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Dr. Donal McAnallen is researching the topic of GAA players who served with the British Armed Forces in World War 1. 
Dr. Donal McAnallen is researching the topic of GAA players who served with the British Armed Forces in World War 1. 

WW1 and the GAA - a hidden history uncovered


By John Harrington

Dr. Donal McAnallen possess the pre-requisite for any historian worth their salt - an inquisitive mind.

The Tyrone man’s latest body of research, which he’ll publish early in the new year, focuses on what has until recently been a relatively hidden history of GAA players who served with the crown forces in World War 1.

His interest in the topic was first piqued over ten years ago when he read a newspaper article about William Manning who played in the 1912 All-Ireland Football Final with Antrim and then died in 1918 while serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in WW1.

From that point on he kept a watchful eye out for other similar stories, and when birth, marriage, and death records were digitised in recent years he was able to ramp up his research considerably.

“It’s time consuming work, but history is very much about following the curious stories and seeing what's of interest to yourself and other people,” Dr. McAnallen told GAA.ie.

“That's the line I've gone down with this.”

Through often painstaking research, Dr. McAnallen has uncovered 65 individuals from Ulster alone who signed up to serve with the British Armed Forces during WW1.

And after pooling his research with that of fellow historian Dr. Richard McElligott and former Dublin footballer Ross McConnell who focused on the GAA between 1914 and 1918 for his MA thesis, he has verified over 120 members of the GAA who served during the Great War.

So far during his research he’s identified GAA players from 28 counties who enlisted.

Roscommon, Westmeath, Longford, and Fermanagh are the only remaining four counties where he has yet to identify a former GAA player who served in WW1, and he’s appealing to the public for any information that might help him to do so.

“It would be nice to complete the set,” said Dr. McAnallen. “I suppose it does corroborate the point that it was a nationwide thing that did affect the Association right throughout the country.

“A lot of clubs suffered or even fell by the wayside in some cases as a result.

“Even some competitions in certain counties fell by the wayside for a period as a result of the amount of recruitment that took place in the early stages of the war.

“Traditionally the way Gaelic Games histories had tended to be written particularly in the 1980s and onwards at county level and a more local level was generally to highlight and even accentuate the contribution of GAA members in the 1916 Rising, the Irish Volunteers, and the War of Independence.

“Some historians would have even had a tendency to comment that World War 1 didn't really affect the GAA the way it did other sports.”

Patrick Holland was secretary of the Tyrone County Board when he joined the RAF late in the war. Picture courtesy of family/Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library. 
Patrick Holland was secretary of the Tyrone County Board when he joined the RAF late in the war. Picture courtesy of family/Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library. 

The ban on members of the British security forces playing Gaelic Games largely went into an unofficial abeyance at the outbreak of World War 1 when there was large-scale recruitment in Ireland.

It might have been a somewhat taboo subject after the 1916 Rising and by the time the war ended, but a large number of men from a GAA and Irish Nationalist background served with the crown forces during WW1 for a variety of reasons.

100 years on from the end of WW1, and what was once a hidden history is now emerging into the light again.

“There certainly was a reluctance among the Nationalist population to discuss the subject and that's partly because the trappings of commemoration were so much ramped up with the British Legion and Unionist ceremonies and all of that,” said Dr. McAnallen.

“Over the last few years there's been a much greater acceptance of the diversity of war experiences and the nuances and intricacies of the time.

“When you research these stories you don't just get a better picture of the type of men that were involved in the war, you also get a better picture of the GAA at local level and how it operated and the reality of club experiences and their interaction with other sports.

“It tells us a lot about the GAA, not just about the war, and that's why it's of value as well.

“Ultimately, it's fair to say that before 1916 anyway that far more men who had played Gaelic Games served in the British Army in the First World War than played Gaelic Games who were involved in the 1916 Rising.

“That's an aspect we haven't really understood before now. There's a greater interest in that now and there's been a very positive response all around.”

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