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GAA approach to 1916 proof it is far from open to us all

By Nelson McCausland

Published 03/03/2016

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The village of Crossmaglen in south Armagh is home to Crossmaglen Rangers GAA club. There is a long history of Gaelic football in Crossmaglen, and the first club were founded in 1887, just three years after the formation of the GAA.

Their ground is St Oliver Plunkett Park and last Sunday it was the scene of their 1916 Easter Rising commemoration. This started in the afternoon with the unveiling of a specially commissioned 1916 commemorative granite stone in the club grounds.

The stone was unveiled by Ulster GAA president Michael Hasson, who took up his role in January.

The memorial has a small portrait of Thomas James 'Tom' Clarke, the real leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the first of the seven signatories of the 1916 proclamation.

There is also a quotation from Clarke, who was a bitter physical-force republican and a veteran of the Fenian "dynamite campaign" of the 1880s. The inscription states that the GAA club "dedicates this stone to commerate (sic) all those who fought, some of whom were killed, or executed, in the 1916 Easter Rising".

Recently Sinn Fein was writing about 'Booby' Sands and now Crossmaglen Rangers want to "commerate" instead of "commemorate". Clearly, literacy has gone downhill rapidly under the Sinn Fein Education Minister.

However, you would think that if someone ordered a special and expensive commemorative stone, they would at least make sure the word "commemorate" was spelled correctly.

The inscription goes on to state: "This stone was sourced from the foot of Slieve Gullion. This ancient mystical mountain has for centuries borne silent witness to insurrection by formidable Irish revolutionaries."

I don't know what makes the mountain "mystical", but it does overlook an area where Provisional IRA gunmen held sway under a "good republican" named Thomas Murphy. Back in 1974 Merlyn Rees described south Armagh as "bandit country", and throughout the Troubles it was an IRA stronghold.

Sinn Fein MLAs Conor Murphy and Megan Fearon were there and were photographed beside the commemorative stone, along with party colleagues. Of course, they had already commemorated the 1916 rebels with their cringeworthy Strictly Come Dancing night in Jonesborough.

Crossmaglen Rangers are not the only GAA club commemorating and celebrating the 1916 rebellion. Indeed, throughout Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic the GAA is very much at the heart of the commemorations.

O'Neill's have produced a 1916 commemorative Easter Rising GAA jersey and there will be a central GAA commemoration in Croke Park on Sunday, April 24 - the date the rebellion started in 1916.

It is true that some of the 1916 rebels were associated with the GAA, as indeed many were associated with the Gaelic League.

However, the Irish historian Dr Paul Rouse has reminded us that: "There were many more GAA men fighting in British Army uniforms in France than there were in the GPO. Any rounded account of the GAA's involvement in 1916 must acknowledge this basic truth and accommodate it in any meaningful history of the Easter Rising."

However, I very much doubt that we will see a memorial to the GAA men who served in the ranks of the British Army in either or both world wars.

By 1919 the GAA was firmly in the republican camp and GAA members who had fought in the British Army were quietly forgotten because their story did not fit in with the new republican narrative to which the GAA subscribed.

It is often claimed that the GAA is open to everyone, a "sport for all", but the truth is that no unionist can join a GAA club. The constitution of the GAA requires all members to be committed to an independent, united Ireland.

As well as being a sporting organisation, it is an Irish nationalist organisation, and what happened in Crossmaglen on Sunday, especially with the participation of the Ulster president of the GAA, confirms that.

  • Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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