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Michael Collins, Luke O'Toole, and Harry Boland pictured at Croke Park. O'Toole was General Secretary of the GAA from 1901 to 1929 and central to the success of 'Gaelic Sunday'. 

Michael Collins, Luke O'Toole and Harry Boland at Croke Park for the September 11, 1921 Leinster Hurling Final. Dublin won the match on the score of Dublin 4-04 Kilkenny 1-05.   

Countdown to Gaelic Sunday commemorations


August 4, 1918 will be remembered as one of the most remarkable and significant days in the history of the GAA. Known as Gaelic Sunday – it was a day when the clubs of the GAA stood against the British Empire and triumphed in a peaceful protest.

In 1918 the British authorities in Ireland were trying to impose conscription to supplement the war effort but there was massive opposition to this. British authorities blamed the GAA in part for this opposition and hit back by preventing matches from taking place, stopping the provision of special trains to carry supporters to matches and insisting that a written permit was required granting permission for any GAA match to take place.

In response the GAA declared a national day of defiance and called on GAA clubs all over Ireland to refuse to seek a permit and instead organise club activity for 3pm on Sunday, August 4. The result was that an estimated 54,000 took part with more than 100,000 watching and such was the success of the initiative that the attempt to impose a requirement for a license to play Gaelic games was scrapped.

This year marks the centenary of that courageous act and we want GAA Clubs all over Ireland to show a similar level of pride in their club, their games and the area they represent.

Across the weekend of August 4&5 we want clubs to hold their own club events as part of these commemorations. It could be an internal club tournament, family day or club history exhibit. What matters is that 100 years on we still have games and GAA clubs we are proud of.

By Cian O'Connell

A century later the relevance of Gaelic Sunday remains an interesting topic. A defiant statement was made with the GAA beginning to stitch itself into the fabric of Irish society.

Former GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghail, who holds a keen interest in historical matters, is adamant about how critical the event was. On Wednesday evening at the GAA Museum in Croke Park Ó Fearghail will provide an informative talk on Gaelic Sunday, especially what happened surrounding Cavan’s Ulster Championship clash against Armagh at Cootehill on July 18, 1918.

“It all started and it was driven by Eoin O'Duffy and the Ulster Council over a banned match,” Ó Fearghail remarks. “There were many different issues where the GAA were finding difficulties with the permits. It did all come to a head with an Ulster Semi-Final.

“Cavan were due to play Armagh in Cootehill on July 18, 1918. A permit was requested and 150 armed British soliders were on the pitch when the GAA arrived. A permit was presented to Eoin O'Duffy, who was Secretary of the Ulster Council. He was told if he signed it the match could go ahead, but he refused to sign it and it led to a standoff.

“An emergency meeting of the Ulster Council endorsed what O'Duffy had done. At that Ulster Council meeting they proposed unanimously they would hold a Gaelic Sunday throughout Ulster and they would bring the motion to Central Council, and hopefully to all of Ireland.

“That is subsequently what happened. O'Duffy was Secretary of the Ulster Council, but he was also a rising star of the IRB and Irish volunteers at the time.”

A tense situation developed in Cootehill, but admirable patience was shown. “The game didn't take place,” Ó Fearghail adds. “Reports vary, the Freemans Journal suggests crowds between 5,000-10,000. The Northern Standard, a Monaghan unionist paper, suggested it was hundreds so I suppose in truth maybe 2,000-3,000 were there to attend the match.

“They went into Cootehill. A local priest Fr O'Connell addressed the crowd and told them to go home peacefully. He was Arthur Griffith's election agent, a bye election had just taken place in East Cavan so he was a man with a lot of influence over the people. They did what he asked and they went home peacefully. The match didn't take place on that day, the military stayed on the pitch in Cootehill.”

Suddenly several crucial decisions needed to be made. The Ulster Council backed O’Duffy and Gaelic Sunday took place only a matter of weeks later. “It is the background to it, the banned match in Cootehill will be the main focus of what my talk will be about, the events of Gaelic Sunday are fairly well known at this stage so it will be more the background from the game in Cootehill, to the meeting of the Ulster Council, to the meeting of Central Council,” Ó Fearghail states.

“An interesting aside on Gaelic Sunday the matches went ahead at venues all over Ireland on the same day, at the same time. They were fixed for 3 o'clock, the military and RIC watched, but they only prevented one match in all of Ireland from taking place. That was in Clones, the home club of Eoin O'Duffy.

“So they clearly knew who was behind all of it. They occupied the pitch in Clones and it was the only place where the match was prevented. Of course O'Duffy got a field outside of Clones. It is all part of the talk.”

Former GAA President Aogan O Fearghail.
Former GAA President Aogan O Fearghail.

How the GAA found solutions to problems at the time was due to clever planning, and Fearghail stresses what was accomplished.

“It did a number of things. Firstly it showed very clearly that when the games were threatened that is when the GAA mobilised. It did so very effectively and powerfully. They had been threatened in many other ways from 1884, but when the games themselves were threatened the GAA reacted and pressed the nuclear button in a very strong way.

“The other thing that Gaelic Sunday did was it solidified the GAA in every parish and community around the country. That may not have been there before then, but once they organised a fixture for every parish or local area around the country that certainly brought the GAA to every community.”

How clubs co-operated with each other forged relationships and also gained in belief shouldn’t be underestimated according to Ó Fearghail. “The whole organisation of it demonstrated the power of the GAA.

“Very few organisations in 1918 when we consider the communication that was available would have been able to do what they did. They arranged a meeting, they issued an instruction, not an edict, but they did issue an instruction for clubs to have a match, and that is what happened within 10 days.

“I would suggest when we look at the strengths of the GAA it got stronger after Gaelic Sunday. It brought it to the people that hadn't been there in large swathes of the country.”

Through working together people in Ireland began to realise that they really were part of a wider community. “The biggest issue facing a lot of nationalists in Ireland certainly in the early part of the 20th century was isolation,” Ó Fearghail explains.

“Again maybe it was part of communication, but through the vehicle of the GAA young Irish women and men were now able to identify with it, and I would stress it was very much women too.

“The Camogie Association were hugely part of it. Croke Park was closed on Gaelic Sunday, nobody was allowed into it and The Camogie Association arranged a match on Jones Road right up and down the road now where The Croke Park Hotel is built. The Camogie Association were very much to the fore, and members of Cumann na mBan were part of Gaelic Sunday.

“It was very much a male-female thing, and it did strengthen the notion that belonging to a bigger Association mattered.

“You were promoting Gaelic Games, indigenous games, it was very difficult to do, today or any time, but the fact that you were in it with a large group together was important. The whole notion of having to seek a permit to play a match from a government that very few in the GAA had any respect for was certainly the tipping point.”

On Wednesday, August 1 at 6.30pm in the GAA Museum former President of the GAA, Aogán Ó Fearghail, will deliver a talk on the impact and significance of Gaelic Sunday. This is a free event, but tickets must be booked in advanced at** https://crokepark.ie/gaelic-sunday.

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