Ignoring Postcolonialism:
The Gaelic Athletic Association and the Language of Colony


Mike Cronin

De Monfort University, Leicester UK

Copyright © 1999 by Mike Cronin, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S.Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. As the calendar has moved ever closer to the end of the twentieth century, a fierce debate has developed in Ireland that seeks to locate the nation in a contextual framework. Each of the three main perspectives that have emerged within the debate provides the nation one of three prefixes. Ireland is either constructed or understood as modern (Waters,1997), postnationalist (Kearney, 1997) or postcolonial (Graham, 1994).

  2. One of the difficulties of all these approaches is that they are all, by their very nature, millenarian. They are tightly focused on an interpretation and reading of Irish culture and identity as it is understood at the end of the twentieth century and the second millennium. The last vestiges of a coherent and insular Irish-Celtic society were destroyed by the incursions of Strongbow and his successors in the first century of the millennium. Since that date Ireland, as the nation appears in many histories and writings, has fought to return to some ideal of inclusive prosperity. In the wake of the revolutionary period of the early twentieth century and the gradual modernisation of Ireland that was heralded by the Lemass years (1959-66), the nation has finally, in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, achieved its nirvana. The evolution of postcolonial studies dates back to the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, but the major application of the theory to the Irish situation does not begin until the 1990s,[1] thereby shadowing and mirroring the emergence of the very inclusiveness and modernity of the Irish Republic that it effectively celebrates.

  3. Such a state of contentment, the very focus for redefining Ireland by the different prefixes, has concentrated predominantly on a reading solely of the Republic of Ireland and an increasingly self-confident and powerful Irish diaspora. Allusions are made that point to an Ireland that has succeeded because of its ‘Celtic’ Tiger economy, the pervasiveness of its culture and literature, the confident nature of its people, and the modernising and emancipating secularity that has been such a feature of the Robinson (1990-7) and MacAlesee (1997-) Presidencies.

  4. The prefix-driven redefining of Ireland cuts history in two, by dividing the new Ireland from the old. The old Ireland was dominated by gunmen, clerics, parochial politicians and an obsession with insularity. The new Ireland is aware of the global, pro-European and inclusive. The image of, and belief in, the new nation is also, by necessity, underpinned by an intellectual and cultural decision that omits Northern Ireland from the equation. The only time that Northern Ireland can be embraced is during those positive times over the recent years when the peace process has been applauded. During the negative times, when the peace process becomes slow and regressive, such as the failure of the first cease-fire, the activities of the Real IRA in Omagh, or during the Orange marching season, the tribalism of the north serves to disqualify itself from membership of the new Ireland.

  5. Postcolonial readings of Ireland have focused on a positive interpretation of the Republic of Ireland in the modern era, and have taken its works of literature as their locus. Such postcolonial perspectives have a problem in tackling the continued ‘struggle’ in Northern Ireland that revolves around issues relating to culture, identity, religion and territory. Within Ireland there appears to exist two contradictory groupings: those who support the new Ireland and embrace postcoloniality and those northern Republicans who continue to perceive themselves as fighting a colonial struggle. The existence of these competing perspectives clearly illustrates the difficulties inherent in assessing the ‘national’ history of Ireland. As Luke Gibbons noted, ‘"Post" in this context [postcolonialism], signifies a form of historical closure, but it is precisely the absence of a sense of ending which has characterized the national narratives of Irish history. This has less to do with the unfinished business of a united Ireland than with the realisation that there is no possibility of undoing history, of removing all the accretions of conquest’ (Gibbons, 1996, 179).

  6. The Irish postcolonial literary canon can therefore be viewed as a method of dealing with, and escaping the past. The problematic for the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the focal point of this paper, is that they cannot escape the past. The GAA is still engaged in a process whereby they are confronting and proclaiming their history. While political groups such as Sinn Féin are forced to deal with the colonial nature of their struggle, and to confront the colonial enemy in the peace negotiations, the GAA is not. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how the GAA is taking the last stand for an exclusive identity that is located within the language and lived experience of the colonial struggle.

  7. For the GAA, Ireland is a colony, and not a postcolonial nation. Essentially the GAA is still locked in Frantz Fanon’s thinking on postcolonialism and the nation, as outlined by Colin Graham. ‘The progression [towards the nation] here is obvious: colonisation > resurgence > nationalism > liberation > the nation’. (Graham, 1994, 30) Graham argues that Fanon’s systematic linking of the postcolonial exercise with the open promotion of achieving the independent nation, has drawn postcolonial theorists ‘into defending the postcolonial nation as an ethically and politically proper readjustment of the wrong of colonisation’. (Graham, 1994, 30) While Graham is correct in his assertion that Fanon’s scheme produces a myopic understanding of postcolonialism, it is a scheme that pervades much thinking that surrounds postcolonialism. This paper argues that the GAA is still locked into a colonial mindset, and is not representative of, or included in, the ‘modern’ Republic of Ireland that has come to represent postcoloniality. The GAA is still locked in Fanon’s journey, caught somewhere between liberation and the nation. Until that journey is completed, the GAA’s discourse, its organisation, political beliefs and modes of thinking will continue to be shaped by the language of the colony. The relationship that exists between the GAA, the peace process and changing notions of the colonial and postcolonial status, will be discussed later in the paper.

