Michael D. Higgins was inaugurated as president of Ireland on Sunday. The poet, scholar philosopher and statesman will serve a second term, re-elected with a record majority. He is also a keen football fan and regularly attends domestic games, a signifier that Higgins presides over a very different country than that of his early predecessors.
This month marks the 80th anniversary of the country’s first president becoming embroiled in a bitter dispute. The biggest sporting organisation on the island locked horns with the world’s most popular sport.
Douglas Hyde was not a football fan, and was, in fact, a patron of the GAA since 1902. However, Hyde was also a highly respected statesman and, as President he accepted an invitation from the FAI to attend an International match versus Poland at Dalymount Park on November 13th 1938.
Hyde’s visit to Dalymount contravened Rule 27, better known as “The Ban”. In 1902 the GAA had introduced Rule 27:
Any member of the association who plays or encourages in any way rugby, football, hockey or any imported game which is calculated or injuriously affect our national pastimes, is suspended from the association.
He was suspended from the GAA because of this, creating both national and international outrage. However the GAA stuck to its guns and Hyde remained outside the organisation until his death in 1949.
Con Martin was a talented GAA player who had won a Leinster title with Dublin in 1941. However he was later prevented from playing in the All-Ireland Final when it was discovered he played football with Drumcondra.
With the GAA withholding his Leinster medal as a result of this, Martin decided to concentrate solely on football and subsequently starred for both Irish national teams. Con’s GAA talent did not go to waste however as 27 of his 200 appearances for Aston Villa were as a stand-in goalkeeper. He also made his International debut in goal.
The ban did not just apply to those who played other sports. A famous Waterford hurler, Tom Cheasty received a six-month ban from the GAA for attending a dance that was organised by a football club.
Mick Mackey is still regarded as the greatest Limerick hurler of all time. He regularly attended rugby matches at Thomond Park, ignoring several warnings. A lesser player would have long since incurred a ban. The GAA had a vigilante committee with members attending rugby and football matches to identify fellow GAA members.
In the end Limerick GAA made Mackey a member of the Vigilante Committee, an ingenious Irish solution to an Irish problem. Mackey never reported a single member.
Various methods were used to circumvent the rule. The FAI registered GAA members under false names, or, less subtly, Clubs smuggled players into games in the boot of a car. It was increasingly ignored in the late 1960’s but still hit the headlines on occasions, with Tipperary suspending three players in 1970.
Kerry GAA legend Mick O’Connell regularly attended matches at Flower Lodge. A photograph by Bill McGill entitled “A Face in the crowd” purporting to be of O’Connell watching the 1971 Cork Hibs v Waterford FAI Cup tie appeared in the Irish Independent. It was designed to provoke a response from the GAA. There were claims it was a doppelganger. However, these were ridiculed due to O’Connell’s distinctive face and hairstyle. There were calls to have O’Connell banned from playing for Munster in the Railway Cup. In the end, O’Connell asked not to be considered for selection.
The FAI picked Liam Brady to captain the Republic of Ireland schoolboy side v Wales in Ebbw Vale in 1971. St. Aidan’s CBS told Brady not to come back if he played. He played the game and, as a result, the school expelled Brady. However this proved to be the last sting of a dying wasp. Brady became the last high-profile victim of Rule 27.
In the end the Ban was disposed of, quietly at the GAA congress in April 1971. There was no vote and little debate. The unthinkable prospect of banning O’Connell certainly influenced opinion. Sligo GAA wished to retain the ban, but ironically picked David Pugh of Sligo Rovers in their senior side. Con Martin received his medal thirty years after he earned it.
Since its disposal many players have crossed codes in the meantime. Both Martin and Michael O’Neill played underage GAA for their counties.
Kevin Moran won All Ireland titles with Dublin; Niall Quinn, Shane Long and Kevin Doyle were all talented GAA players; and Eric Miller played rugby for Ireland and the Lions. Derry City’s Anthony Tohill left his mark on Andrei Kanchelskis during a trial with Manchester United. Tohill went on to have a long and illustrious GAA career with Derry.
Relations between the associations were still frosty at times. The redevelopment of Lansdowne Road into the Aviva stadium left the FAI and IRFU seeking a new home for three years. The GAA offered Croke Park after a long debate. This certainly generated a lot of goodwill for the GAA.
The tragic death of Liam Miller did briefly threaten to open old wounds. There was opposition from elsewhere in the GAA to the Cork County Board’s generous offer of Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the tribute match. The tragedy united the Cork sporting public and they were determined to honour one of their own in the best way possible. Common sense had thankfully prevailed in the end.
Officials from both organisations now regularly attend big games in each other’s codes. President Higgins is head of a much different country than that of President Hyde. I’m sure he would approve of the changes.