Featured: Base Football Players

douglas hyde

The removal of the GAA ban on foreign games in Ireland.

Playing and enjoying football has long drawn criticism from those in positions of power. Such was the low view in which football was once held in England that its most famous playwright, William Shakespeare, had one character insult another by calling him a “base football player” in King Lear. The folk tradition of Shrovetide (that’s Pancake Tuesday to you and me) football in Derby was outlawed in the 1860s.

Soccer in Ireland began to be played from the late 1870s onwards, but was not without those who attempted to prohibit it, even if it wasn’t exactly outlawed. From the time the GAA was founded in late 1884, there was much debate about who could and could not be a member. Relatively early on in the organisation’s history, a ban was placed on members of the military and the Royal Irish Constabulary (the name until 1922 of Ireland’s police force) from joining the GAA.

But in 1905, a new ban was enacted that forbade any member of the GAA from either participating in or even watching ‘foreign’ games. Of course, the foreign games being referred to weren’t all foreign games. In reality the ban imposed on the GAA membership was explicitly about them playing cricket, hockey, rugby or soccer. The ban on foreign games wasn’t a straightforward affair however and its long and tangled history came to an end in 1971, when it was decided at that year’s annual GAA Congress to delete the ban from the rulebook. But attempts to have the ban removed had occurred prior to its deletion in 1971.

Immediately following Irish independence, in three successive years, delegates from various county boards sought to have the rule deleted in 1924, 1925, and 1926. The question of foreign games spun thousands of words in newspaper columns and speeches at committee meetings in that era. Some saw the ban as the last defence against the increasing Anglicisation of Irish culture. As one commentator in the provincial press had it in the 1920s:
“There is grave danger of a big land-slide towards West Britonism as exemplified by the Jazz-Soccer-Golfstick mentality which is on the increase in this country today”. Others saw it, in a post-independence Irish Free State, as a relic drawn from a different time, but it would take almost another fifty years before the ban was lifted.

liam brady world cup draw

Liam Brady was threatened with expulsion from school for playing for the Irish U15s instead of a Gaelic football game Pic: Davey Blackett

Amid all of this rancour, the ban persisted. In what must surely stand as the most famous example of its application, 1938 saw Douglas Hyde (main image) banned from the GAA for attending an international soccer match. Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League, then President of Ireland and long-standing patron of the GAA, the man who said in 1892 that “the work of the [Gaelic athletic] association in reviving our ancient national game of camán, or hurling, and Gaelic football, has done more for Ireland than all the speeches of politicians for the last five years….” was removed as a patron of the GAA in 1938 following his attendance of an Irish international fixture between Poland and Ireland at Dalymount Park.

brady cropDespite the seeming lunacy of insisting on banning Hyde, this did not deter the GAA, nor did it stymie the continued enforcing of a rule considered anachronistic and increasingly recognised more in the breach than in the observance. So-called vigilance committees were operated in some places that sent trusted club servants out to soccer and rugby matches to spy on the crowds and players in case they should find any members enjoying these ‘foreign’ games. If you were caught, you were liable for suspension from your GAA involvements.

However, as Donal McAnallen has pointed out in his history of the GAA at third level institutions, the rules were applied more liberally in certain cases. Famously, Moss Keane, one of Ireland’s great rugby players, only began his rugby career in college, while also playing Gaelic football. So it was that by the late 1960s, the ban on foreign games had all but run out of steam. Yet, its death was a slow and strange one, played out in the national press. Its decline and eventual deletion came amid growing tensions in Northern Ireland following an escalation of violence there as a civil rights movement turned into open sectarian conflict.

“Whether they would have wished it or not, the GAA found itself in a changed and changing Ireland.”

