DUCKING AND DIVING Action from a football match in Hollymount in August 1965. Pic: Liam Lyons
THROUGHOUT the enlightened sixties the GAA, like many other organisations, struggled to shrug off the archaic influences of previous decades.
The emergence of new, young, progressive leaders had opened up Ireland to an era of transformation. Old prejudices were cast aside. Sincerely held values came under pressure, sacred cows were denounced, and new philosophies advocated.
Nothing was spared, least of all the GAA, and in particular a rule in its constitution that banned members from playing or attending soccer and rugby games.
Old traditions die hard, and for those interested in sports in general compelling arguments were framed to have the restrictive barriers removed and the GAA modernised to greet the demands of the second half of the century.
It was an exciting time in Ireland’s development, and fears that the national game would lose its primacy to foreign influences prompted officials and loyalists to hotly contest any change in the old system.
Looking back now one wonders why fears about the survival of our national games had been so deep-rooted.
Rule 27 was the topic and, rooted in nationalism and anti-British sentiment, it was an understandable instrument before Ireland won self-determination.
It stated that any member of the association who played or encouraged in any way soccer, rugby or hockey or any imported game was suspended from the association.
GAA members were prohibited from playing, watching or attending any event associated with these sports. And all over the place vigilante committees were established to detect any breach of the rule and to report it to the relevant authority.
So strictly was the rule implemented that on November 13, 1938 Douglas Hyde the President of Ireland and a patron of the GAA attended a soccer match at Dalymount Park between Ireland and Poland with the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, and was promptly suspended from the association.
The depth of feeling about foreign games was reflected in a speech by TS Moclair, at the opening of MacHale Park in 1931 when he recalled a group of people getting together 25 years earlier to found the GAA “instead of participating in shoneen sports.”
But in the new Ireland the edict had outgrown its usefulness.
Surreptitiously, many household GAA players did manage to attend some rugby and soccer internationals. All sorts of disguises were donned to hide their identity. The GAA authorities were aware of some breaches but because of the high profile of those involved and the repercussions that might follow there was a reluctance to take action.
Objections in Mayo
IN Breaffy GAA Club (of which this writer was a playing member), the Ban regularly reared its head throughout the fifties. In those years there were no intermediate or Under-21 competitions, and because Castlebar Mitchels dominated the senior championship, little thought was given to young players in the area who were hungry for football.
Soccer was the outlet taken up by most, and we in Breaffy managed to convince the best of them to declare for the club, aware of course that they also played soccer.
It came to a stage when objections were made to our use of soccer players, and eventually the club was suspended for ‘bringing the association into disrepute’.
Our appeal against the decision was later turned down because the terms of the appeal were not made on Irish water-marked paper.
Events of that nature whetted the passions of those working to get rid of the ban. Television had been established and action from soccer and rugby games was beamed into homes.
The absurdity of the situation was not lost on young people and evoked stirring debate at meetings of Castlebar Mitchels between Brian MacDonald, rooting for the change, and Dick Morrin defending ‘old traditions and values.’
Up and down the country throughout the sixties the arguments raged as fervent and fiery as any contest on the field of play. And eventually, at the GAA Congress of 1971 in Belfast, the ban was lifted and a ray of sunshine shone through the dusty corridors of the association.
It would be another thirty years before the rule banning members of the British security forces from playing Gaelic games was lifted. That came in 2001at a specially convened Congress following the Good Friday Agreement and the creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, (PSNI).
Things eased further when Croke Park was opened to international matches in the seventies while a new stadium was being constructed. And in 2007, before Ireland met England in the Six Nations, God Save the Queen echoed eerily around its hallowed ground. In that poignant moment old hatred and bitterness dissolved in waves of emotion.
And so, too, vanished fears for the future of Gaelic games. With prudence and perception the organisation has been guided wisely, catering for all creeds and classes, and blooming healthily . . . even in far-flung countries around the world.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1971 GAA Annual Congress which will always be remembered for the deletion of Rule 27, better known as ‘The Ban’, which infamously prohibited GAA members from playing or watching “foreign games”, specifically soccer, rugby, cricket and hockey.