late stages of All Ireland Championships in both football and hurling. Or perhaps even better, especially at home in the NGAC, take the field to play Gaelic games ourselves.