Gaelic Sunday 1918 – The day GAA defied the British Empire

March 13th, 2018 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

The Cork team that were All-Ireland hurling champions in 1919. Circled is JJ Walsh, Kilbrittain, President of the county board in 1918, and back row, far left, is Sean McCarthy, chairman of the county board, 1917 - 1937, the man who got all board members to take the anti-conscription pledge.

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GAA must celebrate the 100th anniversary of August 4th, insists TOM LYONS

GAA must celebrate the 100th anniversary of August 4th, insists TOM LYONS


AUGUST 4th next should see the GAA celebrating the centenary of one of the greatest days in its long and proud history. 

Exactly 100 years ago, on August 4th, 1918, the Gaelic Athletic Association, only 34 years in existence and struggling to survive in a time of great political upheaval in Ireland, took on the might of the great British Empire, stared it straight in the eyes and won. 

That famous day became known in Irish history as ‘Gaelic Sunday’ and while most Irish people are familiar with Bloody Sunday 1920, and the horrific events in Croke Park, Gaelic Sunday has been forgotten by many, except ardent GAA followers. 

We have yet to hear of any plans by the GAA to celebrate the centenary in August but that day in 1918 laid down a marker in Irish history that the British could not ignore. The Irish were not for shifting and within three years would be celebrating independence.

World War 1, the war that was to have ended by the first Christmas, 1914, was still raging in 1918 and the British passed a bill in April to introduce conscription in Ireland. 

Although thousands of young Irishmen had willingly gone to war, urged on by the great politician and leader of the National Volunteers, John Redmond, by 1918 the tide of opinion had turned completely against the war, the executions following the 1916 Rising, and the imprisonment of thousands of Irish people, including many GAA men, subsequently causing a seismic change in the attitude of the ordinary Irish people.

When the British announced plans to introduce conscription, Ireland responded, apart from the Unionist element, with a resounding no. All levels of Irish society objected to conscription and many meetings to sign an anti-conscription pledge were chaired by members of the clergy. 

The GAA joined other associations in voicing its objections to conscription. Sean McCarthy of Knockavilla, a very strong club in the Upton area, was chairman of the Cork County Board and he not only began each meeting with a short lesson in Irish but also got each board member to sign the pledge.

John Redmond had died in March and the Irish Party, under new leader John Dillon, withdrew from Westminster in protest at conscription, never to return, but their day was almost done thanks to the rise of Sinn Féin.

The National Congress of the Volunteers was held in Croke Park and the decision was taken to go to war with Britain if conscription was introduced.  

Because the British authorities strongly identified the GAA with the 1916 Rising and with the subsequent growth of Sinn Féin and nationalism, clubs and members were continually harassed by the RIC and the military but the GAA games continued.

In response to Ireland’s opposition to conscription the British Government in May introduced a law prohibiting large gatherings. This included all GAA games. 

Any club wishing to play a game would have to apply for a special permit from the authorities. Naturally the GAA refused to accept this situation and ordered all clubs not to apply for permits but the harassment of its members increased. 

A harmless camogie match in Dunmanway, on Feis Day, was stopped by the military who bravely put the run on the ladies and attacked some of the supporters. 

Matters took a turn for the worse when Martial Law was introduced in many areas and travel became a major difficulty. The county board tried to continue its programme of fixtures but matches often had to be postponed five or six times.

The GAA authorities decided enough was enough and to take on the British authorities. A national day of protest against the harsh measures was announced and Sunday, August 4th, was designated ‘Gaelic Sunday’, when every team in Ireland was asked to play a game of football or hurling, without seeking permission from the authorities. 

Over 1,800 games were played all over the country, with 54,000 players involved, the greatest act of defiance to the British authorities between 1916 and 1921, apart from the military campaign carried out by the IRA. 

The authorities were powerless in face of this defiance and the ban was effectively broken, although harassment by the police continued. 

The defiance of the GAA was an example for the rest of the country to follow and within four months the War of Independence was underway.