  8. This paper will explore a brief history of the GAA’s origins and its current role within Northern Ireland within the context of postcolonial and colonial modes of thought and action. In outlining such a history, this paper will demonstrate how far the GAA is at odds with the current model of postcolonialism that is put forward within Ireland. It will conclude that the GAA does not play a role in, indeed is excluded, from all debates that surround the emergence of the prefix dominated definitions and ideals of Ireland. In the context of the arguments presented here it is noticeable that within three different spheres; history, cultural studies and popular commentary, that sport generally, and the GAA specifically, is excluded from any understanding of ‘modern’ Ireland. This is surprising when the total membership of the GAA is considered: it is the second largest organisation across all thirty two counties of Ireland after the Catholic Church.[2]

  9. The GAA was founded in 1884 at Hayes Hotel in Thurles.[3] The driving force behind the Association was the Dublin-based teacher Michael Cusack. The initial stated aims of the GAA were straightforward: to preserve and promote Irish national and native games.[4] Cusack was driven by a realisation that the Irish native games of hurling and football were dying out. The near demise of the games was a result of a combination of factors; the famine had dislocated many traditional patterns of social interaction, the Church had campaigned against the great fairs that had served as a venue for the games, and the introduction of ‘British’ sports were proving more popular than the traditional Irish ones among certain sectors of society.

  10. Cusack believed that the destruction of the Irish games, and their replacement with imported sports, was undermining the strength of the Irish nation. Cusack was a nationalist and the GAA, as with so many of the other organisations involved in the cultural reawakening of Ireland, was driven by an agenda that sought to halt the effects of British colonialism. He wanted to preserve native culture, arrest the incursion of English habits and customs, and ultimately drive the British out of Ireland. Working alongside the veteran Irish athlete, Maurice Davin, Cusack set to work drawing up a series of rules so that the traditional games could be modernised and standardised.[5] This would ensure their popularity and increase support for the GAA cause.

  11. It is during the initial months of the GAA that the variety of reasons for the Association’s primary, indeed continued success, can be located. Cusack brought together three key elements that would underpin and inspire the popular support for the GAA. All the reasons behind this success were played out in the context of colonial relationships and discourse.

  12. First, he recognised that there was a constituency among the Irish people for their native games. Building on the British experience of modern sport, Cusack, so ably and importantly assisted by Davin, set out the rules by which the different Gaelic games should be played.[6] In taking such a step, Cusack ensured that all parties who were interested in taking up or supporting the games would be playing or watching a universally recognised sport with commonly agreed rules. The sporting success of the GAA in establishing and promoting and codified and popular games is the first key in understanding the success of the GAA.

  13. Cusack and Davin’s adoption and utilisation of British sporting rules and forms of organisation can be located within subaltern approaches to postcolonialism. By adapting British methods of sporting organisation, and by replicating many of the ideologically-constructed norms of the British Public School that were attached to the playing of sport, the GAA imitated rather than distancing themselves from their colonial overlords. While seeking to support the movement towards Irish political and territorial nationalism, the GAA, as a branch of the cultural nationalist movement, adopted colonial forms of behaviour and control within sporting rules, organisation and ideologies. However, to simply label Cusack and followers as mere mirrors of their colonial overlords would be to betray the ideals of the GAA as the specific case in point here, and to construct fixed rules and points of reference within the subaltern debate that do not, indeed cannot exist.

  14. Cusack’s primary concern was the construction of a national, Irish and by its nature, anti-British organisation, that sought to remove Ireland from its colonial position to a place of freedom and independence. In this Cusack embarked on the journey outlined by Fanon. In the context of the 1880s, this process was meant to transform the resurgence into nationalism; a struggle between coloniser and colonised. Clearly in this construct, the GAA of the 1880s had not reached the supposed haven of a national independence viewed as a state of postcoloniality, and while its adoption of British norms may have subaltern overtones, its clear adherence to nationalism, as outlined below, is of primary importance.

  15. The second element behind the rapid spread of the GAA lay in its clear linkage with the ideology and language of Irish nationalism.[7] In the months leading up to the Thurles meeting that established the GAA, Cusack had appealed for the support of individuals who would back the establishment of a national movement. Implicit in his appeal was a recognition of one of the main themes in the public sphere at the time, the promotion of the culture of the Irish nation and its traditions. The GAA sits perfectly within this theme. The linkage was strengthened at the Thurles meeting as a result of who gathered in Hayes Hotel, and who those individuals selected as patrons of the new Association.

