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Mon 09-Jul-2007 9:24
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An extraordinary year
The role of hurling and football fixtures at critical junctures of the War of Independence is one of the, as yet, unwritten stories of the GAA, writes An Fear Rua...
Here in Thurles, in the county of Tipperary, as we await another great Munster senior hurling final, we recall, of course, that a Gaelic football match between Tipperary and Dublin holds a revered place in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
The simple facts of Bloody Sunday, 21st November 1920 are easy to recount. As the day dawned, Michael Collins’s Squad was assassinating fourteen British undercover agents in the warmth of their beds. That afternoon, the police and military attacked Croke Park where Tipperary were playing Dublin in Gaelic football. They left fourteen civilians dead, including the Tipp goalkeeper, Michael Hogan, while another player, Jim Egan of Dublin, was wounded.
Given a choice, the suffering of players and spectators in one of the most significant incidents of the War of Independence that fateful day in Croke Park, is something the GAA might have preferred to miss out on. Yet, a little over a year before Bloody Sunday, a series of Gaelic football matches – including another game in Croke Park - represented a highly visible and pro-active intervention by the Association in a critical phase of the War. It was a gesture that was closely linked to cataclysmic events in one of the counties participating in today’s final – Limerick.
During the month of April 1919 the workers of Limerick had seized control of the city in a general strike against military controls imposed on freedom of movement in and out of the city. They published their own newspaper, printed their own currency and successfully managed the city’s business and civic life for a number of weeks. The events became known throughout Ireland and internationally as the Limerick Soviet.
That Easter weekend of 1919, the GAA held its annual congress. A Limerick delegate called for support for the strike. Michael Collins’s closest friend, the Dublin GAA man Harry Boland and another prominent Republican, JJ Walsh, proposed and seconded a motion to grant the strikers £100 from Association funds. Boland was later killed in the Civil War while Walsh went on to enjoy a long career as a TD for Cork and was Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the establishment of Raidio Eireann in 1926. A delegate from the Munster Council pledged another £10 for Limerick while a whip around among delegates raised another £30.
However, in an interesting move, the GAA went a step further and offered practical support in the way it knew best – organising matches. Congress agreed to organise four games to raise money for the Limerick strikers. Two hurling matches were arranged. In Cork, the home county played Tipperary and Cork then travelled to Tralee to play Kerry. In football, Galway played Roscommon while Louth took on Dublin in Croke Park. However, not to be accused of being totally radical, the Congress delegates baulked at a suggestion that the games be played simultaneously on May Day, the internationally recognised date of workers’ celebration!
Four thousand spectators turned up to the game at Croke Park – a very good attendance for those days. At this remove, it is difficult to judge whether this was due to the popularity of the fixture or whether the numbers were increased by the presence of Dubliners keen to show solidarity with the Limerick strikers. In any event, the Dubs defeated the Wee County comprehensively: by a goal and seven points to a single point.
The Limerick Soviet ended a few weeks later when the military restrictions were lifted and the strikers returned to work. For a time though, it represented the most serious challenge to date in the evolving struggle for independence and the prominent GAA support for it underlines its importance at the time.
However, no more than on the hurling field, the men and women of the Déise will not yield to the Treaty city in the matter of organising soviets. They had their share of them too, not long after Limerick. In 1920, workers on the estate of Sir Richard Kean, in Cappoquin, seized the extensive farm and declared a ‘soviet’. It was said that Daisy, the main source of milk for the kitchens, was probably the first cow in Ireland ever to be taken under trade union control. In 1923, in events that were very similar to Limerick, the employees of the gas works in Waterford city took control, ran up a red flag and operated for a number of weeks as a soviet. Indeed, throughout those turbulent years, Munster was notable for the number of creameries and factories that were seized or taken by their employees.
It was an extraordinary year, 1919. The year when the first Dáil met, when the first shots of the War of Independence were fired – here, in county Tipperary – and when the GAA played its role through an extraordinary sporting intervention in the developing struggle.
No doubt, Limerick and Waterford share a proud heritage in the largely forgotten story of soviets and strikes in the War of Independence, but that will not lessen their rivalry one iota today nor their determination to take the 2007 Munster championship crown.
First published in the programme for the 2007 Munster hurling finals
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