How fared the clubs of West Cork on Gaelic Sunday? Unfortunately, no written record exists of that day of any matches that were played in West Cork. Was West Cork, which was to take the brunt of the ‘Black and Tan’ war, found wanting on the day?

Unfortunately, press coverage of GAA activity in West Cork in 1918 is almost non-existent. This was due mainly to the suppression of The Southern Star for most of the year. 

At the beginning of 1918 The Southern Star was taken over by a very strong Nationalist group and it was noticeable in the increased coverage of the Sinn Féin Party meetings and the lessening of the World War news. 

Unfortunately, the editor, Ernan de Blaghd, was arrested at the start of March because he had defied a military order to live in Ulster. 

The newspaper itself was suppressed for the rest of the year, which meant we had to rely totally on the Skibbereen Eagle for any local GAA news.

It should also be noted that paper had been rationed and the price had quadrupled since the beginning of the war. 

In order to continue its news coverage properly, the Skibbereen Eagle decided to reduce the size of the print, the newspaper being limited to four pages. Reading the small print was not an easy task. The coverage of Gaelic games was one of the areas that suffered seriously from the cutbacks.

We do know that a number of West Cork teams, including Kinsale, entered county championships in 1918 as follows:

Division I Football: Bantry were the only West Cork team involved in this championship and they received a bye in Round 1.

Division II Football: Eleven teams took part in this championship, with three West Cork teams involved, Skibbereen, Bandon and Knockavilla. In an open draw Skibbereen were drawn against Bandon, and Knockavilla were drawn against Fermoy II.

Division III Football: The draws are not available but among the competing teams were Dohenys, Kinsale, Skibbereen II, Knockavilla II, Bantry II, , Valley Rovers, Carbery Rangers, Kilmacabea and  St. Peter’s (Tullig/Carrigfada).

Division III Hurling: Draws not available. Only Kilbrittain, Bandon and Kinsale are listed as taking part.

Very few match reports are available of games involving those teams but we do know that Knockavilla, beaten county finalists in Division III football in 1917, reached the Division II final in 1918 but lost to Millstreet by 0-2 to nil. Kinsale actually won Division III of the county hurling championship, beating Doneraile by 4-1 to 2-1. Both those finals were not played until March, 1919.

It is interesting that in 1918 for the first time we find hurling being played in Ballydehob, who played a series of matches against neighbours Schull, but they didn’t play in the championship. Ballydehob has always remained a bastion of hurling in the far west.

As regards Gaelic Sunday, we have no record of any of the games played in West Cork, which is a pity. 

What we do know is that the day was an extremely wet one which would have discouraged any playing activity but according the Cork Examiner on Monday, August 5th, some 40 matches were arranged by the Cork County Board in observance of Gaelic Sunday. 

This was in compliance with an order from Luke O’Toole, secretary of the Central Council. No list is available of those games. 

While the GAA had stood its ground against the British Empire, it was unable to do so against the flu epidemic which struck all over the world in late 1918. 

Known as the ‘Spanish’ or ‘Big’ flu, it killed thousands in Ireland, many between the ages of 20 and 40 years, and brought GAA activity to a complete standstill. Many young GAA men were among the victims. Whereas the World War that ended in November had cost 16 million lives, the dreaded flu virus killed over 50 million world-wide.

The success of the GAA in opposing the British as regards permits for large gatherings was mirrored at the end of 1918 when Sinn Féin swept the boards in the General Election, winning 73 seats out of 105. 

The old dominant Irish Party captured  a mere six and disappeared from the political scene. The Sinn Féin elected members, many of them GAA men and some in jail, refused to take up their seats in Westminster and set up Dáil Éireann in January, 1919.

The spirit of defiance shown by the GAA on Gaelic Sunday had indeed borne fruit in more ways than one and, hopefully, the present generation of GAA people will not neglect to honour the GAA people of 1918 who took on the British Empire, and it was the Empire that blinked first.

As August 4th is a Saturday this year it is an ideal opportunity to repeat the exercise of 1918, to get every club in the country to play a match that day in honour of the players of 1918.

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