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  • The First Minutes: An Analysis of the Irish Language within the Official Structures of the Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884–19341
  • Cathal Billings (bio)

Historians have long linked the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the Irish-language movement, emphasizing the harmony between the GAA and the Gaelic League. Both organizations encompassed more than their immediate goals and shared considerable similarities: both born of the same growth of cultural nationalism in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century; striving for the same goals—sports and language, key elements of Irish culture, both in need of revival; both nationalist organizations aiming to deanglicize Ireland and reawaken a national spirit perceived to have been eroded;2 both promoting a Gaelic nationalist ideal emphasizing the desirability of being Gaelic, as opposed to being simply Irish, and consequently both culturally chauvinist.3 As the most popular and active movements in the country during the early years of the twentieth century,4 they shared a large common membership that numbered in the hundreds of thousands of nationalist-minded members.5 It was natural, therefore, that the GAA supported the Gaelic League, [End Page 32] and vice versa: both organizations were symbiotic elements of the Irish-Ireland movement, and together they molded the mind of a generation.6 They differed greatly, however, on the promotion and proper use of Irish as an element of the Gaelicness that they both claimed and promoted. As the two main expressions of the Irish-Ireland movement, they differed in regard to what constituted a true Gael. According to both Thomas Bartlett and Alvin Jackson, Irish-Irelanders defined the challenge of nationality in terms of language, which was inseparable from Irish identity and the root of true Irish identity.7 The GAA, as part of the Irish-Ireland movement, however, did not lay the same importance on the language in its everyday business. The many failed motions with regard to Irish at an official level, teamed with members’ general apathy toward Irish, show that language revival was not as critical for the GAA as it was for the Gaelic League. The GAA’s criteria for a Gael therefore differed from those of the Gaelic League. The GAA was quick to brand itself “Gaelic” and condemn those who were not.8 The majority of GAA members defined their Gaelicness by the sports they played as opposed to the language they spoke, and these Feet Gaels formed the majority of GAA membership.9 Nevertheless, GAA leaders designated Irish as a key element of Gaelicness and in theory promoted it as a symbol of national distinctiveness.10 Such distinctiveness set the GAA apart from other sporting movements formed during this time and benefited it greatly.11 The GAA, however, did not utilize Irish as a working [End Page 33] language. Despite historians’ practice of citing prominent Gaels who promoted the games and language together, little has been written on the extent to which Irish actually featured in the GAA of this period.

The GAA, in its jubilee year of 1934, emphasized its support of the Irish language. Golden Jubilee press supplements in national newspapers such as the Irish Independent and the Irish Press contained speeches by Douglas Hyde and Eamon de Valera on the GAA’s fine work for the Irish language since its foundation in 1884. The language’s purported well-being within the organization was a common feature of GAA commentary from 1884 to 1934, and the hope that one day Irish would be the GAA’s sole working language was a regular aspiration at GAA events throughout the country.12 This essay interrogates such claims and examines the GAA’s role in the Irish-language revival during this period.

Archival evidence from the period does not support the GAA’s 1934 narrative of an organization supporting and sustaining the language revival. While it is undeniable that the association provided substantial material assistance to the language movement and language-promotion bodies and supported the language in theory,13 the extent to which the GAA practically promoted the language by utilizing Irish in official business on and off the playing field is debatable. In theory the GAA encouraged the use and promotion...


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