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  • Sport and Cultural Nationalism: The Conflict between Association and Gaelic Football in Donegal, 1905–34
  • Conor Curran (bio)


In 2009 the gaelic athletic association (GAA) celebrated its 125th anniversary. That this sporting organization is an integral part of Irish life cannot be disputed, and through its primary codes of Gaelic football, hurling, camogie, and handball the GAA has provided a major social outlet, not just in Ireland but for many who form part of the Irish diaspora in countries such as the United States and England.1 One historian has described it as “an organization that stands second only to the churches, and perhaps the trade unions, as a force in the associational culture of Ireland for a century and a quarter.”2 Donegal, the most northwesterly county in Ireland, situated in the province of Ulster yet part of the Republic of Ireland, provides an interesting example of the failure of the GAA to conquer all areas. This article will focus on a rather unchartered aspect of the association’s history: its relationship with association football, or soccer, which had its roots in England but was growing in popularity in Ireland by the late nineteenth century. While the competition [End Page 79] between organizers of other sporting codes such as rugby union and rugby league in England has been well documented, the historiography of sport in Ireland still lacks a publication dedicated to an examination of the rivalry between soccer and GAA administrators.3 The conflict between organizers of Gaelic football and soccer in Donegal in the first fifty years of the GAA’s existence will therefore be assessed here. Similarities between these two codes meant that good players could adapt to the skills required in both relatively easily, but those interchanging risked the wrath of the GAA, as soccer was banned as a “foreign” game from 1905 until 1971.4 The failure of the ban and of the GAA’s attempt to tarnish the reputation of soccer in Done-gal is of key significance, and the complexities of making straightforward links between nationalist ideology and sporting preferences will be shown. The ways and means used to propagate the playing of Gaelic football in some sections of the Donegal press, and discussed at meetings of the Donegal county board, and their levels of success, will be analyzed.5 The methods employed by those involved in the promotion of the GAA, their criticism of soccer, and the tactics used to prevent interest and participation in the latter sport will also be examined. Similarly, the responses and views of those involved in the organization of soccer will be assessed.

Ireland in 1884 was still part of the British empire; the sporting “revolution,” which was in full swing in many areas across Britain at the time, also had an effect on sports such as cricket and rugby. Athletics and association football were disseminated through the [End Page 80] country’s educational establishments.6 Although a talented sportsman, Michael Cusack was eager to reform Irish athletics, which was dominated by elitism and poorly governed in the early 1880s. He was also keen to revive traditional Irish football and hurling for workers excluded from athletics. Cusack’s desire was fundamental to his and Maurice Davin’s organization of the GAA at a meeting on 1 November 1884 in Thurles, Co. Tipperary.7 The GAA was part of the Gaelic Revival taking place in Ireland during this time, and Richard Holt has noted that the GAA’s development came about “both as a reaction against modernity and as a consequence of it.”8 Ireland, in rejecting the American commercialization of sport, the European trend of gymnastics, and the British culture of disseminating sports such as rugby and cricket as a means of imperialism, developed a series of games that were codified from its own traditional forms of sport and embraced the nationalist politics of the day.9 The organization of the GAA was “a clear reaction” against the British way of life; it developed strong connections with the Catholic church and nationalism from its early days.10

While the GAA’s early development in Donegal, and the spread there of all sports, suffered from...


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pp. 79-94
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