Commencing a short little blog post series, to discuss some of the more notable moments in Irish Presidential history.
Douglas Hyde had a very quiet inaugural term in the new office of President. A candidate picked for his ability to basically not offend anyone, he was generally popular. His term was uneventful for the most part.
But a rather notable event did occur, in 1938.
For the uninitiated, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is the Irish organisation that manages, organises and runs all events concerned with Gaelic games, most especially Gaelic Football and Hurling. Founded in 1884, the GAA has been a corner stone of Irish life and culture ever since, and has rightly been lauded as one of the main reasons for the revival of Gaelic culture in the late 19th and early 20th century. Moreover, it was also an important part of the nationalist and revolutionary movements, the vast majority of those involved being a member of the GAA in some capacity.
While it has had its up and downs, the GAA has generally been noted as a very authoritarian organisation. This is seen especially in the form of several famous, or rather, infamous, “rules” that have marked the associations history since it’s founding.
The rule I discuss today, is “Rule 27”. Rule 27 stated, more or less, that the playing of “foreign games” by anyone who was a member of the GAA was not allowed, and would be punished by a ban from the GAA itself. The “foreign games” could be generally defined as anything other than Hurling, Gaelic Football and a small number of other, lesser known Irish sports. The Rule was aimed particularly at association football, rugby and cricket, that is, English games.
The rule had been controversial for a while, and a number of counties had felt its sting, most notably Tipperary, who basically forfeited the defence of an All-Ireland hurling crown over it. Some players would use fake names while engaging in other sports in order to avoid it. Anyone who played a foreign sport, attended an event that was associated with the same, even wrote on the GAA in a foreign newspaper, could feel its effect. The political nature of the “the ban” made it a very dicey issue to approach. Being a mainstay of the association, “the ban” made many dig in their heels.
The ban was seen as a way to combat the spread of “English” sports in the country, insure the dominance of the GAA and maintain its nationalist focus. The GAA saw itself at the forefront of that movement, with its leadership routinely criticising Irish governments for the lack of progress on a United Ireland. Everything came back to that, that while six counties of Ireland remained “under occupation” the GAA could not bring itself to tolerate any sports that were not, inherently, Irish.
Hyde, one of the founders of the Gaelic League, a similar organisation, became a recognised patron of the GAA in 1902, and was one of its major supporters. He took part in a crucial fund raising drive for it in North America in 1905, for which the association held numerous dinners in his honour. He was well liked and respected member of the GAA, and this continued after his ascension to the Presidency. He was given personal invitations to GAA matches from the leaders of the association, during which he was applauded and hailed.
On the 13th of November, 1938, Hyde, along with then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon De Valera and several other members of the government, accepted invitations to attend an association football match between Ireland (that is, Eire, the 26 counties, no all-Ireland soccer team ever having existed) and Poland. It was the first time that Hyde had done so, the invitation coming from the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). He felt it was appropriate, in his role of head of state, to attend such games and De Valera agreed. Ireland won the game 3-1 and their attendance was well noted.
Hyde was well aware of the potential problems that his attendance would cause, but felt it would be impossible to ignore all invitations from Irish national teams in the course of his seven year term. De Valera agreed. Further, after receiving the compliments and gratitude of the Polish team and their ambassador, Hyde was certain he had made the right decision.
Afterwards, the storm came. The GAA had a particular grudge against the FAI, an organisation that accepted partition as a political reality. Unable to do anything about De Valera, who was not a member, they focused their anger on Hyde. In the days and weeks that followed, a media frenzy stoked the flames, and soon numerous county boards were calling for Hyde to be removed from the organisation.
Though there was little personal animosity from the GAA towards Hyde, the political nature of the incident meant they simply could not ignore it. One month on, at a central committee meeting, Hyde was removed as patron and banned. No correspondence was sent to Hyde regarding the decision, before or after.
The reaction was immediate and strong. Nearly every paper in Ireland, and some in Britain, roundly condemned the GAA for its actions, seen as an unforgivable insult to the office. De Valera was utterly furious, though he stayed silent for many years. Numerous county boards, especially in Hyde’s native Connaught, as well as Munster, were appalled, with the only hardcore support for the ban coming from Ulster. The Roscommon GAA declared the central committee to be fascist, comparing them to Hitler and Mussolini. Even the clergy got involved, some calling the GAA “short sighted”. The Irish Oireachtas, for the most part, backed Hyde up, some even suggesting that the GAA could be prosecuted for attempted intimidation of the President. The FAI even offered Hyde the position of patron to them, but he politely refused.
Hyde stayed silent about the matter. Aside from his non-controversial nature, the death of his wife a few weeks after his “ban” was foremost in his mind and, if anything, this only increased the sympathy that many felt for him.
At a congress in April 1939, the GAA refused to engage with proposals brought forward by some county boards that Hyde be reinstated. The heels had become dug-in. Hyde never attended any more GAA matches as President, never complained about what happened. He would go on to attend international rugby, soccer and cricket matches. He left the office after a single term, one of the country’s most popular figures. After his death in 1949, the Roscommon GAA developed its own stadium, named in his honour, which still stands today.
De Valera would take a while, but would later roundly, publically, criticise the GAA for its actions, condemning “the ban”. Before GAA representatives met the next President, Sean T. O’Kelly, for the first time, De Valera issued a curt warning about their future behaviour towards the office. He emphasised that the President had the right to attend any sporting function in his capacity as head of state. At a later central committee meeting, the GAA agreed that the President should be invited to all All-Ireland matches in future, regardless of whether he also attended “foreign games”, a tacit admittance that they had erred in regards to Hyde, though some maintained that his status as a GAA patron necessitated his “ban”.
Rule 27 was finally abolished in 1971.
Today, the attendance of the Irish President at sporting matches, mostly rugby union, football and All-Ireland finals, is commonplace, the norm. Few complain about it now, when the President steps out onto the Aviva pitch to greet players in green shirts, no more than they do when he/she attends Croke Park in September. The President represents all people in the nation, regardless of what they play.
What does this incident teach us about the Irish Presidency? That is an office worthy of respect, one that should not be so lightly denigrated. The GAA choose to insult the office with the upholding of an antiquated ruling, one that was political in nature, striking out at a man who had been one of their greater supporters. It was cruel and stupid, motivated by reasons that were immaterial at best, idiotic at worst. The GAA suffered huge damage to its reputation and, if anything, set back the cause that they banned Hyde for in the first place, insuring that future Presidents would attend “foreign games”.
Credit goes to the Master’s thesis of Cormac Moore, UCD, “A Stunning Moment of Aberration” for the background info, readable here and the book “Douglas Hyde: A Maker of Modern Ireland” by Janet Egleson Dunleavy and Gareth W. Dunleavy.
To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the archive.