‘Foundation stones do not grow into edifices’- the role of language in nation building


The following post is a bit lengthy, it is a version of another chapter of my UG dissertation. It deals with ideas of culture and nationalism. For those who are not familiar, the Gaelic League is a cultural nationalist body set up in the late 19th century with the aim of reviving the Irish language.  Even though the Gaelic League was a non-sectarian, non-political organisation many of the figures who joined would go on to play a part in the revolutionary period from 1916-1923.  Given that the initial aim of the league was the revival of the Irish language I found myself interested in how the project fared in independent Ireland, where the people who played a role in achieving a degree of independence were now in charge of language policy.  

Pre 1921, cultural nationalist groups including the Gaelic League found themselves frequently in a confrontational role with a state which was, at best, indifferent to their aims and at times openly hostile to them. In the face of such opposition the League contributed greatly to the success of the nationalist movement, and membership of the league was looked upon as a badge of honour for those who considered themselves to be patriotic Irish citizens.[1]

How did this kind of success transfer to a state which was now run by fellow countrymen who by and large had the same linguistic aspirations as League members? Was reviving the language merely a symbolic part of the nationalist movement or would it be a real priority in independent Ireland?

The Gaelic League’s reaction to the formation of the Free State

When the Irish Free State was founded many members of the Gaelic League, perhaps suffering from campaign fatigue believed that they had taken language revival as far as they could and it was now the job of the fledgling Irish Government to take it to next level.[2] As a result many members ceased their League activities, and a further number of those who remained were absorbed into the new political parties and into state bodies such as the Army, Police and Civil Service.[3]  They felt that the time could be right to pass on the torch as there were enough language enthusiasts on both sides of the Treaty split to ensure a ‘forward looking language policy in Dáil Eireann’.[4]

Long-standing members concluded that the League could no longer carry the weight of the process of de-Anglicisation by themselves, and that the new Government was in a better position to carry on this work with a lot more efficiency than a voluntary organisation.[5] In the pre-Treaty era the Dáil had a rational and systematic policy operating in collaboration with the League,[6] perhaps best illustrated in the Aireacht na Gaedhilge Report to the Dáil in August 1921, when Seán Ua Ceallaigh stated: ‘It is a great advantage and a great financial saving that the Gaelic League is cooperating actively in the work which is our main concern’.[7] This apparent harmony indicated a bright future between the Government and the League. The first governing party of the Free State, Cumann na nGaedheal resolved to make Irish language classes compulsory in schools.  This was reminiscent of the earlier Gaelic League campaigns, and it appeared that both the Government and the League were uniform in their goal.

As well as the continued promotion of Irish in schools, another central objective of Cumann na nGaedheal’s language policy was to halt the decline of the language in the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) regions. The hefty task of researching the problems faced by the people of the Gaeltacht regions was given over to a group headed by General Richard Mulcahy (Commander in Chief of the National Army), one time was a member of the Gaelic League. Mulcahy accepted his task with enthusiasm due to his lifelong commitment to Irish language and culture. [8] 

The Gaeltacht Commission Report – ‘To Uphold and foster the language’

Mulcahy’s research was ultimately published in the Gaeltacht Commission Report in 1926. The importance of the language in relation to nation building was evident from the opening remarks of the report: ‘We believe that the Irish people as a body recognise it to be a national duty…to uphold and foster the language’. While the symbolic importance of the Gaeltacht regions were very much apparent: ‘the Irish people rightly value as a national asset, their “Gaeltacht”.[9]  However,.the League would remark that the government’s public view of the Gaeltacht, was always viewed ‘with a great deal of false sentimentality’.[10] Investigations in the Gaeltacht areas took place between 7 August and 10 October 1925, with evidence recorded from scores of witnesses in public sittings of the Commission as well as written statements of evidence. It is indicative of the problems relating to the native language that much difficulty was experienced in recording testimony by the Commission when oral evidence in Irish was given![11]

The attitudes of some National Teachers to the teaching methods the Government wished to employ were highlighted at a sitting of the Commission in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Here the methods of intense, compulsory Irish learning were merely dismissed as ‘a passing phase’. [12] Teaching methods were but one of the concerns put to the commission. Problems of economic decline and migration in Irish speaking areas were also highlighted, with claims that a number of people on the Aran Islands would be on the verge of starvation by Christmas of that year.[13]

Numerous conclusions were reached in relation to the problems faced by Gaeltacht communities, and suggestions made to rectify the situation were abundant. In Irish speaking districts the immediate objective was to make Irish, forthwith, the sole language of instruction and to provide higher education facilities on par with English-speaking districts. Having Irish replace English in general official intercourse and correspondence by officials of the State and Local Authorities was also suggested, and it was hoped that there would be a greater cooperation between the Clergy, the professions, the press and business directors in helping promote the language. If such measures were initiated, it was thought, there would be definite hope of bringing about, at the earliest possible moment, the permanent improvement of economic conditions of these areas.[14]

The final report was published on August 23 1926 and the findings were enthusiastically welcomed by the Gaelic League and the Councils in the Gaeltacht regions. During a debate on the Commission’s findings almost two years later the Speaker of the House stated that the report bore every sign of ‘having been carefully and sympathetically considered, with an understanding both of the social, economic and national problem’ the Gaeltacht was facing. However, almost two years from its publication only fourteen of the eighty two recommendations had been adopted by the Government.[15]

Perhaps understandably, patience among branches of the Gaelic League across the country had been wearing thin in the intervening months while awaiting the implementation of the report’s recommendations. A resolution was passed by the Gaelic League in Cork in December 1926, only several months after the findings were published demanding that the recommendations of the Gaeltacht Commission be brought into immediate operation. [16] Similar resolutions were passed in Skibbereen and Tralee. [17][18] The Limerick branch also called for the findings to be put ‘into force without delay’, [19] while League members in Mullingar felt if the Gaeltacht recommendations were acted upon promptly and thoroughly, they would save the Gaeltacht ‘even now’[20]

Despite the fact that Ernest Blythe, an avid Irish language enthusiast, presided over the Ministry of Finance, it has been suggested that his department panicked at the Commissions proposals.[21] Among the proposals which the Department of Finance baulked at was free secondary school education for Gaeltacht inhabitants. This was not available anywhere in Ireland until the 1960s and historian Joe Lee argues the real reason for alarm among the department was that if free secondary school education was given to Gaeltacht inhabitants it would be difficult to confine these policies to these areas. [22]

The perceived shirking from the Commission’s report by Cumann na nGaedheal raised serious questions about their commitment to language revival. The perceived sabotaging of the report contributed to a decline in Government popularity by the 1927 general election, and reinforced anti-Treaty republican party Fianna Fáil’s claim that pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal had turned its back on Irish-Ireland. [23]

‘Moulding Irish opinion I the right way’ – The League and politics

By this time many of rank-and-file League members had all but run out of patience with Cumann na nGaedheal, with the decimation of the Gaeltacht Commission Report being one of the final straws. In this respect their disillusionment mirrored the view that the pro-Treatyites of Cuman na nGaedheal had not done enough to advance nationalist objectives since 1922, with a turn towards Fianna Fáil and increasingly attractive alternative.

It needs to be stressed that incidents of disharmony between the League and the Government were not always confined to disagreements over language policy. The League took ‘grave exception’ to the Oath of Allegiance, (Section 71) of the Local Government Act. [24] This section of the act demanded employees of the state (including teachers) ‘bear allegiance to the Irish Free State and its constitution’ – which included an indirect reference to the British monarchy, and had been one of the principle factors in sparking the civil war of 1922-23. [25] The League was viewed some with suspicion by Free State authorities over its stance in relation to the act which indicated some anti-Treaty sentiment within the organisation.

At a meeting of the Central Council in April 1929 a pact with Fianna Fail was proposed which would give that party the support of the Gaelic League at the next General Election on condition the party gave a satisfactory guarantee that they would make the Gaeltacht question a national question. No doubt this was a radical proposal by an organisation which was founded on a non-political platform.  Nevertheless, this was successfully opposed by those present, including two Fianna Fail deputies.[26] It was, however a clear indication many of the League’s members did not approve of Cumann na nGaedheal’s approach to revival.

