The period 1916-1924 had a profound impact on the Gaelic Athletic Association. Until 1916 the Association had been nationalist in name only and had stayed away from becoming directly involved in politics.
After the 1916 Rising Mathew Nathan, Under-Secretary, accused the Association of helping plan the Rising. The GAA issued a response to the Rebellion Commission (and the media) emphasising their non-political and non-sectarian nature but pointed out that its members were at perfect liberty to join any political organisation they may choose.
This non-involvement was soon to change though. At a meeting on 5 November 1916, the GAA, as an organisation, decided to send a delegation to a Dublin Corporation conference for the purpose of forming a Political Prisoners Amnesty Association. At the same meeting permission was given to the ‘Irish National Aid Volunteer Dependants Fund’ to run a fund raising tournament.
The GAA had now ‘entered the political arena’ and were set firmly on a collision course with the British authorities.
Early in 1916 the British had introduced an ‘Amusement Tax’ which was to be levied on all forms of games and sports. The GAA had sought exemption from this tax and had even travelled to Westminster to meet the leading Irish MP’s who introduced them to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. After November’s decision however attitudes hardened on both sides-the British now decided that in order to qualify for exemption the Association would have to radically change or delete their rules relating to the ban on foreign sports and membership of the armed forces. Unsurprisingly the GAA, at a December 1916 meeting, unanimously rejected the call to change their rules. Records held by the GAA Museum show that complaints of police harassment at GAA matches grew at this time.
Following the Rising, Dublin Castle used emergency powers to curtail the movement of traffic and towards the end of 1916 permission was refused to the major railway firms to run ‘special trains’- the trains that brought GAA fans to matches, in particular to Croke Park. As a result, attendances dropped dramatically and gate receipts plummeted. The Croke Cup competitions were severely affected and the Junior All-Ireland Championships had to be cancelled. In May 1917 the Governing Body took the decision, on financial grounds, to discontinue all work connected to Croke Park; this included the full-time caretaker who had to move out of the house given to him as part of his employment contract.
In 1918 the British Authorities informed Luke O’Toole that no hurling or football games, local or otherwise, would be permitted unless a permit was obtained from Dublin Castle. The GAA, at their meeting of July 20 1918, unanimously agreed that no such permit be applied for under any conditions and that any person applying for a permit, or any player playing in a match in which a permit had been obtained, would be automatically suspended from the Association. In a further act of defiance the Council organised a series of matches throughout the country for Sunday August 4 1918. Matches were openly played throughout the country with an estimated 54,000 members taking part. This became known as Gaelic Sunday.
The 1919 decision to expel Irish Civil Servants who had taken the obligatory Oath of Allegiance caused widespread resentment at grassroots level. The governing body had, in effect, disqualified thousands of public workers (including all national school teachers) who now had to choose between their livelihood (and the attached oath) or the Association. The GAA took this decision as they needed to present a united nationalist front to the British. The Association would have been ridiculed if they were openly defiant of British rule in Ireland while at the same time contained members who pledged an oath to the British monarch. Perhaps to avert a possible split, the Association lobbied ‘National Aid’ to donate some of the funds originally meant for Prisoners Dependants (to which the GAA had donated £700) to those Civil Servants who resigned in favour of the Association. It was also decided to hold an inter-provincial tournament to raise funds for them.
The Irish Civil War had an impact on the Association with former team mates now finding themselves on different sides of a bitter conflict. In December 1922 a Cork suggestion that a special All-Ireland Convention be called ‘for the purpose of considering ways and means towards peace’ was rejected as the Association did not think it possible to convene a ‘representative Congress’ at present but they pledged to work with ‘any body or committee likely to bring about peace and unity amongst the people’. It was on the playing fields after the Civil War that the GAA played its part in bringing former enemies together.
Just as the issue of prisoners had brought the Association into the political domain it was this issue that was to end the Association’s involvement. In 1924 Kerry, Limerick and Cork informed the Central Council that they were refusing to take part in their respective fixtures in protest at the continued detention of anti-treaty prisoners. Munster, Connacht and London all intimated that they would not take part in the upcoming 1924 Tailteann Games until all prisoners had been released. The Central Council acted quickly and convened a special meeting. Punishments (in the form of walkovers) were rescinded on the condition that the offending counties would compete in the rescheduled fixtures. Central Council had realised that the issue of prisoners had the potential to split the Association down political lines and decided there and then that politics would be firmly left outside of the Associations hence forth.