What happened in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday passed into the story of the Irish revolution.
t became a key reference point, presented as evidence of the violence of the British regime, of callousness and cruelty, of disregard for the lives of the ‘mere’ Irish. It was the ultimate indictment of empire. That the brutality was compounded by the crass denials and cover-ups was taken as further proof of what lay at the heart of British rule in Ireland.
Naturally, Bloody Sunday also became a touchstone in the history of the GAA. The legacy of that day included a real and genuine desire to remember those people who had been murdered at a Gaelic football match. The naming of Croke Park’s Hogan Stand — after Michael Hogan, the Tipperary player who died in a pool of blood on the field where he was supposed to be playing a game — and the subsequent unveiling of plaques were rooted in a sincere sense of loss.
But Bloody Sunday also got absorbed into the GAA’s history in a very particular way. In independent Ireland, it was pushed forward time and again as compelling, incontrovertible evidence of the GAA’s identification with nationalism and, in particular, with the nationalist struggle.
More than that, it became something that could be thrown at the GAA’s rivals. In Waterford in 1931, in the midst of a dispute between the GAA and soccer authorities, Willie Walsh, the chairman of the Waterford GAA County Board, asked where the rugby union, the soccer association or the hockey association were on Bloody Sunday. He noted that the Black and Tans had not gone to Dalymount Park or Lansdowne Road to look for rebels.
Instead, it was at Croke Park that they “performed deeds which shocked the civilised world”. “They knew friend from foe, and it was an unfailing experience,” he added. “The Tans did not run into men like the directors and players of Waterford soccer club.”
The backdrop to this was the GAA’s enduring desire to imagine that it was in the vanguard of the revolution. The reality is much more complex.
By 1920, the association reflected the growing radicalisation of Irish society. There were some GAA members who were radical before and during 1916 — but almost none were involved in the Rising. Indeed, the number of GAA men fighting for the British army in the Great War emphasises the extent to which the association was made up of moderate nationalists.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of how this changed during 1917 and 1918 is to look at the relationship between the British government and the GAA’s leading officials. In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, the GAA sought to engage with the British authorities to safeguard its sporting operations.
The first episode concerned government attempts to enforce an entertainments tax on sporting and other recreational bodies throughout the United Kingdom. After asking to be exempted from this, the GAA’s central council sent a deputation to General Sir John Maxwell to repeat the request and to arrange the provision of special trains to matches.
It speaks volumes for the GAA’s priorities that its officials attended a meeting with Maxwell. After all, it was he who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the British army in Ireland during the Rising.
Using extensive martial law powers, he crushed the rebellion. In its immediate aftermath, he was the chief architect of government policy and oversaw a series of courts martial that led to 171 prisoners being tried and 90 sentenced to death.
Fifteen of those death sentences were carried out over 10 days in May 1916. It was also Maxwell who had presided over the internment of more than 2,000 of the 3,500 men and women arrested after the Rising. Most of this number had no connection with the rebellion and included hundreds of GAA members. Yet the central council of the GAA was prepared to meet him — and prepared to do business with him.
But as the Great War lingered on and as public sentiment about the rebels of 1916 changed, the GAA began to shift position. In the week after the Rising, the GAA had issued a statement denying any involvement. Now, though, as 1917 progressed, it began identifying with the emergence of Sinn Féin as a potent political force, one that was in the process of destroying the old Irish Parliamentary Party.
When Clare paraded before matches in the 1917 All-Ireland Football Championship, they did so in front of a banner that read ‘Up De Valera’; it was a marked change from 1914 when they had paraded behind the name of Willie Redmond, the Irish Parliamentary Party MP.
By 1918, any possibility that the GAA might seriously consider negotiating with the British authorities in Ireland had vanished.
The upturn in nationalist sentiment permeated the GAA. When the secretary’s position of the Leinster Council of the GAA came up for election in 1917, it boiled down to a contest between the devoutly republican Jack Shouldice and the apolitical AC Harty. Shouldice had been interned, so his fellow radical Harry Boland spoke for him at the meeting. The result was victory for Shouldice by 16 votes to one (with Harty presumably being the one who voted for himself).
This increased militancy came to the fore in April 1918, when the GAA joined a broad alliance of nationalist bodies and the Catholic Church in opposing British government plans to introduce conscription to Ireland as the Great War dragged on.
The GAA pledged “to resist by any means in our power the attempt conscription of Irish manhood, and we call on all our members to give effect to the foregoing resolution”, and its leaders shared campaign platforms with trade unionists, church leaders and politicians.
This militancy was further evidenced by the playing of numerous matches in support of the Republican Prisoners’ Dependants’ Fund, with republican leaders such as Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins frequently in attendance.
It was also clear also in the retrospective admonishment of the Central Council of the GAA for having entered into negotiations with General Maxwell in 1916. The Central Council of 1918 was not likely to make such a move; indeed, it worked to push the GAA towards greater militancy.
Ultimately, Bloody Sunday was cast as an appalling reaction against this trend.
Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin