‘From Jones’s Road to the craggy hillsides of the Kingdom the day was fought and won in fields no bigger than backyards, in stony pastures and on rolling plains … wherever posts could be struck and spaces cleared, the descendants of Fionn and the Fianna routed the seal of servitude. In one never to be forgotten tournament we crossed our hurleys with the lion’s claw and emerged victorious’. Tommy Moore of the Dublin club, Faughs.
After the 1916 Rising the GAA began to have new and unforeseen difficulties in the planning and organisation of games. Many members who had committed considerable energy into playing and administering within the organisation found themselves caught up in the wave of political activity as the Irish Volunteers grew in numbers and nationalistic fervour grew with the return of prisoners from Frongoch and other internment camps.
The Rising itself had caused major disruption to native games. During the latter part of 1916 there was intermittent harassment by the British military and police forces. A ban was introduced for special excursion trains to big GAA matches which continued into 1917. All the while, Sinn Fèin grew in popularity. This popularity was helped in no small way when news spread of the death of Kerry born Thomas Ashe, Volunteer leader at Ashbourne and noted GAA player whose demise resulted from forced feeding while he was in custody. His funeral drew an enormous crowd of sympathisers and a large number of GAA men all carrying hurls flanked his coffin during the funeral procession.
In 1918 Sinn Féin contested the general election winning 73 out of 105 seats for a stunning victory. These Sinn Féin MPs pledged not to attend the British parliament. The British Government responded by banning the wearing of Volunteer uniforms and the public carrying of arms. Volunteers in Clare, Tipperary and other counties appeared and conducted drills with hurleys instead of rifles. Tension was rising and the issue to bring matters to a head had its source on the battlefields of Europe where the British army and the Allies were pushing for victory while suffering severe losses and more troops were needed.
In April 1918 a decision was taken to extend conscription to Ireland, a decision which would elicit immediate and widespread negative reaction. The Central Council of the GAA voiced its opposition to conscription, pledging ‘to resist the attempt at the conscription of Irish manhood’. The intensity of the resistance to conscription surprised and annoyed the British authorities and repressive action towards organisations with avowed nationalistic leanings was severe. In May 1918 news came of the so-called German Plot, which alleged that plans were afoot for a German supported rebellion in Ireland to distract Britain from the war front in Europe. Sinn Féin and GAA leaders were immediately arrested. The Gaelic League was declared a ‘grave menace’ and both Sinn Féin and the Volunteers were declared illegal organisations. Thirteen counties across Ireland were declared ‘proclaimed’ districts while in other areas public meetings were banned.
In July 1918 the holding of any public meeting, except with an official permit, was announced. The police were ordered to prevent the public playing of games and other sports such as athletics. Acting immediately, the RIC began breaking up games and sports meetings. Reports from the period tell of the RIC uprooting and confiscating goal posts, while in Cork camogie matches were prevented. On 17th July the Ulster Senior Football Final was due to take place at Cootehill between Cavan and Armagh. However, as the game was about to start players were confronted with a large detachment of fully armed military. One of the players involved wrote that ‘it was impossible to play owing to the danger of tripping over some “Tommy’s” feet or falling on to a bayonet’. However, the game went ahead the next day when the players only had to face a smaller number of armed RIC without bayonets.
The GAA, unwilling to accept this ban, decided not to seek special permits which would have enabled games to go ahead. No member or unit of the Association was allowed to apply for such a permit and to do so would lead to immediate and indefinite suspension. On 20th July 1918 Central Council acted in a sensational manner and a letter from General Secretary Luke O’Toole ordered each of the 32 County Boards to call a special delegate meeting inside ten days to arrange for a series of GAA games to be played all over Ireland. On Saturday 3rd August a notice appeared in the national newspapers calling for ‘Gaels’ to come out and play Gaelic games on Sunday 4th August. The following day approximately 54,000 GAA members played games at the designated time of 3 p.m. In Dublin alone, 24 different teams played at different venues across the city and it was only at Croke Park, where a camogie match was scheduled to take place that there was any attempt to prevent matches taking place. As armed police, backed up by troops prevented entry to the grounds camogie players treated officers at Croke Park to the spectacle of a game of camogie outside on Jones Road! According to North Dublin oral tradition, Michael Collins and Harry Boland, months before the commencement of the War of Independence, cycled out to St. Margarets and played in the match there.
Gaelic Sunday even extended to jails and prison camps throughout Britain and Ireland. In Belfast, Gaelic Sunday was celebrated with an interprovincial football match where Munster and Ulster combined to play against Leinster and Connacht. One of the key players on the Leinster and Connacht team was Offaly man Sean Robbins, after whom the county’s Senior hurling trophy is named. The game in the prison yard ended in a diplomatic draw.
