50th anniversary of abolition of 'The Ban' offers pause for perspective
By John Harrington
The passing of time has a habit of transforming the various shades of history into a more black and white landscape.
Effect often overshadows cause and viewing the past through the lens of modern society can be a poor tool for bringing context into focus.
Take, for example, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the 1971 GAA Annual Congress which will always be remembered for the deletion of Rule 27, better known as ‘The Ban’, which infamously prohibited GAA members from playing or watching “foreign games”, specifically soccer, rugby, cricket, and hockey.
It also did away with Rule 28 vigilance committees whose members would attend soccer, rugby and other matches to spy on GAA members who might be there and subsequently report them, and Rule 29 which forbade GAA clubs to host “non-Irish dancing”.
In 2021 such rules and practices seem anachronistic to the point of being preposterous, and that was the common sentiment too by the time they were done away with in 1971.
But context is everything, and when Rule 27 was first inked in 1905 it was done for a very good reason - to safeguard the very existence of a GAA that was still very much finding its feet as a sporting organisation.
“It was introduced at a time when sports organisations were rapidly trying to gain loyalty and affiliation fees,” explains GAA historian, Donal McAnallen.
“In that late 19th century early 20th century period there were so many organisations and competitions that were sprouting up and growing rapidly like a prairie fire indeed in the case of the GAA.
“This was all happening simultaneously and the ban and the way it was constructed was specifically targeted at soccer, rugby, cricket, and hockey as rival sports to gaelic football and hurling. Tennis and golf among others were not infringing on that ban.
“The word 'foreign' never actually appeared in the rule as far as I can see. It specifically identified those sports by name.
“You have to see it in the context of the time, other sporting organisations had bans of their own. The IAAA (Irish Amateur Athletic Association) imposed a ban on members of the GAA in 1885 and the Irish Football Association when it was the body governing all of Ireland soccer in the early 1900s introduced a ban on members playing games on Sundays.
“If you played anything on a Sunday you were suspended from the IFA, and most GAA matches too place on Sundays. So around that time there were other bans.
“There was also the 'Gentleman Amateur' rule, that someone who was working with their hands had an athletic advantage and therefore weren't allowed to take part, which had been imported from London by some Dublin Athletics Clubs.
“In the initial sense the ban came about and could be justified on the basis that this was a time of huge competition from other sports organisations. The GAA was trying to set itself up from a weaker starting point where it didn't have the facilities and patronage that these other organisations had, so the reasoning was that it needed to somehow secure that loyalty of members.”
For a while it looked like 'The Ban' would have a relatively short shelf-life as delegates from various counties tried to have it deleted at Annual Congress in 1924, 1925, and 1926 because it was felt to no longer be necessary after the establishment of the Irish Free State.
“The Ban debates in those years were almost min-Treaty debates in a way,” says McAnallen.
“That’s not to say that everyone who supported the Treaty within the organisation wanted to rescind the ban and vice versa, but it did tend to reflect that to a certain extent.
“The issue of partition was part of it too, Ulster was unanimous for its retention and there was a sense that if you rescind this you’ll cut us off.
“The ideal was that Ireland should be fully united and independent before getting rid of such protectionisms. It was an intense period of debate in that three year period but eventually it was clear it was going to be retained.
“From the late '20s onwards and particularly the 1930s onwards there was then a greater Gaelic emphasis in the GAA.
“This was very much the period of Pádraig Ó Caoimh. Now, that's not to attribute everything to him, but he was very much a cause of the renewed Gaelic emphasis within the GAA during his time as General Secretary from 1929 to 1964.”
With the passing of the years, ‘The Ban’ became more and more controversial.
One of the highest water marks in this respect came in 1938 when the GAA banned the President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, from the Association for attending an Ireland international soccer match.
Hyde was a long-standing patron of the GAA as well as the nation’s President, but not even this lofty status was enough to save him from Rule 27.