  16. Alongside those driven by a sporting agenda such as Cusack and Davin, men driven by a political agenda also gathered. Present in Thurles were three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). From the first meeting in 1884, right through to the foundation of the Irish Free State, the IRB would have a profound effect on the Association.[8] Within the minds of many interested observers, such as the Dublin Castle authorities, the IRB’s involvement with the GAA removed the Association from the solely sporting sphere. The GAA would become part of a movement that espoused the virtues of physical force nationalism. In doing so they became the symbol, publicly at least, of the colonial struggle.

  17. Aside from establishing the GAA-IRB relationship that would have such an important impact on the Association across the three decades after 1884, the men gathered in Thurles selected three patrons for the GAA that firmly and openly linked it with the forces of political nationalism. Whereas the IRB’s relationship with the GAA was a secretive matter, the choice of the patrons was openly published in the newspapers of the time, as were the letters from the patrons accepting their posts.[9] The patrons chosen were Archbishop Croke, Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell. Such choices instantly gave the GAA nationalist credentials as all three were representative of the most important strands of the contemporary nationalist struggle: the campaigning Catholic cleric, the Land Leaguer and the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

  18. The Thurles meeting produced a clear alliance between the GAA and Irish nationalism, an alliance that continues to this day. The linkage between the GAA and nationalism is one that has not, within the minds of the GAA, reached closure. There is no sense in which ‘postnationalism’ or any other prefix-laden term is appropriate to uses, as the ‘struggle’ for the GAA’s constitutional commitment to a thirty-two county Ireland has yet to be completed. Within the postcolonial debate in Ireland it appears that achieving the ‘post’ state is a endorsement of success. How is such success achieved and mediated? Is it the expulsion of the coloniser or the reinvention and/or preservation of a national, and therefore non-colonial culture? If success is mediated by self-ordained goals, then the GAA has clearly not reached the postcolonial stage; it has not met with its own constitutional agenda which is such a virulent and important product of its history and its lived experience. When the GAA has ‘defeated’ or driven out the British, has it succeeded? Will it then achieve the contentment of postcoloniality? Until there is an element of closure within the context of the present troubles in Ireland, and some form of a 32 county nation has been achieved, many within the GAA will not believe that Ireland can be a postcolonial nation. To move this debate onwards and to recognise that GAA is not a monolithic ‘official’ institution, but has links with its constituency, the final historical reason behind its success requires outlining.

  19. The third element that ensured the GAA’s success was its choice of organisational structure. Whereas other sports in Ireland arranged themselves around schools and colleges, were based in factories and other places of employment, or emerged on an ad hoc basis, the GAA chose the parish as its template for organisation. The thinking behind the decision was simple but would have a profound and important effect on the GAA. By choosing the parish as its structure, the Association openly allied itself with the Catholic Church, the single most important and powerful body at the time. It also gave the people an instantly recognisable framework around which they could establish clubs.

  20. The parish focus allowed the players and followers of Gaelic games to forge instant ties with their home parish, and equally instant rivalries with the parishes down the road. That the GAA spread quickly across Ireland in the latter half of the 1880s and clubs were set up in the majority of parishes.[10] Once established, clubs had local matches to play and rivalries to forge. The parish system also meant that the GAA instantaneously became a national movement. It did not have to rely on a structure organically forming and spreading.[11] The parish system stretched from coast to coast and was commonly understood by all. The GAA used the system to its own advantage and secured its immediate success. The parish system also imbued all Irishmen and women who involved themselves with the GAA with the language and spirit of the organisation’s colonial struggle.

  21. The early years and instantaneous popularity of the GAA explain why the organisation and its games became truly national. The Association promoted popular games to a populace hungry for leisure activity. It imbued the games with the prevalent ideology of the time, that of nationalism. Finally, the GAA, with its product and message to promote, utilised the largest national geographic unit available through which its message could be transmitted: the parish system of the Catholic Church. Once in place, the national spread of the GAA, would remain unchallenged by any other sporting body, indeed it could be argued by any Irish organisation with the exception of the Church itself.

  22. In the early 1920s and period surrounding the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, the GAA, despite remaining neutral in the Civil War, never considered splitting its organisation along the lines of the border as happened in soccer: it never countenanced the acceptance that Ireland had reached a postcolonial idyll in 1921/2. It remained, as it had been since its foundation, an all-Ireland body committed to the creation of a united Ireland. In the Irish Free State, and subsequently in the Irish Republic, the GAA placed itself as the single most important sporting and cultural body. As a result of its role in promoting native culture, the popularity of its games and its much-hyped role in the period of revolution, the GAA has always been well funded by central government.

