When we think of sport in the context of revolutionary Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association comes to mind instantly. Founded in 1884, the organisation nailed its colours to the mast in approaching Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell and Archbishop Croke to serve as honorary patrons of their new body. Croke was anything but a voice of moderation, once lamenting that the Irish were daily importing from England “her fashions, her accents, her vicious literature, her music, her dances, her mannerisms, her games and also her pastimes, to the detriment of our own grand national sports…as though we are ashamed of them.”
No doubt, the GAA often sought to align itself with the nationalist revolutionary forces of early twentieth century Ireland. In 1923, it claimed brazenly that “in 1916, when Pearse and his companions unfurled the flag of liberty, the men of the hurling and football fields rolled in from far and near, and it is no exaggeration to say they formed the backbone of that company.” Yet the truth is never so straightforward; what of GAA men who fought in the First World War, or ‘garrison game’ aficionados in the ranks of the Volunteers? Certainly, GAA athletes formed a significant part of the revolutionary forces of Easter Week and after, but there was no monopoly when it came to sporting allegiances.
Proof of that could be best found in Oscar Traynor, a 1916 participant and later O/C of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. Born on Dublin’s Upper Abbey Street in March 1886, Oscar was the son of Patrick Traynor, a bookseller with a Fenian history that influenced his son and his political outlook. Traynor, an obituary noted at the time of his passing in 1963, played football as a young man “for the simple reason that he liked it best.” As a youth, he was goalkeeper for Frankfort and Strandville in Dublin, before taking to the same position for Belfast Celtic in 1910.
Established in 1891, Belfast Celtic was a club synonymous with the Falls Road. Donald Taylor-Black, director of a documentary about the club, has noted that “they were obviously seen as the archetypal representatives of the Falls Road. They represented Catholicism and nationalism, and the fact they played in green was no accident – although the team had no sectarian beliefs.” In many ways, organised association football in Ireland was dominated by Belfast in its earliest years, both on and off the pitch. Sectarian tensions in the city could spill into the terraces; though after Traynor’s time with the club, a particularly horrific clash between Glentoran and Belfast Celtic in 1919 has been described as dissolving “into disorder complete with rival flag-waving, anthem singing and gunshots.” The club was ultimately a victim of the tensions of life in the fractured north, folding after a vicious sectarian onslaught against them at Windsor Park in the winter of 1948.
Traynor’s time there, between 1910 and 1912, was one of great success. The club succeeded in winning the inaugural Gold Cup and Charity Cup against Cliftonville, and in the aftermath of this success toured Europe in a series of exhibition games, winning five of six clashes in the city of Prague. Traynor was joined in the side by another Dubliner, Louis Crowe, who played centre forward.
Were it not for the events of the revolutionary period, perhaps Traynor would have found his fame as a footballer and not a politician. In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, he claims that it was in the aftermath of the Howth gun running and the Bachelors Walk Massacre of innocent civilians in July 1914 that he joined the Volunteer movement. Traynor told the Bureau that he “was connected with football up to that and I broke with football when I saw that there was something serious pending.”
Traynor’s account of the Easter Rising, which he spent in the vicinity of O’Connell Street, is thrilling. He describes Pearse telling the rebels that “if they did not do anything else, they at least had redeemed the fair name of Dublin city, which was dishonoured when Robert Emmet was allowed to die before a large crowd of its people.” He also described the great inferno that took hold of the street on the Thursday, recalling that “I had the extraordinary experience of seeing the huge plate-glass windows of Clery’s stores run molten into the channel from the terrific heat.”
Traynor remained a significant figure in the republican movement in the years that followed. O/C of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, he was involved in the seizing of buildings in the vicinity of O’Connell Street during the Civil War, in an attempt to provide support to the Anti-Treatyites who had occupied the Four Courts. He was among those to join Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party in 1926, allowing a historic break with the policy of abstentionism, and putting republicans into the Dáil.
In 1928, Traynor reflected on the “crimes of playing football” in an article for Football Sports Weekly. His claim that football should be viewed as a “Celtic game, pure and simple, having its roots in the Highlands of Scotland” may be disputed by some historians of the game. Yet his article also presented a spirited defence of Irish association football players, adamant that “some of the highest executive officers of the Republican movement, from 1916 onwards, played the despised foreign games and I never heard any of them apologising for doing so.” He evoked the memory of Kevin Barry, the teenage revolutionary hanged by the British in 1920, which historian Brian Hanley has noted was “an astute move”, linking one of the most revered figures of the revolutionary period to foreign games. Barry was a rugby and cricket player, and the later sport was also played by Traynor’s Civil War comrade Cathal Brugha. Beyond Brugha and Barry, other participants of the revolutionary period with alignments to ‘garrison games’ include Michael Noyk, a Jewish Dublin-born republican activist and solicitor who was prominently involved in Shamrock Rovers following independence. Todd Andrews, active in the IRA throughout the War of Independence and Civil War, was another who chose association football over Gaelic games. He would joke of the frustrations of life as an interned prisoner in the Curragh in 1921, as the only code of football the prisoners’ leadership allowed was not to his choosing.
In post-revolutionary Ireland, there was time for association football once more. Though serving as Minister for Defence, Traynor managed to also serve as President of the Football Association of Ireland from 1948. Before this, he had utilised his government position for the benefit of sporting liberties; in 1942, he was responsible for amending national army policy that afford the GAA a privileged status. As historian Barry Sheppard has detailed, this didn’t enamour him to the GAA, with the GAA’s President claiming it to be a “retrograde step.” Four years previously, Traynor had sat beside President Douglas Hyde when he attended a fixture in Dalymount, something that led to Hyde’s expulsion from the GAA’s list of patrons. The language around the notorious GAA ‘ban’ on foreign sports had, in some ways, become more extreme post-independence, as the sporting authority sought to establish itself firmly as the official sport of the new state. A Vigilance Committee ensured that members did not dabble in Anglophile kickabouts, with a report on a 1930 disciplinary meeting bizarrely noting that “One player admitted attending the [association football] match in question, but said he did so at the request of his club, to see if other members or players were present.”
It was in the capacity of FAI President that Traynor defied the much-feared Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in 1955, taking to the pitch of Dalymount Park to welcome the Yugoslavian team in a friendly against Ireland. Amidst anti-communist hysteria, McQuaid had attempted to discourage Dubliners from attending this fixture (though more than twenty thousand ignored him), and commentator Philip Greene declined to cover the match. Traynor refused to be drawn into the Archbishop’s squalid debate, stating afterwards that “we have nothing to defend. Our actions have been above board, friendly and will continue so.”
Oscar Traynor died in December 1963, at the age of 77. Less than three years later, the Golden Jubilee of the Easter Rising would see veterans of the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers parade on the pitch of Dalymount Park before an FAI Cup Final. It was, to quote one journalist, “a truly historic occasion…which would have brought joy to the heart of the late president of the FAI, Oscar Traynor.”
Donal Fallon writes for Come Here To Me, a group blog that focuses on the life and culture of Dublin City. Music, history, football, politics and pubs all feature. www.comeheretome.com
Main image: National Library of Ireland