High-profile GAA players dabbled in soccer and rugby over the years by playing under assumed names and others were in the habit of attending rugby and soccer internationals wearing their hat low and their collar high. Along the way many fell foul of the beady eyes of the vigilance committee members.
“The vigilance committee was very controversial because it encouraged the whole mentality of spying and that wasn't popular among Irish people in the context of what happened in the country not all that long before,” says McAnallen.
“There were occasional controversies too about breaches or alleged breaches by prominent players.
“You had (Tyrone footballer) Eddie Devlin in 1953 being accused and suspended in the wrong, apparently, for cycling past Lansdowne Road after UCD training one Saturday on the day of an international rugby match.
“He was reported by the son of a senior GAA official. On occasions someone, maybe a prominent player, was appointed on to a vigilance committee in order to evade the rule themselves.
“It wasn't just the nature of the rule that antagonised people, it was the nature of the disciplinary process.
“If you were reported you didn't have much in the way of an appeal process. There were no hearings committees and you were suspended automatically on the basis of a report. It was a six month minimum ban for allegedly playing another sport and three months for watching.
“It could be even longer because if you were reported in April of a year you couldn't be readmitted until a window between January and Easter of the following year.
“In many respects so that was a suspension of nine or ten months and you had to apply for reinstatement and all of that.”
A number of different factors ultimately meant that The Ban was living on increasingly borrowed time as the ‘60s ticked into the ‘70s.
The advent of soccer and rugby matches on television obviously made a mockery of the rule because not even the most vigilant vigilance committee member was likely to peer through the windows of your house to make sure you weren’t watching the 1966 or 1970 World Cup.
Ireland was becoming a more modern country and a younger, post War of Independence generation began to dominate the GAA’s membership.
‘The Ban’ was increasingly being viewed as an unfashionable relic of an bygone era, and, by 1971, there was no holding back the tide of change.
A national plebiscite of clubs meant a majority of county boards were mandated to vote for its deletion, so when it came to Annual Congress there wasn’t even a debate and Rule 27 was binned with the minimum of fuss.
The general feeling was one of relief that it was gone, but there were misgivings in some quarters in the aftermath of its demise.
Before the 1971 Annual Congress GAA President, Pat Fanning, President of the FAI, Neil Blaney, Chairman of the Leinster Branch of the IRFU, Judge JC Conroy, and Olympian, Ronnie Delaney, convened for a meeting designed to discuss the positives that could come from the deletion of Rule 27, some of which didn’t ultimately materialise.
“One of the arguments that had been used by way of trying to remove 'The Ban' was that all of these schools like Blackrock College and Terenure College will start playing Gaelic Games if the ban is removed, but it didn't happen as straight-forward as that," says McAnallen.
“There was a sense of rawness among quite a few GAA officials up to the mid-seventies after 'The Ban' was removed that people didn't stick to their side of the bargain here.
“The GAA had removed the ban but there was a feeling among some of the Association's officials at the time that there hadn't been any equivalent move from other sports organisations to also move towards 'Glastnost', as it were.”
The deletion of Rule 27 was just one of a number of steps that the GAA took at that time towards becoming a more progressive sporting organisation.
1971 was also the year the first Commission on the GAA, chaired by former President Pádraig MacNamee, published a far-reaching report that modernised the GAA in many different ways.
“The GAA realised it needed to move from a negative expression in terms of what it stood against, towards a positive expression of what it actually stood for,” says McAnallen.
“The MacNamee Commission led to the setting up of Scór, Youth Forums, leadership courses, all of those things were ways of approaching the future and expressing policies in a different way.
“It was a period of great experimentation. You had the introduction of the club championships and 80 minute finals and so on.
“A lot of things happened very quickly. The Association did a number of things in a short period of time to try to deal with change and move with the times.”
Donal McAnallen will be a key speaker when Queen’s University Belfast (the host venue for the 1971 Congress) host two online webinars to reflect on Rule 27, its impact and legacy. You can register for one or both events by logging onto this link https://forms.office.com/r/BzE0wKS1gN