It was just 50 years ago that a watershed congress of the GAA brought the curtain down on ‘The Ban’, the most acrimonious, controversial measure in the history of the organisation. The Ban – or Rule 27 – was the rule whereby, under pain of suspension, no GAA member could play or support foreign games.
The ban against the playing of ‘garrison games’ – soccer, rugby, hockey and cricket – had been adopted in 1886, but had been later extended to attending foreign games and, in theory, even to attending foreign dances. Support for the measure was highest in the early days, but as time went on the fervour had weakened. By the ’60s, the removal of the ban had become a regular feature at every annual congress, and the citadel was finally breached in 1971 and the landmark decision was taken.
But it was the method of implementation of the ban that created much amusement for the general public. The ban needed to be enforced by a specially chosen Vigilance Committee, whose membership remained a secret, and who reported any breach directly to the County Board chairman, for appropriate sanctions.
However, given the Irish antipathy to informers (‘spies’ and ‘Gestapo’ were terms often mentioned), finding members to act on a Vigilance Committee proved next to impossible. And since it required a vigilance committee report to confirm culpability – no other evidence being acceptable – it followed that the ban was widely and blatantly ignored.
Towards the end, the Mayo County Board decided that, because of the problem in finding volunteers, the whole board would be constituted as a vigilance committee, meaning that everyone could be equally labelled a spy.
Circumventing the ban, naturally enough, turned out to be easy, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
On one occasion, Castlebar Mitchels claimed that their victors, Ballina Stephenites had fielded one John Finlay who, the previous Saturday, had played a soccer match in Coleraine. Their objection to the result duly came before the County Board, but the Stephenites countered that, because no member of the Vigilance Committee had actually seen him play, the charge could not stick.
The Castlebar delegate had what he thought was his trump card. From his pocket, he produced a letter from the secretary of Coleraine affirming that, yes, Finlay had played there a week before. However, the evidence was not conclusive enough for the chairman, who refused to entertain the letter and, insisting that the rules were the rules, judged that Castlebar had no case.
When Mulranny objected to a game won by Westport because the latter had fielded two players – Walsh and O’Grady – ‘well known to play another code’, it looked like a case cut and dried. Furthermore, it was claimed, the two had been heard to openly admit, ‘in Chris Connaughton’s’ that they were players of a foreign game.
Not good enough, ruled the chair, there was no confirmation to that effect from the Vigilance Committee.
Annoyed and frustrated, the Mulranny delegate threw his hands in the air. “Do you mean, if Jackie Carey was to play for Mulranny, nothing could be done?” he exclaimed. (Carey, at that time, was captain of Manchester United.) “That’s right,” said the chairman, “unless he is reported by the Vigilance Committee.”
But there were always strategies for getting around the ban. Famous Limerick hurler Mick Mackey was an avid and well-known rugby fan, so much so that the Limerick County Board made him a member of the Vigilance Committee, to avoid having to suspend him for attending matches of the oval ball.
Not so fortunate was the President of Ireland, Dr Douglas Hyde, who was removed as a patron of the GAA because he attended the soccer international between Ireland and Poland in 1939.