  23. The GAA's position in the north of Ireland is traditionally more problematic. Whereas in the Irish Republic the GAA is supported by the government and does not challenge the dominant religious or political culture, its position in the north is one of opposition to the majority culture. The GAA draws its support and its following in Northern Ireland only from the broadly-defined Catholic and nationalist population. It does not draw any support from the broad Protestant and unionist population. As a result of this division and the GAA's open embrace of Irish nationalism, the Association’s position in Northern Ireland is a complex signifier of the ongoing colonial struggle.

  24. As an organisation that has a role on either side of the Irish border, yet which stresses allegiance to the ideals and aspirations of Irish nationalism, the GAA has played a role in the politics of Northern Ireland and its troubles. What is difficult to fathom is whether the GAA's role in the affairs of Northern Ireland is self-ordained or whether it has merely been reacting to a series of situations over which it had no control in the last three decades (such as the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s or the advent of the Hunger Strikes in 1981). What is certain is that the GAA has had a political function. As Sugden and Bairner noted, ‘as the oppositional political dimension of the GAA in the Republic disappeared, north of the border its controversial political profile has remained high. At no time has Northern Ireland, as a political entity, achieved total acceptance from the minority Irish Catholic population and, in continued support for the cause of Irish unity, the GAA has gone on playing a political role’.[12]

  25. In the three decades since the eruption of the violence in the north in 1969, the GAA has undoubtedly played an important role in providing the Catholic and nationalist population with an arena in which to pursue their own cultural and sporting pastimes; a continuation of the nineteenth century theme of self-definition against the colonial other.

  26. In a Northern Ireland where so many aspects of life have been disrupted, or have involved potentially-threatening contacts with the violent defenders of Northern Ireland's other tradition, the GAA club has been viewed as a safe haven. It is here that members of the minority Catholic and nationalist population have chosen to exclude the other tradition in favour of inclusiveness and the pursuit of a single Irish identity, an identity that is so perfectly encapsulated by the sport and culture of the GAA. Such separateness has been reinforced and underpinned by the official policies of the GAA. The GAA's constitution has always included commitments to the preserving a separate native Irish culture and upholding the right of the Irish people to work towards a united thirty-two county Ireland.

  27. In 1972 the GAA constitution was re-written. Such redrafting was a result of the upsurge in violence in Northern Ireland, greater sympathy for the nationalist cause amongst GAA members and a long running debate that surrounded the political role of the Association. The constitution included a firm commitment to the creation of a united Ireland, and the language used by GAA personnel has constantly stressed the need for action on the whole question of the north's sovereignty. The President of the GAA in 1973, Pat Fanning stated ‘the GAA position is clear. Its historical role is not a myth. Our charter proclaims the determination of the GAA to work for a 32 county Ireland. Our very rules exclude from membership the British Army, undisciplined elements of which are now mounting a fresh reign of terror in our northern land. Our games even in the torn North are still played in GAA fields and under Ireland's flag. The allegiance of the GAA is to Ireland. That allegiance is unequivocal. The very existence of the GAA is a protest not alone against the occupation of Casement Park, but against the occupation of Ireland, or any part of Ireland.’ (Irish Times, 23/4/72) The occupation of Casement Park, the ‘home’ pitch of the Crossmaglen Rangers GAA club was undertaken by the British Army so that the land could be used as a landing pad for army surveillance helicopters. The Casement Park issue has been a live concern for the GAA during the recent peace process, but despite various promises made by the Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, Casement Park is still occupied.

  28. Accompanying the constitution has been an ever present rule book that has consistently embraced a ban on ‘foreign’ (usually taken to mean British) forms of sporting culture and a refusal to accept members of the security forces into its number. Such exclusion has been driven by the fears of members of the GAA. They have always felt that an open membership of the Association would lead to greater levels of intimidation, surveillance of their activities and a dilution of their culture.

  29. The official separateness of the GAA and its decision to exclude foreign forms of culture and the personnel of what it views as external armies, has meant that the traditional sporting distinctiveness of the GAA has been read by many outsiders, not as a benign cultural choice, but as an aggressive political stance. In the battle over the remit of the parades commission [13] in 1997 the exclusion of the GAA provoked the following report in the Irish Times, 'UUP MP Mr Jeffrey Donaldson said his party was not seeking to demonise the Gaelic culture or the GAA. He said, however, there were some features of Gaelic culture which were offensive'. (Irish Times, 17/10/97)

