The Freeman's Journal report.

CAVANMAN'S DIARY: Gaelic Sunday and the GAA's show of grassroots power

Paul Fitzpatrick

It started in the old football field at Cootehill, on a sunny summer Sunday in 1918. Cavan were due to play Armagh in the Ulster SFC semi-final when the forces of law and order arrived, mob-handed, to put a stop to it.

The match was immediately “proclaimed an illegal assembly”. The police, under an Inspector McEntee, took possession of the pitch and, the Freeman’s Journal reported, “intimated that forcible methods would be used if the match was persisted in”.

The 3,000 spectators marched into town where the local parish priest, Fr O’Connell, addressed them, “exhorting self-restraint and to return home quietly”.

With similar events having occurred in Kildare and Galway, the GAA were backed on to the ropes. With the future of the association under threat, they bit on their gumshields and came out swinging.

Within a fortnight, a strict directive was issued from Croke Park, stating that, at a Central Council meeting, the decision had been taken that “under no circumstances must a permit be applied for either by provincial councils, county committees, leagues, tournament committees, clubs or by a third party such as secretaries of grounds etc.”

The penalty for infringing this order was indefinite and immediate suspension. The second part of the missive, though, was ingenious.

“You are directed within the next 10 days to summon a meeting consisting of one delegate from each club: (a) to inform them of these orders and for transmission of same to their respective clubs; (b) to arrange for Sunday, August 4th at 3pm (old time) a series of matches throughout your county, which are to be localised as much as possible.”

And thus, Gaelic Sunday was born. The GAA were striking back, hard, with a nationwide show of defiance aiming to cut the new developments off at the pass and ensure that Gaelic games would never again come under threat from the authorities.

When the day arrived, it was embraced fervently. It was reported that every football and hurling team in the country – some 54,000 players in all - took part in a match.

“The proceedings of the day, the good order among the crowds, the perfection of organisation, and the magnificent response made by every team and club throughout the country, constituted at once a vindication of the Gaelic Athletic Association and its objects, and a demonstration of the popular hold which the Gaelic games have on the interest and sympathy of the Irish people,” noted the Freeman’s Journal.

If the aim of the British government was to sink the GAA by forcing their members to apply for permits to hold matches, their actions had the opposite effect. Galvanised, clubs and parishes came together and supporters turned out in droves.

“It was an amazing show of civil disobedience for the era, and the first real sign of the GAA’s grassroots power,” Sunday Times sportswriter and member of the GAA’s History Committee Michael Foley told me last week. “The government backed off.”

Games sprung up all across Cavan. Cavan Slashers “travelled out to Drumbo and antagonised the locals on the rock,” noted The Anglo-Celt.

Swanlinbar and Corlough drew, as did Bailieborough and Virginia in a game played in Cross. Kildallan beat Drumlane by 2-1 to 0-1.

Cootehill and Drumgoon attracted an astonishing crowd of 2,000 to Foy’s Green. In Ballyconnell, the First Ulsters juniors met Templeport.

Elsewhere, Lacken failed to field against Cornafean at Drumcoghill. Other fixtures pitted Annagh versus Castletara, friendly neighbours Mullahoran and Gowna (the guards may have been useful at that one!), Belturbet against Kildallan and Ballymachugh against Moyna.

All told, it was an extraordinary success. “It may be taken for granted,” noted this newspaper, “that all future games will now be played off without let or hindrance.”

The legacy of the day endures in the association we have today, still shining brightly in every parish in the land. I wonder, too, about the more subtle influences.

Did Hughie O’Reilly, for example, attend in Cootehill that July Sunday? Born in Cork, he moved back to live just outside the town in 1918 aged 14 after the death of his mother.

Was that the spark that lit his flame and inspired him to win All-Irelands with Cavan and, come to think of it, to become a staunch nationalist till his dying day? We may never know.

What is certain is that the anniversary of Gaelic Sunday, a truly seminal event in the early decades of the GAA, will be marked in Croke Park on August 5. The hope from on high is that clubs will organise events – matches, underage blitzes, community days or whatever form it may take – to mark the occasion.

Over to you.