The GAA - Roots in Rebellion
The GAA, which was founded in 1884 in Thurles County Tipperary, is probably the biggest sporting organisation in Ireland. It is also played in other countries where there is a strong Irish community. It was set up at a time when many people, mostly Republicans,saw the need to revive our culture which was almost wiped out by the British.
Since the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion and the Act of Union in 1801 Britain tried even more to suppress opposition to its rule. Draconian laws were brought in to suppress all things Irish such as making it illegal for schools to teach the language and other things Irish.
An Gorta Mór had a massive effect on our people with many dying of hunger and millions forced to emigrate. This was deliberate policy and it had a devastating effect. Irish Republicans and others knew that to counter the British they had to set up structures with the view of rebellion. Among the number of organisations formed was the GAA and although some of the founders were opposed to armed actions others saw the potential in its growth. Although there were conservative elements such as catholic church people it was driven by women and men who had a clear vision about how to get thousands involved in politics.
Some may argue the British weren't concerned about this revival but they weren't to know that behind the scenes revolutionaries involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) were discussing armed rebellion. This came to be the case with the Easter Rising in 1916. Most of those involved in the Rising were members of the GAA and within a few short years clubs started to spring up named after those executed.
The GAA went on to become a thriving organisation with every county setting up clubs and competitions such as the All-Ireland football,hurling and camogie championships attracting massive crowds. Soccer, rugby and other sports were also becoming popular and the GAA banned their players from participating in them. They also prohibited foreign games being played at grounds and banned members of the RUC and the British army from joining. For years this was supported by most GAA members and supporters but to appease Unionists they lifted those bans.
The GAA in the Six Counties faced many challenges with members being killed, harassed on their way to games and grounds destroyed. These attacks were carried out by unionist gangs supported by the British establishment. The British army occupied GAA grounds such as Casement Park in Belfast and Crossmaglen in South Armagh. This didn't deter people from playing the games.
Hurling, football, camogie and handball are played by amateurs and there are debates about whether they should go professional. Many argue that if this happened it would seriously affect the games at grass-root level. In recent years we have seen Sky tv buying some games and if this was to continue it would mean that some counties would benefit while the majority would find it hard to survive.
What is the future for the GAA? It has the potential to grow even stronger but the hierarchy need to consult its members before it makes big decisions such as the refurbishment of Casement Park in Belfast. This is an issue that has been going on for four years and as I write there is still no sign of it being resolved.
Written by Pádraic Mac Coitir and carried in Issue 2 of An Spréach Magazine.