  30. The belief that the Gaelic culture, personified by and encapsulated within the GAA so perfectly, is offensive to the Protestant and unionist community is nothing new. Donaldson's comments of the late 1990s have been often repeated in the annals of Northern Irish, indeed all Irish history. The level of offence caused by, and the political connotations connected with, the exclusiveness of the GAA has been so great that it has led the GAA directly into the paramilitary violence of the modern troubles. In October 1991 the Ulster Defence Association (a Protestant paramilitary group) added the GAA to its lists of legitimate targets because of its 'continual sectarianism and support for the republican movement'. (Independent, 9/10/93) This was reinforced by a later press release which declared that targets are 'those associated with the republican war machine... and identified at least a dozen members of the Gaelic Athletic Association as being involved'. (Guardian, 16/11/91) The reality of this threat has resulted in the deaths of individuals associated with or present at GAA-owned premises, and attacks on GAA clubhouses. In 1992 a man was shot dead while at the Sean Martin GAA club in east Belfast, and the landmark 3,000th victim of the troubles was killed while outside the Lámh Dhearg GAA club in Hannahstown West Belfast. In 1997 Sean Brown was murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries as he locked up the premises of the Bellaghy GAA club. In response to his death Seamus Heaney summed up the sense of loss that the tight GAA community felt when he wrote,
    the Greeks recognised that there was something sacrosanct about the athletic ideal and regarded any violence during the period of the games as sacrilegious. Athletics and drama, two of the great civilising activities of Greece, were two of the activities which Sean Brown promoted. (Guardian, 17/11/97)

  31. The attitude of the British Army has added to the feeling of siege amongst members of the GAA. As Gaelic games were organised on a thirty-two county basis there has always been constant traffic across the border made up of supporters, officials and players of the different teams. These fans, players and officials have been stopped and searched by the army, and in 1988 Aiden McAnespie was shot by the army at a checkpoint while travelling to play Gaelic football in the South. The Army has also been criticised for its occupation of Belfast's Casement Park in the early 1970s, and its use of the Crossmaglen Rangers' ground in South Armagh as a helicopter base.

  32. In the years that the GAA has pursued what is so often considered a political agenda in Northern Ireland, as opposed to a strictly sporting one, it has come under constant scrutiny and both verbal and physical attack. That such attacks emerge within the climate of Northern Ireland's troubles is perhaps unsurprising, but it is a fact that has to be placed in the context of the GAA's own history and its commitment since the late nineteenth century to self-definition against the other, a united Ireland and its organisation as a body that transcends the border.

  33. With the onset of the peace process all members of Northern Irish society were encouraged to examine their beliefs and decide if their own political standpoint was compatible with the spirit of change and whether they had a place in the new Ireland. The para-militaries of both sides, accompanied by politicians of all shades have, albeit with certain reservations, attempted to move forward, away from violence and towards constitutionalism.

  34. During the 1990s, the spirit of reconciliation has had a direct impact on the society and economy of the North as the days of the killings have become part of a collective memory. Increasingly, many, but not all, bodies are questioning their allegiances and their adherence to different forms of symbolism and accepting that in the new Ireland all the different religions, cultures, political loyalties and traditions have to be embraced. Members of the GAA were as hopeful of change as everyone else. After the announcement of the 1994 cease-fire, Michael Walker attempted to assess how practical changes resulting from the peace process would affect the business of the GAA. He wrote, ‘the GAA have always been organised on a 32 county basis and have always been anti-British; their banning of security force personnel legitimised the organisation as a target in the eyes of Loyalist terrorists. If the cease-fire holds, and if the loyalists join it, then the British Army's role would decline and their checkpoints decrease. Last year there were complaints that people going to Gaelic football's Ulster final, and other games, were unnecessarily delayed at checkpoints’. The GAA's Ulster Secretary, Micky Feeney was delighted with the cease-fire and hoped to see demilitarisation quickly. ‘Just in certain areas’ he said ‘checkpoints were holding people up, border checkpoints especially. We'd hope very shortly that all that would go’. (Observer, 4/9/94)

  35. Feeney could see the obvious benefits from peace. However, during the peace process of the 1990s it has become apparent that, while welcoming the whole process of reconciliation, the GAA has, it seems, been locked into an all-Ireland mentality that has enabled it to contribute very little to the process of questioning their own symbolism

  36. Rule 21 is, as with the previous bans of the GAA's history, a symbol. It stands for the purity of Gaelic games, and prevents the acceptance into the Association of those perceived as the enemy. All bans in the GAA’s history have been driven by a desire to exclude those that have been part of the colonising mission who have destroyed, or at least challenged Irish culture. The bans, and more recently rule 21, are not signs of postcoloniality, but are signs and markers of colonial struggle, exclusion and separateness. While others involved in Irish life have moved away from symbolism, or at least questioned such, the GAA has remained immobile. By doing so the organisation has clung to its own peculiar notion of nationalism, their own place in, and version of nationalist history. Many have also argued that the GAA has been held back by its own over-inflated sense of importance as a national organisation.

  37. The GAA's belief in the ban has admittedly been reinforced by the practical lessons of the troubles: harassment by the security forces, the occupation of grounds by the army, attacks by Loyalist paramilitaries and a need to give a voice to the nationalist community. These beliefs have been backed up by a general interpretation of the GAA's aims that stress the need to halt the incursion of foreign games, to oppose the dilution of Irish culture and to protect the historical legacy of the GAA. As understandable as these beliefs and aims might be in the light of the GAA's support for the nationalist community in the North, does Rule 21 belong to the spirit of reconciliation? As the editorial of the Irish Times stated in 1995, ‘the GAA has still to rid itself of a damaging piece of historical baggage [Rule 21] which has no place in the new Ireland... Croke Park often appears content to speak to only one tradition on this island. Its refusal even to contemplate sharing its sporting facilities with soccer, the so-called garrison game in some GAA circles, is symptomatic of this inward looking approach’ (Irish Times, 11/4/95).

  38. In the twists and turns that have shaped the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s, there have been certain immobile issues of symbolism that the political and popular will seems unable to change. The Orange Order marches and the decommissioning of terrorist weapons have been foremost among the immobile symbols, but the GAA, perhaps unfortunately for them, have been locked in with a similar piece of symbolism.

  39. Outsiders see rule 21 as a regressive piece of the GAA rulebook that has no place in a peaceful inclusive society. In 1998 the GAA were forced to debate the continued retention of rule 21 in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the massive 'Yes' vote in the referendums that followed. The pressure on the GAA to do away with rule 21 was relentless, and emanated in particular from the Dublin media, unionist politicians and members of many of the southern GAA counties. In the event the GAA debated the issue behind closed doors and chose to suspend rather than delete rule 21. The media and political backlash was intense, and the GAA was held up as backward-looking pariahs in the context of the new peaceful Ireland.

  40. The retention of rule 21 has to be contextualised with respect to the GAA's anti-colonial origins and its recent history within Northern Ireland. The GAA debated the issue as it was founded: as an all-Ireland body where the whole nation can commune together. The closed debate on rule 21 symbolised the inherent strength and cohesion of the GAA. Despite the unpopularity of retention within the public, media and political mind, indeed within the minds of many GAA delegates, the need to support the GAA in the north and maintain organisational unity, came first. The arguments put forward in favour of retention are easy to understand in the context of the GAA's northern history: an organisation that has regularly been attacked and intimidated by members of the RUC. Until that body was reformed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the GAA could conduct its business in an environment where they felt unmolested because of their choice of game or any political values that might accompany it, then rule 21 would remain.

  41. Failure to understand the internal perspectives, historical baggage and personal experiences of the GAA and its adherents across Ireland, and especially in the north, is to misunderstand the nature of political symbols such as rule 21. To those who believe in them, symbols are more than mere emblems or signs, they are the gatekeepers of culture, history and political belief. The GAA has been, and still is engaged in a colonial struggle, on its own terms of reference at least. Inclusive postcoloniality is not a state that it feels it can, nor its history suggests, it should embrace.

  42. So how can the experience of the GAA be contextualised within the problematised concept of postcolonial Ireland? Put simply, bodies such as the GAA are marginalised and attacked because they are not representative of the new and inclusive, and by definition, postcolonial Ireland. Modern Ireland, postnationalist or postcolonial Ireland are all embraced as positive ideals that mark and symbolise Ireland’s journey to the end of the millennium. Anyone who, or any organisation which, is against that mission is seen as backward and regressive. Yet how inclusive and concrete is the very idea of postcolonial, or indeed modern, Ireland?

  43. Shaun Richards, in exploring the approach taken by Seamus Deane and Declan Kiberd, attempted to demonstrate how the concrete certainties of nationalist history, of old divisions, could be managed so that a look into the past, indeed an embrace of the past, could be used to fashion a workable knowledge of the (postcolonial?) present. (Richards, 1999, 108). In Kiberd’s work, the GAA is held up as a moniker for those wishing ‘to retain worn oppositions’. The GAA is viewed as defending tradition and nationalism, and thereby forcing the choice between ‘tradition or modernity, nationalism or social progress, soccer or Gaelic football’. (Richards, 1999, 108) While accepting the argument put forward by Richards, that tradition can sit alongside modernity, that the past can be squared with postmodernity, that Ireland can be seen as postcolonial, no one appears to be listening to the GAA and what it wants. GAA members are retaining rule 21 and fighting traditional battles because they still believe in the colonial struggle.

  44. The single biggest problem for the postcolonial mission in Ireland, indeed globally, is that it has predominantly taken literature as its main modus operandi. Such weaknesses that exist in postcolonial studies are, as Stuart Hall noted ‘partly an institutional effect — an unintended consequence, some would say, of the fact that the ‘post-colonial’ has been most fully developed by literary scholars, who have been reluctant to make the break across disciplinary (even post-disciplinary) boundaries required to advance the argument.’ (Hall, 1996, 258) By focusing on literature, the visionaries of postcolonialism in Ireland have not often attempted to tackle the greater problematic, and it could be suggested, the nation’s dominant narrative, that of history.

  45. There is a need for all studies of Ireland to at least combine, as some have done, studies of literature and history. What is still more pressing is to move beyond these two narratives and to ‘read culture as ideological, while criticising the homogeneity of ideology, and to prioritise cultural interchange within a colonial structure, which makes postcolonial theory an essential critical tool for understanding Irish culture’. (Graham, 1994, 41) A refinement of Graham, within the context of bodies such as the GAA, would be to use postcolonial theory as one of a range of tools with which to interrogate Ireland. But to accept the blanket criticism of the homogeneity of nationalist ideology, is not the correct route. In addition to questioning, indeed dismantling, the ideology of bodies such as the GAA, surely the continued support for such an apparently unyielding ideology and the preservation of their vision of native culture as colonial among Irish people, has to be respected and examined in all its complexity.

  46. One of the problematics for a discussion such as this is that the very idea of postcoloniality can be applied in many different ways. Postcoloniality has been defined at various times as any form of resistance against the imperial or colonial power; it is not solely necessitated by the departure of the colonial overlord, but exists from the time of the first interaction between coloniser and colony. On this basis, any form of cultural resistance that is committed to the textual form is, by its very nature, postcolonial (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, 1989, 1-6). If we are prepared to engage with such a rationale, then the GAA has been, since its very inception in 1884, an agent of postcoloniality.

  47. At its foundation in 1884, as previously explained, the original organisers of the GAA invited three leading lights in nationalist resistance in Ireland to become patrons of the new national sporting body: Parnell, Davitt and Croke. While all three gladly accepted the invitation to support a new national body, especially one that was charged with reinvigorating Irish native sports and pastimes, it was Croke who defined the ethos of the GAA most perfectly. In doing so he clearly committed his belief in cultural resistance to text, but was he performing a postcolonial function?

  48. In a letter that was widely published in the Irish newspapers Croke accepted the invite to become patron, and in doing so laid down and articulated the very essence of the GAA mission. Croke wrote,
    One of the most painful… reflections that, as an Irishman, I am compelled to make in connection with the present aspect of things in this country, is derived from the ugly and irritating fact, that we are daily importing from England, not only her manufactured goods, which we cannot help doing, since she has practically strangled our own manufacturing appliances, but, together her fashions, her accents, her vicious literature, her music, her dances, and her manifold mannerisms, her games also, and her pastimes, to the utter discredit of our own grand national sports, and to the sore humiliation, as I believe, of every genuine son and daughter of the old land.

    … Indeed if we continue travelling for the next score years in the same direction that we have been going in for some time past, condemning the sports that were practised by our forefathers, effacing our national features as though we were ashamed of them, and putting on, with England’s stuffs and breadcloths, her masher habits and such other effeminate follies as she may recommend, we had better at once, and publicly, abjure our nationality, clap hands for joy at sight of the Union Jack, and place ‘England’s bloody red’ exultantly above the green. (Cumann Lúthcleas Gael, 1984, 18)

    Croke’s letter, although the very epitome of cultural resistance, does not enter, at any stage into a discourse of postcolonial hybridity: for Croke there is nothing of value in the English destruction of the Irish way of life. Croke’s letter is totally imbued with the language of colonial resistance, a war to be fought against the imperial power. The letter is re-published in its entirety in the majority of GAA publications to this day. The need to repel British culture, the very presence of which undermines that national in the mind of the GAA adherent, is an unchanged ideal since 1884. For those who seek to understand the GAA of the 1990s, who wish to acknowledge why the Association uses the language of the colony rather than the discourse of postcoloniality, Croke’s letter should be carefully interrogated. It is not mere hyperbole, it is a mission statement that informs contemporary policy on issues such as rule 21, and for many forecast the inevitability of attacks on the GAA that have become such a norm of the modern troubles. Croke’s letter is a call to arms for a colonial struggle that would be unrecognisable to those who construct postcoloniality in ‘modern’ Ireland.

  49. The different sections of the population in Ireland have long been divided by traditions of culture, religion, politics and history. They are divided by ideals of the nation, by conflicting commitments to different ideals of what they are loyal to, and since 1921, by the physicality of a border. There is no postcolonial hybridity within the island of Ireland as there is no commonly agreed-upon ideal of what is being escaped. What does the prefix ‘post’ mean? Only within the minds of certain believers in the current project that is the Republic of Ireland is there a hybridity, a commonality that may deserve the title postcolonial. Such hybridity however, denies the split with the north of Ireland and fails to engage with the Protestant and unionist community, as so much of Ireland is still divided by loyalties that adhere to the ‘Orange/Green binarism’. (Kirkland, 1999, 213).