Closer police attention was now being directed at certain members of the League. In November 1929 Gardai raided an Irish class in progress at Ballyellis Co. Wexford. It was claimed this raid caused serious disruption to Irish classes in the area for weeks afterwards. [27] Disruption to language classes also took place in Elphin, Co. Roscommon, where a local school teacher claimed to have not taught for several years because he refused to take this oath. [28] And in Co. Galway it was claimed seventeen centres of Gaelic teaching had been discontinued owing to this matter. [29] At a county Feis in Co Cavan, President of the Gaelic League Cormac Breathnach made the bold claim the Oath was an attempt to resurrect the Statute of Kilkenny – (a medieval ordinance which had banned the use of Irish in English-controlled areas of Ireland). [30]

While it was clear there was friction between the Gaelic League and Cumann na nGaedheal regarding the language, League members had little choice other than to support the Government’s language promotion in schools. Nevertheless, a significant shift in educational policy regarding language came with the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932. Thomas Derrig, a trained teacher and language enthusiast, was the new Minister for Education, and he made clear the government’s impatience with the language revival’s lack of success under Cumann na nGaedheal. [31] He was also quick to get on side with the Gaelic League by praising them for the ‘magnificent work’ they were doing in moulding Irish opinion ‘in the right way’. [32]

Gaelic League activist Douglas Hyde is inaugurated as President of Ireland in 1938.

If the final years of the Cosgrave administration had witnessed deterioration in the relationship between Government and the League, the Fianna Fáil years were also, at times, less than harmonious. For example, at a major meeting of the League in Dublin on December 18, 1934 the assembled members were told that the organisation’s members were ‘getting uneasy’ about Fianna Fáil’s position in relation to language revival and the Gaeltacht, believing that the government was not acting quickly enough to stop the language decline. [33]

Relations between the League and Fianna Fáil also came under some strain over the Board of Work’s demand that the Gaelic League vacate their historic Dublin headquarters, 25 Parnell Square. A meeting of the Central Council on September 10, 1932 a resolution was unanimously passed ‘refusing point blank’ to surrender the premises. A letter bitterly criticising the Government was delivered to Mr. Hugo Flinn, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance. It pointed out that more had been expected from the Government and its attitude now seemed to be, ‘I am in power now and you can go be hanged’. [34]

At a League meeting in Spiddal Co. Galway in April 1933, attended by ‘every county in Ireland’, the League President assured the assembled delegates they were not willing to leave their premises until they were ejected. They felt the Parnell Square premises were interwoven in Irish history; and it was here those who faced the British firing squads in 1916 received their education. [35]

The issue of the continued detention of republican prisoners (who had been Gaelic League members) also continued to cause considerable problems. An annual Gaelic League celebration in the Mansion House in January 1935 witnessed some League members interrupt the National Anthem shouting ‘release the prisoners’ and jeered de Valera when it had finished.[36] Incidents such as these indicate a more complex relationship which went deeper than language revival.

Throughout this decade the League continued to be critical of the political elites. It was argued that League members should not vote for non-Irish speaking parliamentary candidates. This was not, however aimed at any particular party as they were ‘as bad as each other’ when it came to language matters. [37] Politicians were also lambasted for using little Irish in Dáil debates (approximately 45 minutes daily was allotted to debate in Irish) [38] It was further claimed not one in ten of the Deputies in the last Dáil were even able to speak Irish despite ‘the flood of election oratory’. [39]

Education and Civil Service –‘ Foundation stones do not grow into edifices’

There were some successes in the revival of the language in the schools in the 1930s. The number of all-Irish speaking primary schools had increased from 228 in 1931 to 704 by the end of the decade. [40] Nevertheless, this was far from sufficient if the language was to be fully revived, as a League pamphlet indicated: ‘the work of the schools is the foundation stone to the revival. Foundation stones, be they ever so sound, well cut and polished, remain foundation stones and do not grow into edifices’. [41]

Outside of schools the ‘Gaelicisation’ of the new state was also a preoccupation of some in government. Fianna Fáil’s stated aim was for the Irish language to become the language of state employees conducting the day to day business of the state and the introduction of the language to the Civil Service, Army, Police force and the Law Courts helped to boost the number of adult learners in the country. [42]

Some members of the League itself felt that the Gárda were doing ‘good work’ in ‘popularising the use of the native tongue’ in the Gaeltacht. [43] However, this praise may have been somewhat misplaced. Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy’s attempts, for instance, to create an Irish speaking police force were ultimately futile. O’Duffy set aside 500 police positions for those who spoke Irish, but was met with ‘practically no response’. [44] Clearly this voluntary approach did not work. O’Duffy in the later 1920s realised that his men were making poor progress in Irish despite this initial goodwill and adopted a more interventionist approach giving his men an ultimatum to become competent in the language by 31 December 1928 or face dismissal. [45] However, nothing actually came of this threat and the twenty percent of the force which were Irish speaking had not increased by 1946. [46]

The position of privilege the Civil Service had in the State proved to be more problematic for the Gaelic League. They felt independence had failed to get rid of old ways of governing and old prejudices towards native practices. They argued that the old English Civil Service had drained Ireland of its native language and when the new one was established hundreds of officials from the previous regime were retained. [47] 

Another League pamphlet lamented the most telling way in which the English language was imposed upon Irish people before independence: the dealing of essential matters by those who were incompetent in Irish or sufficiently anti-Irish to deal with Irish speakers effectively. However, under native Government the same position still existed: ‘English-speaking managers over Irish speaking workers’ was the cry. [48]

This was another instance of the League and the Government singing from a different hymn sheet. While Fianna Fáil’s Education Minister, Derrig believed no other group had in the past done as much as the Civil Servants had to save the language[49] , the League was critical of the culture of the Civil Service on the grounds that once entry had been achieved, it was hard to dislodge what they viewed as unsatisfactory non Irish-speaking candidates. It was claimed that although knowledge of Irish was absolutely essential for entry to the Civil Service, only English is necessary to enable them to remain in it. [50] It can be argued that this claim is vindicated by the statistic that by the 1960s only 14 per cent of the country’s civil servants had achieved fluency in the language.[51]

The mass media and the Irish language

Douglas Hyde opens the new radio station 2 RN. Some Gaelic Leaguers accused it of being an ‘anglicising influence’.

Two significant areas of language development were initiated and maintained by the Governments of the late 1920s and 30s.  They were the mass production of Irish-language material in print and the new medium of radio broadcasting. The Gaelic League, with its limited resources would have found it almost impossible in achieving any success in these areas. The first State radio station was named 2RN (To Erin) and began broadcasting on 1 January 1926 with former Gaelic League president Douglas Hyde giving a short opening speech, in which he alluded to the role radio was to play in the promotion of the Irish language. [52]

2RN came under the department of Posts and Telegraphs, which J.J. Walsh was Minister in charge; he would later recall ‘wherever and whenever Irish language, history and general national characteristics could have been featured, there was no hesitation in doing so’. [53] Still, by the 1930s the national radio station had only managed to devote just over four percent of its airtime to Irish-language programmes. [54] As a result, Gaelic League accusations of English language bias were aired and some believed that the state Radio was one of the greatest ‘Anglicising influences’ in Ireland. It was also claimed people were paid more to make programmes in English than in Irish. [55] 

The stations Jazz music programmes were also condemned by the League as having ‘a smack of Moscow about it’. [56] At a League Congress meeting in 1933 several resolutions attempted to deal with concerns about 2RN. More Irish programming and more attention to the broadcasting of news of Gaelic affairs were called for; there were also calls for Children’s Hour to be broadcast entirely in Irish, and for the provision of loudspeakers in each school to give the children an opportunity of listening to native Irish speakers broadcasting. [57]

Printed resources are of course vital to the success of any spoken language. Ernest Blythe had once stated ‘it would be impossible to revive Irish without plenty of reading material’. [58] Again, it was obvious the Gaelic League wasn’t in a sound enough financial position during this period to produce the amount of literature which was needed. In 1926 the State took control of Irish language publications with An Gúm which was established within the Department of Education. Beginning with the production of suitable secondary school material it then expanded to cover general literature in Irish. With this expansion An Gúm built on Gaelic League precedents of publications for the general public’s consumption. [59]

Back in 1893 Douglas Hyde noted that there were only six Irish language books in print. In contrast, An Gúm had produced 234 books, totaling 180,000 copies in its first eight years. [60] Despite the growth of Irish language material, some of the content came in for criticism by certain League members. It was claimed An Gúm had focused too much on translation and not enough on original works and in the matter of children’s books only five original works had been produced compared with forty one translations. It was further claimed that An Gúm had produced a number of books which ‘nobody would want to read in any language’. [61]

Financial difficulties, new groupings

The League found itself in an increasingly unfavourable financial position during the early years of the new state. This forced it to accept a reduced role in promoting language as indicated above it was in no position financially to spearhead the revival on its own. The annual collection had dropped continuously from 1922 when £8,000 was collected to £1,000 in 1925[62]  Therefore, it was clear that the organisation would be reliant on the Government funding the language revival. The financial slide would continue, and by mid-1929 the League Executive was in arrears of £3,000. [63] The 1930s brought further financial woe to the organisation. In 1933 a special Ard Fheis was held to consider ways to tackle the organisation’s debt. [64]

President of the League P.T. Mac Fhionnlaoich stated while the Irish language had made considerable progress, due to its financial difficulties the League itself had not, and as a result the Executive Committee was finding it difficult to carry out its day to day work. [65] While this financial difficulty can be explained in the context of the world-wide depression of the time it has also been put down to a certain amount of campaign weariness by League veterans. In the years prior to independence there was a lot more enthusiasm with regard to fundraising, this is evident in the fundraising trips to the USA. On two separate American fundraising trips the league raised approximately $55,000 (1905-06) and $14,000 (1911).[66]

When this is compared to the financial state of the organisation towards the end of the 1930s it can be argued that there was a decline in enthusiasm for what was once viewed as a patriotic duty, resulting in a significant dent in fundraising capabilities. There had also been reports of some branches not paying their affiliation fees. The financial problems are perhaps best illustrated by the fact that at least one county branch of the League (Kerry) were forced to petition the Government to finance a re-organisation scheme for the county, to the tune of £6,000. [67] Leading Gaelic Leaguer Daniel Corkery expressed concern for the decline of the organisation at this time, arguing that it should be ‘given into the hands of young men’. [68]

From the late 1920s the League also faced the emergence of other Gaelic groups who had become disillusioned with the pace of language revival. The Gaeltacht Defence League was formed in the wake of Cumann na nGaedheal’s failure to implement the Gaeltacht proposals, they claimed to be charged with ‘pushing this question of saving the Gaeltacht’. [69] In 1933 another group ‘Gaedheal’ launched with almost identical aims. [70] With several different groups pushing the Gaelic agenda and a Government seemingly dedicated to Irish revival in power, a meeting was held at the League’s headquarters to decide if there was any further need for the existence of the League.[71] A large majority decided that there was. Nevertheless this indicates the feeling of some that the League had lost its way both ideologically and financially.

Apathy versus idealism – the shortcomings of the language revival

The Gaelic League were highly critical of much Government language policy over the 1920s and 1930s, however much of this criticism was misplaced as both Government’s placed high emphasis on the revival of the national language. After independence the language was given high priority, at first partly through political necessity to placate anti-Treaty opponents, but also because some Government members were preoccupied with ‘a romantic idealization of Ireland’s Gaelic past with the language as its lynchpin’. [72]

However the biggest obstacle to the restoration of the language was arguably people’s apathy. Mulcahy argued that Irish could only be revived by stimulating an esteem and love for the language and public policies in relation to this only served to ‘copper fasten the widespread indifference to the language’. [73] This indifference was not restricted to pupils, the Gaeltacht Commission heard evidence that teachers in areas around Macroom, Co Cork ‘were very apathetic about Irish’. [74] It is certain this apathy was much more widespread. Even in the Gaeltacht areas there was indifference to the language from native speakers who saw learning English as a route to prosperity. In some instances parents even requested that their children be taught in English.

Despite these sentiments the government pushed ahead with these educational reforms as they believed that the government’s role was the construction of an Irish nationality and the language was a central part of that. [75] Corkery had lamented the loss of homogeneity within the league with the formation of the Free State, and it can be argued this loss can be seen with the financial problems which beset the organisation in this period. The non-payment of affiliation fees by some of the leagues branches would indicate a lack of common direction, it would also suggest that some branches may have experienced campaign fatigue and given up active agitation for language improvement.

As the realities of independence unfolded, the Gaelic League lost many members who took a step back, believing that the same political establishment would now take the language movement onto the next level. In a sense, the League lost part of its rationale with independence. However, links between the Government and the League were retained in prominent figures such as Eoin MacNeill, Ernest Blythe and Mulcahy and of course de Valera. However, there were members of the Gaelic League who distanced themselves from politicians of all shades because of the belief that their vision of ‘Irish-Ireland’ was not safe in the hands of those who they saw had sold out the idea of the ‘Ireland: Gaelic and free’, which they had longed for.

What was perhaps not predicted by the Gaelic League was the level of apathy towards the language by those who were now expected to learn it in schools and in their jobs, and by those who were expected to retain it (the Gaeltacht population) in the Free State. This would have a discouraging effect upon members of the Gaelic League.
The apparent failure of the language to flourish as the Gaelic League would have hoped in the new state can perhaps be explained by the attraction of voluntarism over compulsion. To be involved in a voluntary organisation which had mass appeal was a much more alluring prospect for the average League member than the long term commitment of learning a language.

From the point of view of a cultural organisation it is certain that the Gaelic League lost momentum in the new State. Membership of the organisation was not the mark of prestige it once was and many of those who remained within the organisation were viewed the ‘refuge of dissidents’ by some politicians. [76] Connections between League members did continue, albeit on a more ceremonial level with political representatives sharing the same platforms as Gaelic League, and indeed G.A.A. members at public political commemorations and at sporting finals. But ultimately, the dream of an Irish-speaking, Gaelic Ireland would never become a reality.


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[1] T. Crowley, Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004 (Oxford, 2008), p.144
[2] T. Ó hAilin in B. Ó Cuív ed., A View of the Irish Language (Dublin, 1969), p. 99.
[3] D. Corkery, What’s this About the Gaelic League? (Dublin, 1942), p. 4.
[4] B. Ó Cuív, in D. Williams, The Irish Struggle 1916-1926 (London, 1966), p. 163.
[5] Ibid. p. 6
[6] S. Ó Buachalla, Education Policy in Twentieth Century Ireland (Dublin, 1988), p. 59.
[7] Dáil Eireann-17/Aug/1921 Aireacht na Gaedhilge Debate, p. 7.http://debates.oireachtas.ie/dail/1921/08/17/0015.asp 
[8] R. Mulcahy, My Father, The General (Dublin, 2009), p. 185.
[9] Coimisiun na Gaeltachta Report (Dublin, 1926), p. 3.
[10] The Gaelic League Keating Branch, You May Revive The Gaelic Language (Dublin, 1940), p. 31.
[11] Coimisiun na Gaeltachta, p. 5.
[12] Irish Independent, 10 Oct. 1925. p. 8.
[13] Irish Independent, 21 Aug. 1925. p. 5.
[14] Coimisiun na Gaeltachta, p. 58.
[15] Dáil Eireann- 02/May/1928 Gaeltacht Commission Report p. 2. http://debates.oireachtas.ie/dail/1928/05/02/0030.asp

[16] Irish Independent, 22 Dec. 1926. p. 9.
[17] Meath Chronicle, 1 Jan. 1927. p. 5.
[18] Irish Independent, 10 Dec. 1927. p. 5.
[19] Limerick Leader, 22 Jan. 1927. p. 2.
[20] Irish Independent, 10 Dec. 1926. p. 5.
[21] C. Meehan, The Cosgrave Party: A History of Cumann na nGaedheal 1923-33 (Dublin, 2010), p. 75.
[22] J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985 Politics and Society (Cambridge, 1993), p. 135.
[23] C. Meehan, The Cosgrave Party (Dublin, 2010), p. 73.
[24] H. O Murchadha, ‘The Growth and Decline of the Gaelic League in County Wexford 1900-1950’ in The Past: The Organ of the Ui Cinsealaigh Historical Society, No. 26 (2005), pp.5-34, p. 19. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/25520101 )
[25] Local Government Act 1925 http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/1925/en/act/pub/0005/sec0071.html#sec71 
[26] Irish Independent, 3 Apr. 1929. p. 4.
[27] Ibid. p. 19.
[28] Irish Press, 24 Dec. 1934. p. 8.
[29] Irish Independent, 28 Jun. 1926, p. 9.
[30] Anglo-Celt, 17 Jul. 1926. p. 2.
[31] D. Keogh, Twentieth Century Ireland, (Dublin, 2005), p. 172.
[32] Leitrim Observer, 11 Jun. 1932. p. 2.
[33] Irish Independent, 19 Dec. 1934. p. 9.
[34] Sunday Independent, 11Sep. 1932. p. 1.
[35] Connacht Tribune, 22 April. 1933. p. 22.
[36] Irish Independent, 14 Jan. 1935. p. 7.
[37] Sunday Independent, 6 Sept. 1936. p. 9.
[38] Irish Independent, 15 Nov. 1934. p. 5.
[39] Irish Press, 21 Jun. 1937. p. 6.
[40] Keogh, Twentieth Century Ireland, p. 93.
[41] Gaelic League, Revive The Gaelic Language, p. 26.
[42] Ó Cuív, The Irish Strugglep. 165.
[43] Irish Independent, 7 Aug. 1936. p. 14.
[44] F. McGarry, Eoin O’ Duffy A Self Made Hero, (Oxford, 2005), p. 144.
[45] R.V. Comerford, Ireland(London, 2003), p. 146.
[46] Ibid, p. 46.
[47] Corkery, The Gaelic League, p. 16.
[48] Gaelic League, This Irish Racket (Dublin, 1944) p. 11.
[49] Irish Press, 17 Nov. 1934. p. 7.
[50] Gaelic League, Revive The Gaelic Language, p. 18.
[51] F.S. Lyons, Ireland Since The Famine (Glasgow, 1973), p. 637.
[52] I. Watson, ‘Irish-language broadcasting: history, ideology and identity’ in Media, Culture & Society, Sage Publications, Vol.24: (2002) pp 739-757. ( http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/591726 )
[53] S. O’Ceallaigh, Gaelic Athletic Memories (Dublin, 1945), p. 30.
[54] I. Watson, ‘Irish-language broadcasting’, pp 739-757.
[55] Irish Press, 9 Nov. 1939. p. 8 (It was claimed a programme maker was paid ‘£3 3s’ to make a broadcast in English, and ‘£2 2s’ to make the same programme in Irish).
[56] Southern Star, 20 Jan. 1934. p. 5.
[57] Irish Press, 11 Apr. 1933. p. 10.
[58] Irish Press, 1 Oct. 1937. p. 9.
[59] N Buttimer in J.R. Hill, A New History of Ireland VII 1921-1984 (Oxford, 2010), pp 557-558.
[60] Irish Press, 17 Nov. 1934. p. 7.
[61] Irish Press, 1 Oct. 1937. p. 9.
[62] Irish Independent, 22 Jan. 1926. p.5 (P. Ó Fearail, The Story of Conradh na Gaeilge, p.46 estimates Gaelic League funds increased modestly over the period from 1924-1927 from £1,838 to £2,066)
[63] Anglo Celt, 20 Apr. 1929. p. 7.
[64] P. Ó Fearail, The Story of Conradh na Gaeilge, (Dublin, 1975), p. 47.
[65] Irish Press, 6 Nov. 1933. p. 7.
[66] J. Dunleavy & G. Dunleavy, Douglas Hyde: A Maker of Modern Ireland, (California, 1991), pp 315-317.
[67] Irish Independent, 1 May. 1939. p. 6.
[68] P. Maume, Life that is Exile: Daniel Corkery and the Search for Irish Ireland (Belfast, 1993), p. 126.
[69] Irish Independent, 2 Dec. 1929. p. 10.
[70] Irish Press, 13 Nov. 1933. p. 2.
[71] Irish Independent, 18 Dec. 1934. p. 7.
[72] Akenson, A Mirror To Kathleen’s Face p. 36.
[73] Mulcahy, My Father, The General p. 186.
[74] Irish Independent, October 7, 1925, p. 8.
[75] Crowley, Wars of Words p. 171.
[76] Fr. Michael, The Golden Jubilee of the Gaelic League 1893-1943 in The Capuchin Annual 1943 (Dublin, 1943), p. 475.


Folk Memory of Storms

So, was that it? The most feared storm of the new century has struck.  While it has, to date, caused a considerable disruption and tragically claimed the lives of four people, it is fair to say that it hasn’t lived up to the scaremongering which now seems to accompany the yellow news ticker in the era of 24 hour reporting.  It seems that whenever a meteorological event of note is on the horizon various media outlets and commentators get out the ‘to do’ list and roll out footage of previous storms to either whet our appetite, or sufficiently scare us into not changing the station under any circumstances. 

The current storm ‘Jude’ was endlessly compared to hurricane ‘Fish’ in 1987, before a leave had even been blown with almost ‘end-times’ predictions being thrown around.   It is of course still early days and accounts of the damage inflicted by Jude are still rolling in, it seems that some areas of Britain have been hit pretty hard, yet others have come through unscathed.  That ever-reliable social barometer Twitter has been doing what it does best, parodying the situation by relaying stories of hats blown off, being hit in the face by a leaf, and upturned garden furniture. 

Nevertheless, the comparisons to the great storm of 1987 have been a common thread on both the main sources of news, and social media.  With the case of most natural disasters (or in this case natural disruptions) the comparisons with previous events are inevitable, in an almost ‘you think that’s bad, you should have been here then’ fashion.  With ’87 seeming to be the British standard of comparison these days, I thought I would relay some information on the storm by which almost every freak weather pattern in Ireland has been measured for almost the last two centuries, ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ of 1839.

This almighty storm hit Ireland on 6 January 1839, and by all accounts it was most severe in places as far apart as Antrim and Tipperary, with between 250 and 300 people reported killed, thousands of trees uprooted and ‘innumerable’ houses destroyed.   One of the more bizarre reports claimed a piano was blown out of a house in Crumlin, Dublin, and dead seabirds found forty miles inland.[1] 

Not only has this storm gone down in Irish folklore over the last couple of centuries, it has been impeccably covered by Peter Carr in his 1993 book The Night of the Big Wind.  Therefore I am not attempting to rewrite Carr’s work, I am merely highlighting a select few examples from the newspaper archives in light of last night’s storms in Britain.

In the years since the monumental events January 6, 1839 not only has every freak weather pattern evoked folk memories and comparisons, but in the decades immediately after it seems that in reporting the death of people who lived into their ripe old age an association with the great storm had to be established. In local newspapers it almost seemed obligatory to mention that a person of a certain age had lived through The Big Wind (and of course the Irish Famine several years later).







The people highlighted above, who would today be termed ‘senior citizens’ in all likelihood benefited from their experience of the storm.  In 1908 the Old Age Pensions Act of Britain and Ireland was passed, which was payable to those aged seventy and upwards.  With official birth, marriage and death registers not appearing until 1864 it was deemed that applicants who solemnly remembered the night of the big wind would qualify for the pension!  

The Irish Farmer’s Journal reported in 1959:



An article in the Irish Independent in 1934 regarding the 104th birthday of Rose Haughey, entitled ‘Tales of an Ulster Centenarian’ highlighted the importance of the folk memory of the event and its connection to receiving a pension: “The Night of the Big Wind”, a common topic among the peasantry of the last generation, and a great guide for the aged when the Old Age Pensions Act became law in 1908, is amongst her earliest reminiscences’.[6]

The flaws in this system of entitlement are fairly obvious, and it wasn’t long before people began taking advantage.  Cormac O Grada states that due to so many old, and not so old people throughout the country testifying to eating a potato out of [their] hand on the night of the Big Wind in 1839, that remembering the Big Wind soon had to be discarded as a gauge of age for obtaining the pension.[7]

Events such as this tend to take on a life of their own long after the winds have died down, living on in the memory of people who came through it, and in some cases those who came after it who had no direct connection and perhaps heard about it around the family fire from parents and grandparents.  Cynically it could be argued that the new life was breathed into the legend of Big Wind because of the monetary value attached to it relating to pensions.   Nevertheless, the event continues to live on anytime there is a deluge accompanied by a large gust of wind.  

[1] Irish Independent, Aug 31, 1963, p. 6

[2] Irish Independent, May 2, 1936, p. 2

[3] Irish Press, May 29, 1935, p. 9

[4] Irish Press, May 4, 1935, p. 1

[5] Irish Farmer’s Journal, Feb 28, 1959, p. 30

[6] Irish Independent, Oct 25, 1934, p. 11

‘As a Gael should meet Gaels’ – The Gaelic Athletic Association in the Irish Free State

The following post is a draft of one of the chapters of my undergraduate dissertation (which is now on display in the library of Croke Park Museum & Archives, in G.A.A. headquarters, Dublin)

I was very interested to see how some aspects of Irish culture, such as the Irish sporting body the G.A.A. fared in an independent Ireland.  Before the years of turmoil from 1916-1923 there was a definite vision of how indigenous Irish cultural practices would flourish in an independent Ireland.  What these cultural nationalists didn’t seem to factor in their vision were the harsh realities of economics and bitter divisions after years of internal war.  The following post looks at the privileged position Gaelic sports had in relation to other sports in Ireland.  It also looks at how those within the organisation looked upon themselves and the sporting body as a beacon of morality and Irishness which was above party politics.  

From the earliest part of its history, the G.A.A. had been closely associated with both constitutional and advanced nationalism. What I wanted to discover was where did the Association find itself in the new independent state and did it now assume that a native government could be entrusted with the task of advancing the interests of native sports in the area under its control?

Other matters I wanted to explore were, how was the Association affected by the transition from conflict to relative peace and a degree of independence?  What was the relationship between the Association and the Free State governments and did this relationship change over time?   Did the Association, because of its role in pre-Independent Ireland enjoy a degree of privilege in the new state?  Since its foundation, the Association’s spokesmen had continually asserted that the G.A.A. was something more than a sporting organisation; might it now safely become merely a sports body?

In order to answer these questions this article will examine what role the Association had in the new state.  It will look at the relationship the top officials of the Association had with members of the Government.  It will also look at how the Association adapted from surviving in a conflict situation to one of peace and increasing normalisation.

‘Unprecedented problems’

The political transformation effected by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 provided the G.A.A. with a number of unprecedented problems for which it was quite unprepared.  Due mainly to the severe disruption of the Association’s activities during the previous years of conflict, and the Treaty split itself.[1]

Prior to the Treaty, the Association was in a precariously weak financial position, resulting in the Dáil Government in late 1920/early 1921 agreeing to pay off the Association’s £1,700 debt and facilitating the loan of a further £6,000.  It has been suggested the events during the War of Independence, most notably Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920 may have actually strengthened the G.A.A.’s hand in their negotiating financial assistance from the Dáil Government because now, as a result of the massacre on its grounds, the G.A.A. was now fully written into the national struggle.[2]

As a result of events such as Bloody Sunday in 1920, the GAA was written into the national struggle

Given the Association’s financial position in the early 1920s and the fact that the dominating personalities on the Association’s Central Council were supporters of the Treaty, a policy of close cooperation with the first Free State government under W.T. Cosgrave may have seemed a wise course of action.[3] Good relations between the Association and the new Cumann na nGaedheal Government would be necessary to successfully promote the new State’s showpiece sports event, the Tailteann Games.

The revival of the Tailteann games had been discussed at the very first meeting of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Hayes Hotel, Thurles November 8, 1884. Based upon games which reputedly first took place in 896BC to honour the life of the Celtic Queen Tailte, they would not be revived for forty years after this first suggestion.  Over the next number of years a large number of rows developed over the funding of these events, resulting in strained relationships between former revolutionary comrades.

Although this landmark event was not strictly a G.A.A. endeavour, it did demonstrate the first significant cooperation between the G.A.A. and a native Irish government.  And its importance to the G.A.A. is illustrated by the senior G.A.A. staff who worked with the Government in promoting it.  Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and one time Cork G.A.A. Board member J.J Walsh was placed in charge of planning the games.  Walsh gathered around him the cream of the Associations best organisers, J.J. Keane, Jack Shouldice and Luke O’ Toole.[4] Despite the success of the games, in particular the first two, the relationship was beset by arguments over money and disagreements resulting from the Civil War, in particular the issue of the continued detention of prisoners.[5]

The GAA and aftermath of civil war

Pro-Treaty politician, Garda Commissioner and GAA patron Eoin O’Duffy

The continued detention of prisoners not only threatened the Tailteann games it also had repercussions for the smooth running of regular Gaelic games and resulted in some G.A.A. protests with footballers and hurlers refusing to play in the finals of All-Ireland Championships.  In June 1923 Kerry refused to play Dublin in the All Ireland Final because of the imprisonment of Austin Stack, anti-treaty figure and president of the Kerry Board.   Limerick players also refused to play in a game against Galway in the 1923 All Ireland hurling final and Cork refused to play Offaly in the junior hurling final due to the continued imprisonment of Sean McCarthy and others.[6]

The civil war and especially the continued detention of prisoners after the end of hostilities, divided the G.A.A.

Some republicans even tried to enlist the G.A.A. in the struggle against the new Free State forces.[7]  Just as the I.R.B. had, won control of the central organisation of the G.A.A. in the 1880s,[8] the I.R.A. leadership felt that if they could gain control of the G.A.A. it could severely embarrass the Free State by organising a complete boycott of the Tailteann Games.[9] It was always going to be difficult for Cumann na nGaedheal to maintain the loyalty of all G.A.A. members because the civil war had made inroads into the unity of the Association.[10]  However these boycotts inflicted limited disruption as they were only confined to a few counties.   In fact, the G.A.A. played a significant role in helping mend the divisions caused by the civil war.[11]

‘An influential voice’ – the G.A.A. and the government

While there was a certain amount of friction between the Association and Government over funding for the Tailteann Games and prisoners, agreement with regard to the payment of tax was a smoother affair.  Much of the credit with regard to this has been given to Eoin O’Duffy.  O’Duffy, ‘provided the G.A.A. with an influential voice’ in official dealings with the Government.[12]  His importance was expressed in rather gushing terms by the G.A.A. in an official appreciation of the man in the Garda Sports Annual of 1925:

When we first saw the official announcement of General Eoin O’Duffy as Chief of Garda Síochána, the one thing we felt certain of was that Ireland’s native sports and pastimes would have a new influential factor in An Garda….he is of the class and character of the men whose work has been of the stamp which has given the Association that prestige and stability which have enabled it to live down all the opposition that has spent itself in a fruitless effort to submerge it’.[13]

O’Duffy was chosen to head negotiations with the Department of Finance to ensure a favourable outcome for the Association in relation to the payment of tax duties.[14]  At this meeting it was noted that the Minister for Finance received them in, ‘a sympathetic manner, as a Gael should meet Gaels’.[15]

The negotiations surrounding the Finance Act of 1927 were not the first time the G.A.A. clashed with authorities over payment of tax.  The Association had refused to give into demands by British officials to pay an entertainment tax in 1916.  This obstinate stance became their justification for the refusal, or reluctance to pay taxes in the future.  In 1922 the Government ordered the G.A.A. to pay their share of income tax but this was refused on the basis of their stance in 1916.[16]  Further down the line with the passing of the Finance Act of 1925, the G.A.A. were placed in a privileged position of tax exemption.

Witnessing the favourable treatment the G.A.A. had been given by the government other sports such as soccer and rugby began to agitate for similar exemptions under this  Act.[17]  The G.A.A. however, believed that it alone was entitled to exemption based on its national role over the previous several years.

Some within the G.A.A. viewed the Government’s decision to include other sporting bodies in the 1925 Tax agreement was merely a ‘vote catching device’ used by TD’s with constituents who followed those other games.[18] By the time the 1927 Finance Act was passed the G.A.A. alone enjoyed this position of privilege, illustrated in clause 8 of the 1927 Finance Act, which exempted the ‘bodies established for the promotion of Gaelic football, hurling and handball’ from the payment of tax.[19]

In contrast to the government’s pro G.A.A. position on the matter, the Labour Party thought that the advantage enjoyed by the G.A.A. in 1927 would, ‘create jealousies and antipathies in the world of sport’.[20] Any jealousies would have been aggravated by the view of Martin Corry (Fianna Fáil, West Cork) who suggested that, ‘the money received from taxation on Rugby and Association Football should be given as a subsidy to the Gaelic Athletic Association’.[21]

The Labour Party thought that giving preference to the GAA would create ‘jealousy and antipathy’ among sports, but Gaelic games were even more favoured after Fianna Fail came to power in 1932

With views such as those, it might have been expected that the G.A.A. would enjoy an even more privileged position under a Fianna Fáil administration.  One-time President of the G.A.A. and Fianna Fáil TD, Seán McCarthy viewed the G.A.A. as a central component in the larger republican movement, which he described as, ‘a combination of the Gaelic League, the G.A.A., the I.R.A. and the Catholic Church’;[22]  indicating the G.A.A. was pivotal to Fianna Fáil’s vision of, ‘Irish-Ireland’.

On occasions close links between the G.A.A. and republican groups were evident, this was most evident in public commemorations.  One such occasion witnessed members of the I.R.A., Cumann na mBan, Fianna Fáil, Gaelic League and G.A.A. together at a public rally celebrated the anniversary of the battle of Clonmult (an action in which 12 I.R.A. Volunteers were killed in 1921).[23] This ongoing special relationship was again highlighted in 1934 at the G.A.A. Congress in its jubilee year. Eamon de Valera, though primarily an avid rugby fan, paid high tribute to the work and members of the organisation.[24]

It was public commemorations and declarations such as these which led Eoin O’Duffy, who had his own political axe to grind, to declare that the G.A.A. was now ‘in many places becoming the tool of a political party’.  And was being prostituted for politics.[25]

It would of course be wrong to suggest that the relationship of the Association and Fianna Fáil was one without strife; some leading members of Fianna Fáil would later prove to be just as unsympathetic to the Association as Cumann na nGaedheal members had previously been.[26] The Association at times did not endear itself to some members of Fianna Fáil, especially in relation to its stance on the ban on foreign games, which will be addressed below.

Eamon de Valera throws in the ball at Croke Park.

Money issues and national politics

Shortage of money was but one of the G.A.A.’s problems for several years of the 1920s.  However, by 1926 the Association had a credit balance of £5,750. Its income remained healthy for the next several years, calculated at £8,666; £7,900; £15,500; £9,300 and £12,200 over the years 1929-1933,[27] and at the 1933 Annual Congress it was stated that, ‘the financial position was sounder than ever’.[28]

 Attendances at GAA final matches rose from 2,000 in the early 1920s to 70,000 by the end of the 1930s.

Participating in and watching sport had become an important part of Irish life and this resulted in G.A.A. finals attendances rising generally from under 2,000 in the late 1920s to 70,000 in 1938.[29] It can be argued that the Association achieved a new confidence brought about by increased financial stability and popularity, as well as a sense of its own history. This elevated it to a level where it felt it could confidently voice its opinions on matters of State policy.

In a G.A.A. produced pamphlet entitled National Action in 1942 it did exactly that, controversially claiming that the government structures of the State were, ‘unsound’ and hinted that it was in favour of the dismantling of the State’s political structures.[30] However, it must be remembered that Association viewed itself as a national body and therefore above party politics so criticism of government was not necessarily meant to favour one party over another, despite what could be interpreted as fascist undertones.

In pre-independence years with the help of the Catholic Church, the G.A.A. made many inroads into the education system by taking its games into schools.[31] On this basis it may have been safe to assume then that once independence was secured that the G.A.A.’s influence within schools would be consolidated.  Since a large number of people in Irish politics came from a G.A.A. background, many in the public sphere of Irish Free State, it is argued, viewed sport as an extension of the educational process and as a means of building character and national identity’.[32]

However, this view may be called into question.  It was only in the late 1920s and early 1930s that the State began to show interest in the development of physical education and in May 1933 the Department of Defence decided to investigate the training techniques of physical training in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and Sweden and to investigate the prospect of instructors from these countries coming to Ireland, with the view of expanding the system into state schools.[33]

An Irish Free State Army advert appeared just over a year later in June 1934 seemingly confirming this by stating that, ‘it is likely that it (the Czecho-Slovak training regime) will afterwards be introduced into schools throughout the Free State’.[34] This incensed some G.A.A. supporters who exclaimed that its introduction would be the, ‘systematic and wholesale plan of foreign importation’, and that the regime ‘does not suit our needs, still less our traditions’.[35]

This was a precursor to another episode in which the Association became incensed at Government plans for physical instruction in the State’s Armed Forces.  In the early 1940s Minister for Defence and soccer enthusiast, Oscar Traynor opened up the army to sports other than Gaelic Games.  Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with the G.A.A. hierarchy.  The Association’s President claimed this was, ‘a retrograde step’ and that, ‘they were entitled to the same treatment for Gaelic games as they had for the past 20 years’.  Sean McCarthy of the Cork G.A.A. board suggested ‘that the Gaels must make a stand’ and suggested that, ‘references by Archbishop Croke to Gaelic Games should be sent to Mr. de Valera and the head of the Army’, while Patrick Mullaney of the Mayo G.A.A. board called upon Gaels in the security forces to ‘inform soldiers that they detested the action of the new army body’.[36]

The favourable promotion of Gaelic games over those past 20 years in the Irish security services is evident in recruitment posters from the late 1920s which featured a photograph of recruits playing Gaelic games and giving enlistment incentives by emphasising the opportunities to play Gaelic football and hurling.[37]

It appeared that the fostering of Gaelic games within the army was of the utmost importance to the G.A.A., however it wasn’t deemed so important as to grant an army team admission to all-Ireland competitions.  In 1924 the All Ireland Congress of the Association produced a petition to include the National Army as a province of the G.A.A., but this was firmly defeated,indicating that the G.A.A. was enthusiastic about Gaelic games in the armed services but only on terms favourable to them.[38]  However, this was most likely an attempt not to inflame the still-strong civil war feelings, especially among republicans who had fought against army members.

The Ban

Throughout much of its history, the G.A.A. had imposed a ban on members attending ‘foreign games’, such as soccer and rugby.  Initially introduced in the early days of the Association it was suspended briefly between the years of 1897-1901. The implementation of this ban had previously caused some divisions among members of the Association, however it generated the most controversy in 1938 when the Association removed Douglas Hyde, then President of Ireland as a Patron of the Association for his attendance at an international Irish soccer match on 13 November in his duties as President.

The President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, was stripped of his G.A.A. membership in 1938 for attending a soccer match

At a meeting of the Central Council on 17 December 1938 it was decided to remove Dr. Hyde as Patron for violation of that particular rule.[39]  For Hyde, this expulsion from an organisation founded by his long-term friend Michael Cusack, and for whom Hyde had written the G.A.A. anthem The Marching Song of the Gaelic Athletes, was, ‘exceedingly distressing’.[40]

Hyde’s Presidential Office was aware long before the Central Council meeting of 17 December, that there could be potential repercussions from the G.A.A. due to his attendance at the game.[41] Just over a year previously, the Taoiseach, Eamon De Valera received correspondence from the General Secretary of the Association informing him of a request made to G.A.A. Central Council ‘to make a vigorous protest’, at Mr. De Valera’s decision to receive representatives of the Yugoslav Association Football team at Government Buildings.[42] Therefore it was clear that the G.A.A. was not afraid to challenge the highest authorities over their rules should the necessity arise.

Regardless of the expected outcome of the Central Council’s decision, de Valera, who had also attended the game, was furious when he heard of the Council’s decision.[43] Sympathy and regret at this decision were expressed within many circles.  The Rev. P. J. Canon O’Beirne condemned the actions as, ‘an extremely short-sighted policy’,[44] and Archdeacon Slattery of Nenagh was strong in his criticism of the actions and hoped the ban would ‘be wiped off the slate as far as Gaels are concerned’.[45] Members of the public expressed their outraged in letters to the press, describing it as ‘a shameful motion’.[46]  Another called into question the Association’s own patriotism: ‘Dr. Hyde has done more to re-build the Irish nation than those who are perpetually gassing about Irish games and Irish dances, and know next to nothing about the Gaelic Language and Gaelic literature’.[47]

Despite the outcry about the decision, on 9 April 1939 the annual Congress of the Association affirmed the decision of the Central Council in removing the name of Hyde as Patron of the Association ‘by an overwhelming majority’.[48]

Some commentators were of the opinion that the episode had left the G.A.A. in a position where it was an embarrassment to a, ‘new’ Ireland, and to the Fianna Fáil administration despite any links it had with the Association.  The State had for the first time a new constitution, devised solely by a native government, which gave the state a new beginning and the banning of Dr. Hyde may have been seen as a throwback to a colonial period where such a ban was deemed more necessary.  The Hyde incident certainly strained relations between the Association and the government and when Hyde’s successor as president, Sean T. O’Kelly, was inaugurated, a meeting took place between the Association and de Valera to ensure that the incident would not be repeated.[49]


As the new state was emerging from the bitter civil war it was necessary for both the government and the G.A.A. to reinforce alliances to promote as much stability as possible.  The G.A.A., in a weakened financial position, needed the help of Cumann na nGaedheal to survive. While to a lesser extent, Cumann na nGaedheal needed the cooperation of the G.A.A. to play its part in helping promote the new State on the world stage with the Tailteann Games.   The Association also appeared to be politically divided for a time with some County boards being under the control of anti-Treaty personalities while Central Council figures being in favoured the Treaty.

As the 1930s progessed, the Association was in a better financial position than ever, the divisions of the civil war, although not yet forgotten, were not as raw as they once were.  The G.A.A. could claim some credit in respect to this with efforts made to bring opposing factions together through sport, and there was a degree of normalisation of politics with the emergence of Fianna Fáil.

This contributed to a more confident and more vibrant organisation.  It can be argued that while the G.A.A. was more closely linked with the political establishment than other sporting organisations, the Association perhaps believed it was due a more favourable position in the state than it was actually given.  To a certain extent elements within the Association believed it was above the level of sporting body and had a right to have a say in political matters, for example, the criticisms of the Department of Defence for choosing a foreign training regime.  On occasion it even believed itself to be above party politics, with the publication of National Action and the decision to publicly reprimand the serving Irish President.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, like the Gaelic League had found itself in a similar position at the birth of the Irish Free Sate as it had in pre-independence years.  Both organisations were still agitating for the favourable treatment from the Government, the difference being that they were engaging with people who purportedly held the same ideals as they did.  Initially both movements were reliant upon the native Government for financial aid to see their areas of interest flourish.  However, as the G.A.A. became stabilised it thrived in popularity and therefore did not rely on the government as much as the Gaelic League.  The native governments created an environment where Gaelic sports and the Gaelic language could prosper in a way which was not possible before.

By the mid 1940s the G.A.A. had consolidated its position as the number one sporting activity in Ireland.  From its relatively weakened position under the last months of the British administration, in post-independent Ireland it flourished and played a more prominent role in Irish life than the Gaelic League achieved.  Sport, especially Gaelic games had become an important part of everyday life and the parish-based structure to those games continued to be popular among Irish people.  While there continued to be overlaps in membership between the G.A.A., the Gaelic League and political parties both organisations influence on political matters was minimal.  The Association’s relationship with those in Government had certainly been strained at times, but it was firmly part of the Irish-Ireland project favoured by the governing party of Fianna Fáil.

[1] M. De Burca, Gaelic Games in Leinster (Dublin, 1984), p. 22.

[2] W.F. Mandle, The Gaelic Athletic Association & Irish Nationalist Politics 1884-1924 (Dublin, 1987), p 194.

[3] De Burca, The G.A.A., pp 157-158.

[4] Mandle, The Gaelic Athletic Association, p. 202.

[6] De Burca, G.A.A.: A History, p. 164

[7] B. Hanley, Irish Republican Attitudes to Sport since 1921, in D. McAnallen et al The Evolution of the G.A.A.: Ulaidh, Eire agus Eile (Armagh 2009) p. 177.

[8] R.V. Comerford, Ireland (London, 2003), p. 223.

[9] Hanley, The Evolution of the G.A.A.p. 177.

[10] D. Keogh, Twentieth Century Ireland (Dublin, 2005), p. 35.

[11] G. O Tuathaigh, The G.A.A. as a Force in Irish Society, in in M. Cronin et al, The Gaelic Athletic Association 1884-2009 (Dublin, 2009), p. 240.

[12] F. McGarry, Eoin O’ Duffy A Self Made Hero (Oxford, 2005), p. 150.

[13] Garda Síochána Annual Sports (Dublin,1925), p. 10.

[14] F. McGarry, Eoin O’ Duffy, p. 150.

[15] Report of Special Meeting of the Central Council, G.A.A. April 30 1927 (G.A.A./CC/01/03).

[16] M. De Burca, The G.A.A: A History, p. 165.

[17] Report of Special Meeting of the Central Council, G.A.A. April 30 1927 (G.A.A./CC/01/03).

[18] De Burca, The G.A.A. p. 138.

[20] Irish Independent, May 23, 1927, p. 10.

[21] Irish Independent, July 3, 1931, p. 7.

[22] D. Walsh, The Party: Inside Fianna Fáil (Dublin, 1986), p. 34.

[23] Irish Independent, February 25, 1935, p. 10.

[24] Irish Press Supplement, G.A.A. Golden Jubilee 1884-1934.

[25] Irish Press, October 12, 1933, p. 7.

[26] De Burca, G.A.A., p. 139.

[27] Ibid, p.190 (Surpluses over expenditure for those years: £1,660; £1,250, £7,500; £2,000 and £1,200).

[28] P. Puirseal, The G.A.A. in its Time (Dublin, 1982), p. 221.

[29] D. Johnson, The Interwar Economy in Ireland (Dublin, 1989), p. 42.

[30]J. Anelius, National Action – a Plan for the National Recovery of Ireland (Dublin, 1942), ix.

[31] Mandle, The Gaelic Athletic Association, p. 133.

[32] Keogh, Twentieth Century Ireland, p. 34.

[33]T. A. O’Donoghue, ‘The Attempt by The Department of Education to Introduce the Sokol System of Physical Education into Irish Schools in the 1930s’, in Irish Educational Studies, 5:2, (1985), pp329-321.(http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0332331850050220) (07 March 2012)

[34] The Catholic Bulletin And Book Review, Vol. XXIV, July 1934, No. 7, p. 579.

[35] Ibid, p. 580.

[36] Anglo-Celt, May 1, 1943, p. 13.

[37] Irish Army Recruitment Poster: Tower Museum, Derry City.

[38] P. O’Neill, Twenty Years of the G.A.A.: 1910-1930, (Kilkenny, 1931), p. 232.

[39]“Rule 27“. This rule banned all G.A.A. members from taking part in non-Gaelic games. It also banned them from watching any of those games or furthering their cause.

[40] J. Dunleavy & G. Dunleavy, Douglas Hyde: A Maker of Modern Ireland (California, 1991), pp 402-403.

[41] C. Moore, An Astounding Moment of Aberration: The Removal of Dr. Douglas Hyde as Patron of the G.A.A., (Dublin, 2010), p. 16.

[42] Irish Press, April 3, 1937, p. 9.

[43] Dunleavy, Douglas Hyde, p. 403.

[44] Irish Press, December 20, 1938, p. 1.

[45] Nenagh Guardian, January 21, 1939, p. 4.

[46] Irish Independent, January 17, 1939, p.12.

[47] Irish Independent, January 21, 1939, p. 10.

[48] Munster Express, April 14, 1939, p. 3 (the vote was carried by 120 to 11, with 5 members abstaining).

[49] Moore, An Astounding Moment of Aberration, p. 38.

‘Elopement Extraordinary’: Prearranged spouse kidnapping in rural Ireland

All rural communities have idiosyncrasies when it comes to cultural practices.  Perhaps the customs surrounding a rural marriage are some of the most intriguing.  Rural Ireland of the 19th and 20th centuries had a wide variety of cultural practices surrounding the event of marriage.  In some regions it was customary for the newly-married couple to throw money at the gathered tramps, beggars and local children.  In other parts it was the norm for local boys to hold a rope across the road, preventing the bridal party from getting to their destination until they were paid a small sum of money.[1]

Perhaps one of the more unusual practices surrounding matrimony was the seemingly extreme practice of bride abduction.  Granted, this wasn’t exactly associated with the rituals of a wedding, and on the surface the practice seems like quite a serious crime.  However, in many cases the couple jointly engaged in this unusual pantomime when a proposed union was met with disapproval from the bride-to-be’s parents, or when there was a third party waiting in the wings.  Indeed, this was the case with my great-uncle and his choice of bride in rural Tipperary at the turn of the 20th century. The parents of his betrothed refused to accept her choice of partner, even though they were acquainted with my great-uncle on a professional basis. Their objection was common in this time, on the grounds that it would have been an inter-faith marriage.   And family lore has it that my great-uncle, my grandfather and his other brothers enacted a much-imitated ruse to spirit the lady to a ‘safe-house’ until such time as her father reneged on his decision.

It was somewhat of an open secret that the bride-to-be was in on the act, therefore in many instances the kidnap of a young woman was treated as a lighthearted tale in the local area and in the papers.  When it was reported in the press it was given the light relief treatment, not unlike the end story of a news bulletin such as Trevor McDonald’s ‘and finally’ segment at the end of the ITV Ten O’clock News in Britain in times gone by.

In 1844 The Freemans Journal newspaper relayed a story from the Galway Assizes on Murthy Ford, a man ‘as ugly a specimen of humanity as ever stood arraigned for the abduction of a country lass’, for the purpose of inducing the young lady to consent to marriage.  In the end the judge dismissed the charge of kidnapping against Ford in such a fashion that it indicated the episode was not taken all that seriously.[2]  Another paper reported an ‘abduction’ of a young lady in Co Kildare under the headline ‘Elopement Extraordinary’ due to the planning which had evidently went into the plot, of which the girl in question was portrayed as chief architect.[3]

As late as 1903 the tradition was still alive, a local Tipperary newspaper The Nenagh Guardian, reported there was ‘a considerable amount of amusement’ in the Tipperary town of Borrisoleigh by the abduction of a young lady in the locality.  The lady in question was to be betrothed to a match of her parent’s choosing, with the dowry and land entitlements already agreed.  The ink was all but dry with the only outstanding matter to be resolved being the fixing of the wedding date (and no doubt eternal marital bliss) when the young lady’s secret lover spirited her away ‘willingly, no doubt’ to a friend’s house in nearby Toomevara.  Here she choose to remain until such time as her friends could pay the marriage dowry for her release, a dowry the now rejected man was to get as part of the marriage arrangements.  The article then summed up the palpable sense of outrage in the local community over the incident, informing the readers that ‘much sympathy is felt for the discarded one’.[4]

While no doubt these stories were treated as light relief, and indeed now one can look at them with a wry smile, they do mask another side to rural life at the time.  They say quite a lot about the patriarchal nature of Irish society, and a woman’s place within it.  As indicated above, this practice continued into the twentieth century, and shows that that in many cases women were used in rural society as a makeweight for deals between local families, or even a glorified maid.  Nevertheless, the fact that many of the women in question were as much a part of the scam as their male counterparts indicate that they were prepared to take steps to control their own destiny.

[1] C.  O Danachair, ‘Some Marriage Customs and Their Regional Distribution’ in Béaloideas Iml. 42/44 (1974 – 1976), pp. 136-175

[2] The Freemans Journal, August 03, 1844, p.3

[3] Nenagh Guardian, April 29, 1857, p.4

[4] Nenagh Guardian, February 17, 1903, p.1

After slavery was abolished in the USA – Oral Culture and Political Mobilization in the Reconstruction Era South

I wrote this article a number of months ago, and had been sitting on it for a while.  It appeared in Its History Podcast over the weekend.


In the era of modern electronic communications it is sometimes hard to appreciate the immense difficulty which previous generations had in passing messages over both large and not so large distances.  An era in which the written word was the sole means of correspondence with other communities, relations and business interests, made responses slow, with no guarantees of them being received.  This method was of course the preserve of the educated few and seems to those who enjoy instant world-wide correspondence as almost pre-historic.  It is harder to imagine the difficulties which the poor and illiterate had in conveying their message to friends and family outside of their locality.

The rural mid-nineteenth century Southern States of America was populated by millions of poor and illiterate black and white people. The black slave population, continuously denied the most basic of rights, were never going to be presented with a chance to better themselves educationally.  And in reality, the poor white population was never on the top of anyone’s agenda for social betterment either. When emancipation for the South’s slave population was achieved, interested parties felt that a new push was needed to realize the goal of complete enfranchisement. To do this they would need to mobilize a coherent movement which would be in a bargaining position for the concessions needed to achieve the much sought after suffrage.  Geographical problems would first need to be overcome, as the slave population was spread right over the length and breadth of the South. Consequently, those engaging with the now freedmen needed to play to their strengths, and this would include utilizing the already strong oral culture which the South possessed.

Like most rural communities, the South had developed a powerful oral culture.  In such communities the spoken word tends to become a powerful tool for those with no access to the written word. Rising out of such cultures, strong orators with magnetic personalities are often formed. They are people who are able to command large audiences which hang on their every word.  This gift of oratory had its beginnings at the family fireplace, with old black men some of the most loved and skilled storytellers.([1]) This developing skill would slowly build up to command the attention of an awakened population.

Mobilization of freedmen

Although slaves were disenfranchised, black people did mobilize to demand equality before the law, to protest oppressive legislation, and to insist on justice in the enforcement of the law.([2])  Nevertheless, to build a successful nationwide movement required work at grassroots level on a scale not witnessed before. Pamphlet distribution was out of the question. Therefore, mobilizing the masses would invariably fall to individuals possessing great oratory skills, honed in the traditional way.  Freedpeople understood that their most dependable advocates emerged from their own ranks. They tended to be educated, if informally tutored, but distinguished by property holding, workplace skill, religious standing, or rhetorical ability.([3]) They would organize ‘speakings’ in rural areas instructing people of their rights and responsibilities and escorting voters to the polls on election days.([4])

Notable African-American orators such as James D. Lynch, who was the most influential black man in the state of Mississippi until his premature death in 1872, were respected by both black and white people.  A white contemporary of Lynch who was not sympathetic to the black cause recalled the size of audiences he could command:

He was a great orator; fluent and graceful, he stirred his audiences as no other man could do.  He was the idol of the Negroes who would come for miles, on foot, to hear him speak.  He rarely spoke to less than a thousand, and often two to five thousand…Lynch always spoke outdoors as no house could hold his audience.([5])

Rev. Henry McNeal Turner

One of the more celebrated orators of the Reconstruction era, the Rev. Henry McNeal Turner was described as one of the most energetic black organizers of the time.  He had served as a chaplain in a ‘colored’ Civil War regiment.  Turner’s radical strategy was to instruct the freedmen of their rights and responsibilities via meetings of the Union League. Gathered at the Union Republican Convention, Turner and his team met with freedmen at a Methodist church, instructing them at length on their responsibilities as franchised citizens.  He enacted a model dialogue scenario between a white Republican and a freedman.  This scenario had the white adviser explain that the Republican Party was the friend of the freedman and instructed them that they should shun Andrew Johnson and the Democratic Party in the upcoming elections:

I spent five hours in instructing them concerning their duties…. We read over the dialogues to the delegates and commented on them at great length, so that no mistake might be entertained. While we were reading the dialogue, I acted as the Freedman and Mr. Campbell as the true Republican, I asking and he answering in a suitable voice, giving emphasis to the facts being related. You ought to have seen the effect which it produced. When Campbell would read some of those pointed replies, the whole house would ring with shouts, and shake with the spasmodic motions and peculiar gestures of the audience.([6])

He further clarified his strategy for spreading this message:

The rule which we adopted it is to have them read in our country churches, societies, leagues, clubs, balls, picnics and all other gatherings, allowing one man to sit back to the audience and read the questions and the other to stand up in the pulpit or some conspicuous part of the house and read the answers. This, I find is much better than merely letting one man read them. The two voices and the interrogatory manner which can be assumed have double the effect upon the uneducated masses.([7])

The strategy had a huge effect. Not only was the message being told to the masses by a charismatic orator, it also empowered them by allowing them to impart the same dialogue to their friends and family, producing a ripple-effect.   Speaking later, in 1871 Turner was in no doubt of his own impact: ‘I have put more men in the field, made more speeches, organized more Union Leagues, Political Associations, Clubs and have written more campaign documents that received larger circulation than any other man in the state.’([8])

Growing political awareness among ex-slaves

This method of engagement with uneducated masses in their churches, clubs and societies was extremely successful. The illustration below from Harper’s Weekly (Figure 1) shows a typical scene of newly-enfranchised citizens engaged in political discussion on the pressing matters of the time.  The paper argued that while debates such as the one illustrated may not have been all that sophisticated, they were not as primitive or as far removed in terms of meaningful content as debates held by members of the supposed superior race.

The fire of political awareness among the freedmen was spreading, fanned by the energetic and charismatic orators within their communities.  While the more educated African-Americans would go on to participate in groups such as the National Equal Rights League (NERL) and attend gatherings such as The National Convention of Colored Men to ‘inquire into the actual condition’ of blacks in America,([9]) political discussions were conducted anywhere people could meet.  Figure 2 below, again from Harper’s Weekly, entitled A Political Discussion is described as ‘by no means an unfamiliar scene’ and demonstrates perhaps more than most the importance of grassroots political action and debate as the political realm permeated the everyday routine of the freedmen of the South.

Rumors of insurrection

The increasing political awareness of African-Americans would have a profound effect upon the white dominated Union Leagues with which they had been associated, especially in the period of Congressional Reconstruction from early March 1867.  Before Military Reconstruction there had been some organizational efforts among freedmen to mobilize, especially in the cities.  Nevertheless, the most effective organizational vehicle was the Union League which Congressional Republicans believed would make an effective reaching medium.([10]) Over time these white dominated leagues became more responsive to black concerns as the freedmen became more familiar with mechanics of politics.  Through this familiarity with politics, accusations of increased militancy among black members arose within the league, leading to fears among white people of an impending black insurrection.([11])

There were some incidents of militancy among freedmen. Indeed, Freedmen’s Bureau agents found evidence of freedmen gathering guns and ammunition; however, it was deemed that it was for defense rather than insurrection. It was also found that the majority of investigations only uncovered evidence of the holding of community festivals, peaceable religious gatherings or petty incidents of rowdiness.  That said, this did little to allay the fears of white people who warned of a coming race war. Whether or not these fears were well-founded, it highlights the power of oral exchanges in the form of rumor and hearsay. For subordinate groups in society such as African-Americans, rumor was an essential means of conducting cultural and political affairs.

Clearly oral tradition and culture played a significant part in the social life of the South, but this was not its only important sphere.  The importance of oral culture in the domestic sphere through the exchange of stories and information at the fireside in the home should not be forgotten either. In that way, one can assume those stories which were first learned in the house provided a platform for future public use.  Before emancipation oral culture among the slaves was one of the only possessions they had that they could truly call their own.  They held fast to it, adapting outside influences when necessary to it to suit their needs.  As such, it was a most powerful tool in a spiritual sense for a people who cherished their relationship with god yet did not possess the skills to understand the written word of the Bible.

Oral culture’s importance accelerated once the region was gripped by huge social change, the turning point arriving with the emergence of those who possessed the oral talents to move and motivate people.  While history will remember people like Rev. Henry M. Turner, the army of unnamed people who took their messages to their friends and kin-folk arguably played just as important a role in molding change in the Reconstruction era South.

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[1] W.W. Braden, The Oral Tradition in the South (Louisiana, 1983), p. 23-27

[2] S.F. Miller, S.E. O’Donovan et al, Between Emancipation and Enfranchisement: Law and the Political Mobilization of Black Southerners During Presidential Reconstruction: 1865-1867, in Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 70, 1994-1995, p. 1059. http://home.heinonline.org/ (18 December 2012)

[3] Ibid, p. 1063.

[4] D. Sterling, The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the words of African Americans (New York, 1994), p. 146.

[5] Ibid, p. 147.

[6] M. W. Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Post-war Reconstruction in the American South(Chicago, 2007), p. 59.

[7] Robert C. Schenck Papers, Miami University Archives, Ohio

[8] Sterling, The Trouble They Seen, p. 147.

[9] Harper’s Weekly, February 6, 1869, p. 85.

[10] M. W. Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure, p. 58.

[11] M.W. Fitzgerald, The Union League in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change During Reconstruction (Louisiana, 1989), p. 37.


Figure 1 – Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868, p. 468. Newly-enfranchised citizens engaged in political discussion.


Figure 2 – Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869, p. 737. A political discussion.