Soccer was no longer to be found alone in those enclaves of the game like Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford , or Derry. It was increasingly a phenomenon experienced by those who had never attended a League of Ireland game in their lives.Liam Brady was expelled from a Christian Brothers school for representing Ireland in an underage football game. Image Davey Blackett   Anyone with a television and a half decent signal could watch soccer in Ireland with increased regularity from the 1960s onwards. In 1966, RTÉ relayed almost 18 hours of television coverage of that year’s World Cup, hosted and won by neighbours England. In 1970, the number of hours devoted to televised coverage of the World Cup had grown. That World Cup was also a chance for RTÉ to show off its ability to broadcast live television in colour. With hours of soccer on television, and with new soccer clubs popping up in territory once staunchly GAA like Bridge United in Sixmilebridge, Co. Clare in 1967, the tide was very much against the maintaining of the ban on foreign games in the GAA.

One early sign in 1970 that some felt action needed to be taken against the ban saw a small group of players and ex-players from Drogheda wielding placards outside Croke Park on the day of the Leinster Gaelic football final between Meath and Mayo. The protesters, according to the Sunday Independent newspaper report, also had hopes of organising a one-day strike against the ban’s continued existence.

It was in this milieu that the GAA gained a new president, Pat Fanning, from Waterford. Fanning would have the unenviable job of ushering in a new era, and would oversee the eventual deletion of the ban from the GAA rule book. A few months after the Leinster final protest, two GAA clubs in Monaghan tabled a motion for their upcoming county convention to have the rule deleted, followed in December by a similar vote being put by a Wexford based hurling club, the Enniscorthy Shamrocks, in December of 1970, according to the Irish Independent.

As Christmas time approached, Sport in Action, a magazine programme on the state television service hosted a debate on the rule. The critical mass for the ban’s deletion was mounting, even if some within the GAA wished to see it maintained like Killarney Legion football club and Killarney hurling club.

It is perhaps ironic then that one of the key drivers of the change was also a Kerryman, Tom Woulfe, who had spent much of his life and career in Dublin and was a founder member of the Dublin Civil Service Gaelic football team in the 1930s. Woulfe was a passionate advocate of removing the ban, following his experiences with fellow Irishmen in the Second World War, who happened to be rugby and soccer players.

Woulfe had a letter urging clubs to seek the ban’s removal printed in some fifty provincial newspapers. Around the same time, a special meeting was set up between Pat Fanning, the GAA president, Neil Blaney TD, president of the Football Association of Ireland, Judge JC Conroy, chairman of the Leinster Branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union and Ronnie Delaney who won gold for Ireland in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympic games in the 1500 metres.

Part of this historic bringing together of these major figures in Irish sports and public life was to discuss the future of Irish sport and the future of the ban. By February of 1971, some 19 different county boards (including London) had voted in favour of getting rid of the ban.

With pressure mounting on the issue, that year’s annual congress of the GAA saw the momentous decision to remove Rule 27, the ban, from the rulebook of the organisation. That year’s congress was held in Belfast, and there was an undoubted symbolism about a rule that had become emblematic of the GAA’s commitment to Irish nationalism being removed in a city that like the rest of Northern Ireland was being torn apart by civil conflict over national identity.

Pat Fanning’s speech on the occasion of the lifting of the ban reflected as much. In the weeks, months and years following the removal of the ban, it took time to disentangle people from it and in the initial period following the decision to remove the rule, the daily newspapers carried stories of those affected by the ban’s end.

One such story was that of Michael Taaffe, who was selected to play for Louth in July 1971 in their Gaelic football minor match against Dublin at Croke Park while also being in the Drogheda squad in soccer, recent winners of the FAI Youth Cup. Just a season earlier this would have been an impossibility.

The days of leading double lives between your passions for two types of football were at an end in Ireland. No more would vigilance committees be seen scanning crowds at soccer grounds Dalymount Park, Kilcohan, Turner’s Cross or the Market’s Field. No more were the footballers of Ireland base football players.

David Toms is a sport historian and author of ‘Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937’ published by Cork University Press. Follow on Twitter: @daithitoms

This article appears in Issue 2 of Póg Mo Goal magazine, the new Irish football publication focused on considered design and great writing from around the world. It’s available to order here.

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