  50. If postcoloniality is symbolised by a history of, and a contemporary realisation of hybridity, by a commonality of belief in the shared vision of the postcolonial nation, then Ireland generally, and the GAA specifically, does not fit into the category. To interrogate Croke’s letter as a text, and to understand the anti-colonial mission of the nineteenth century GAA, is to find a national movement engaged in a cultural war against an imperial aggressor. Equally, to observe the GAA of the last thirty years, especially in view of their adherence to rule 21 in the face of an apparently unstoppable momentum towards peace, shows the Association as still battling for colonial freedom. In doing so the GAA fails to recognise the intellectual exercise, as valid as it may be, that understands Ireland as postcolonial when seen through the looking glass of the success story of the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s. The GAA has always fought the same colonial struggle, and has always used the same language. While the GAA may be seen in some quarters as belligerent and out of step, one has to ask if postcolonial theory had emerged in the 1950s would Ireland, and its intellectual and academic community, have been so keen to embrace a postcolonial identity?


  1. The first major published postcolonial appreciation of Ireland as postcolonial appears in Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson and Edward Said, Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature; the key postcolonial text published a year earlier denies Ireland's place within the ranks of postcolonial studies (see Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back). Back

  2. For examples of this exclusion see R.F. Foster's Modern Ireland 1600-1972; Colin Graham and Richard Kirkland (eds.), Ireland and Cultural Theory. The Mechanics of Authenticity; and Waters, Intelligent Person's Guide. Back

  3. For the GAA's view of its history see its centenary booklet A Century of Service, 1884-1994 (Cumann Lúthcleas Gael). It has also launched a new web site, which contains a historical overview: http://www.gaa.ie/. Back

  4. For historical coverage of the founding of the GAA see Marcus de Búrca's The GAA or W.F. Mandle's, The Gaelic Athletic Association and Irish Nationalist Politics, 1884-1924. Back

  5. For details of the Cusack-Davin relationship see Marcus de Búrca, Michael Cusack and the GAA and Séamus Ó Riain, Maurice Davin (1842-1927). First President of the GAA. For a discussion of the importance of the rules as a reason for the success of the GAA see Cronin, 'The Nationalist History of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the English Influence on Irish Sport.' Back

  6. The historical transformation of the rules in Gaelic games can be followed in Joe Lennon's The Playing Rules of Football and Hurling 1884-1995. Back

  7. For a discussion of the primacy of nationalism within the history of the GAA see Mike Cronin, "Defenders of the Nation?" Back

  8. For a full discussion of the GAA-IRB relationship see Mandle. Back

  9. For reproductions of the letters see A Century of Service, 1884-1984, p. 18. Back

  10. For an explanation of the importance of the parish system see Paul Healy's Gaelic Games and the Gaelic Athletic Association Back

  11. For coverage of the historical norm of the diffusion of sport see Neil Tranter's Sport, economy and society in Britain, 1750-1914. Back

  12. See John Sugden and Alan Bairner, Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland. Back

  13. The Parades Commission was brought together by the Labour Government as part of the whole peace process in an attempt to break the annual impasse that existed over contentious parade routes (most notably those Orange Order parades around the 12 July period). Its remit was to judge the merits of each parade separately. When the Commission's terms of reference were being drawn up, many Unionist politicians argued that the GAA should included in the remit. Back

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Cumann Lúthcleas Gael. A Century of Service, 1884-1994. Dublin: Cumann Lúthcleas Gael, 1984.

De Búrca, Marcus. Michael Cusack and the GAA. Dublin: Anvil Books, 1989.

---. The GAA. A History of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Dublin: Cumann Lúthcleas Gael, 1980.

Cronin, Mike. "Defenders of the Nation? The Gaelic Athletic Association and Irish Nationalist Identity." Irish Political Studies 11 (1996): 1-19.

---. "Fighting for Ireland, Playing for England? The Nationalist History of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the English Influence on Irish Sport." The International Journal of the History of Sport 15.3 (1998): 36-56.

Eagleton, Terry, Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said. Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.

Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972. London: Penguin, 1989.

Graham, Colin, and Richard Kirkland, eds. Ireland and Cultural Theory. The Mechanics of Authenticity. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1999.

Healy, Paul. Gaelic Games and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Cork: Mercier Press, 1998.

Lennon, Joe. The Playing Rules of Football and Hurling 1884-1995. Dublin: Northern Recreation Consultants, 1997.

Mandle, W. F. The Gaelic Athletic Associaiton and Irish Nationalist Politics, 1884-1924. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

Ó Riain, Séamus. Maurice Davin (1842 - 1924): First President of the GAA. Dublin: Geography Publications, 1997.

Sugden, John, and Alan Bairner. Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland. Leicester: Leicester UP, 1993.

Tranter, Neil. Sport, economy and society in Britain, 1750 - 1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Waters, John. An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Ireland. London: Duckworth, 1997.

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