restricted access 1916 and the Radicalization of the Gaelic Athletic Association
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1916 and the Radicalization of the Gaelic Athletic Association

By 1916 the gaa had established itself as perhaps the largest nationalist organization in Ireland.1 Yet despite the GAA’s history having received far more attention than any other sporting body in the country, there remains a dearth of academic study of the association and its interaction with Irish social and political life. This is especially surprising when we think of the size and scale of the organization. In particular, historians of the Irish Revolution remain somewhat reluctant to study in detail the GAA’s broad membership in order to assess how the changing nature of Irish nationalism during these years impacted ordinary but politically conscious Irishmen. William Murphy’s study of the GAA during this period is an all too rare exception to this lack of focused scholarly discussion of the association and the impact of revolutionary politics on it as a whole.2

However, the GAA’s heterogeneous and abundant membership and its presence in almost every parish offer perhaps the best data from which we can assess the political radicalization of Irish society during this time. Although Murphy is correct that the association represented more a playground of, rather than a player in, the Irish Revolution, the fact remains that hundreds of the association’s members were caught up in the struggle, while the impact of broader [End Page 95] developments in Irish politics had turned the GAA by 1919 into an active opponent of British rule in Ireland. This article will investigate the role of members of the GAA in the execution of the 1916 Rising. It will assess why the British government targeted the GAA in the fallout of Easter 1916, and the consequences of the authorities’ response to the uprising on the ordinary membership of the GAA. It will examine how, in the three years following the Rising, the changing political climate in Ireland led to the political radicalization of many within the association, a development that was mirrored across Irish society as a whole. Finally, it will endeavor to show the processes that changed the GAA from a body that in 1916 had members who happened to be politically active, into an organization that by 1919 was, of itself and in its actions and pronouncements, supportive of the separatist stance of those who wished to secure independence for an Irish republic.

In September 1915 the revolutionary Fenian organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), began to plan an insurrection in Ireland against British rule by using the Irish Volunteers.3 To aid the rebellion, a German arms shipment was to land in Kerry in the days before the outbreak.4 Aware of the potential of the GAA to facilitate its designs, the IRB had long sought to gain influence in the association. As Kerry was a vital linchpin in the success of the venture, close links were established between the Rising’s planners and local Volunteer leaders, many of whom were prominent local GAA officials. The IRB had remained a nearly constant influence within the leadership of the Kerry GAA since the formation of its county board in 1888.5 In this sense the Kerry GAA contrasted with much of the rest of Ireland, where there were few overt links between the IRB and local GAA leaders. For example, by 1915 Austin Stack, the Kerry GAA [End Page 96] chairman, had become the acknowledged head of both the IRB and the Irish Volunteers in the county.6 Kerry thus represented a county where the IRB could reasonably expect the cooperation of the local GAA leadership.

In preparation for the Rising, Stack used the occasion of the All-Ireland final between Kerry and Wexford in November 1915 as cover for an operation to smuggle a sizeable consignment of weapons from Dublin to Kerry in order to properly arm the local Volunteers.7 Tadhg Kennedy, a lieutenant in the force and a member of the Kerry county board, was put in charge of a group of Volunteers ostensibly traveling as supporters to the match. Once the weapons were secure, they were smuggled aboard the returning supporters’ train to Tralee on the following...