Contributed by Ida Milne
Some of my strongest childhood memories derive from the GAA. Playing in family groups on the beach in Courtown, when a radio was switched on and the Dads were collectively lured away to the hypnotic sound of GAA commentator extraordinaire Micheal O’Hehir, or watching my father and the neighbours hurl on the pitch on our farm as I struggled with a downsized camán, or going to Ferns to welcome the team home from Croke Park with the traditional mountain of burning tyres, the column of black smoke drawing people from miles around to the reception, as Wexford celebrated yet another All-Ireland hurling championship win. In the 60s the Rackard brothers were legends; when Nicky came into the yard to dose the cattle we hung around, starstruck.
The GAA was and is part of my cultural background. The fact that we went to a different church on a Sunday in no way impinged on that. But in recent years, I have noticed that historians writing about the involvement of Protestants in the GAA have tended to focus on their otherness, rather than their sharing in the same culture. For me, the GAA was and is part of the ordinariness of life, not the difference.
When The GAA, A People’s History, was published recently, I eagerly anticipated that at last here was a bottom-up history of the association ideally positioned to chronicle the everyday involvement of members of the Church of Ireland and other non-Catholic denominations or belief systems.
Here follows the book’s entire discussion of Protestant involvement in the organisation as it appears in the chapter ‘Religion’:
“Throughout its history the GAA has had high-profile members who were Protestant. The most obvious of these is Sam Maguire, after whom the trophy for the All Ireland football championship is named. The GAA has made much of its Protestant members, but the reality is that Protestants have been greatly underrepresented in the Association. In the north this has been the product of the bind between religious and political allegiance, and in the south it was the product of a range of different factors. Ostentatious involvement of the Catholic Church in GAA affairs was a partial explanation, but there were others, not least a divided education system. Across Ireland, the schools which dominated hurling and Gaelic football were, for the most part, run by the Catholic church….by contrast, Gaelic games were not a significant presence in non-Catholic schools.”
I quote this to show that the authors fail, even by gauge of the meagre word count, to discuss the issues in any meaningful way. And then to the content. I would contend the authors’ argument about the division of the educational system does not apply until the advent of free secondary education in the 1960s. Until then, many people, including Protestants, did not attend secondary school; and anyhow involvement with the sport was at club rather than school level. The GAA developed a complex system of underage training. Some Protestant secondary schools have had GAA teams, and have provided county level players. One wonders whether the authors have any inkling that there are many Protestants who have played for county teams throughout the history of the GAA. I would have thought that Jack Boothman, as a former president, at least deserved to share the billing of ‘most obvious’ Protestant in the Association with Sam Maguire. Or even Douglas Hyde, who is mentioned for other reasons. The term ‘Protestant’ does not even appear in the index, another reflection of the import the authors accord the issue.
Their discussion, or even dismissal, of the issues seems to me to be confined by a clichéd image of Protestants as being somewhat less than Fior Ghaels.
The big shame here is that the authors have lost an opportunity to document the involvement of Protestants with the GAA at local level. The people who picked up a hurl to puck a ball to their neighbours, the players who took on aliases to avoid the criticism of those few Protestants who favoured a strict observance of the Lord’s Day (Protestants, like Catholics, are heterogenous rather than homogenous), the people who loaned or donated pitches, often gratis, or who, like my father, ploughed, sowed and rolled land to prepare the playing field. People like my niece and nephews, who play GAA now, and my grandfather, who spent his Sundays driving players to matches. Ordinary Protestant people who participate within their communities in an extraordinary organisation whose success is based on ordinary community values.
Ida Milne is a PhD student at the School of Histories and Humanities, Trinity College, Dublin.
THE GAA, A PEOPLE’S HISTORY, by Mike Cronin, Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse, is published by the Collins Press, 2009.