Gaelic Sunday in Offaly
Gaelic Sunday was seen as a great success for the association in Offaly with 11 matches known to have taken place in South Offaly alone. In Birr, the local team defeated Eglish in a football match. Some matches were played with both teams visiting another area, as part of the plan to confuse the authorities. Killoughey defeated Drumcullen in Ballyboy. Kinnitty defeated Knockhill in Killoughey, in a match played in a field behind Killoughey graveyard. The game was refereed by local GAA secretary Tom Scully who, before the game called for ‘Three cheers for the Irish Republic and to Hell with the British Empire’. In Banagher, the host club played Cloghan in football and Lusmagh in hurling. Coolderry hosted and defeated Birr hurlers, while Coolderry juniors traveled to Shinrone to play the local team. Kilcolman junior hurlers defeated Cadamstown. Knockbarron hosted the hurlers of Ballyboy.
In North Offaly, games were played at a variety of venues. ‘The proceedings were everywhere distinguished by the utmost enthusiasm and good order, evidencing in a marked agree the great popularity of our national forms of sport, the unanimity and magnificence of the displays, forming at the same time a striking tribute to the efficient organisation of Gaelic Sunday’ (Midland Tribune August 1918). Tullamore senior footballers traveled to Clara, and following a highly entertaining game against their hosts, emerged victorious on a scoreline of 23 points to 17. Clara junior footballers traveled in the opposite direction on the same afternoon and enjoyed a 1-6 to 1-2 victory over Tullamore in Ballyduff. Amongst the spectators in Ballyduff were two RIC men, who did not interfere in any way. Tullamore won the match by 1-6 to 0-5.’Tullamore were represented by a number of ‘veterans’ with Hogan and Hill doing excellent work’ (Tullamore Kings Co. Independent)
A team of hurlers from Tullamore traveled to Rahan to play the local team but, with both teams ready to play, a playing pitch wasn’t available and the game didn’t go ahead. Killeigh footballers traveled to Ballinagar, and won a tight contest by 5 points to 4. Ballycommon hosted Philipstown in senior football. A junior football match played in Geashill between Geashill and Philipstown resulted in a 1-0 to 0-1 victory for the host team. In Gorteen, the local team Killeigh junior hurlers defeated Rahan on a scoreline of 2-1 to 2-0. Philipstown was the venue for Durrow against Croghan in junior football.
Edenderry was a busy club on Gaelic Sunday, with a senior football march against Rhode in Clonmore. They also hosted a junior match against Clonmore and played and a junior hurling match against Tullamore in Rhode.
Success for the Gaelic Sunday initiative
Gaelic Sunday has been described as the greatest single act of defiance outside of the purely political sphere between 1916 and 1922. In every county, and in almost every parish, the call to play a game at 3 p.m. on Sunday 4th August was honoured. Torrential rain in the south and south west meant that many games in Kerry and Cork weren’t played, but players had in most cases turned up and would have played had the elements co-operated. There are stories from around the country of RIC men turning up to watch games over the ditch, and being charged to watch where they entered the playing field. In Athlone a large crowd of British soldiers watched the matches, there. In Kilkee, on the famous beach, a team of priests defeated a team of Christian Brothers in a football match. A hurling match in Mullinavat, Co. Kilkenny went ahead after the cleaning lady in the local RIC barracks reported to the local hurl manufacturer that she had heard of plans to raid his workshop and dispose of hurls prepared for a Gaelic Sunday match. The hurls were hidden in a pile of sawdust, thwarting the efforts of the police when they arrived. The match took place and finished in a 0-0 draw.
Gaelic Sunday was seen as a huge success by the organisers and a provided a platform for the GAA to grow and expand its reach and its influence. Later the British Government argued that in fact no prohibition of games had been intended. Instead, according to Government spokesmen, the ban only applied if a GAA event was used as an occasion of a political speech. However, the British Government’s assertion had obviously not reached every RIC unit as several had engaged in the blocking of matches taking place in the weeks leading to Gaelic Sunday
From a practical point of view one of the major gains achieved by Gaelic Sunday was that in the immediate aftermath there was no more harassment and obstruction by police. A near contemporary account of that day was provided by Tommy Moore of the Dublin club, Faughs, when he wrote:
‘From Jones’s Road to the craggy hillsides of the Kingdom the day was fought and won in fields no bigger than backyards, in stony pastures and on rolling plains … wherever posts could be struck and spaces cleared, the descendants of Fionn and the Fianna routed the seal of servitude. In one never to be forgotten tournament we crossed our hurleys with the lion’s claw and emerged victorious’.
Lister to Damien discuss this topic on Midland 103’s podcast.
Midland Tribune, July /August 1918
Freeman’s Journal, Vol 18 No. 352 August 5th 1918
Tullamore King’s County Independent, 10th August 1918
GAA Archives, 34.1 Letter from Luke O’Toole to County Boards
The Gaelic Athletic Association through History and Documents 1870–1920 Education Department, GAA Museum, Croke Park