In 1938 Dr. Douglas Hyde, first president of the Republic of Ireland and one of the great Irish nationalists, was suspended from the position of patron of the Gaelic Athletic Association. His crime: attendance, in his official capacity as head of state, at an international rugby match played in Dublin.
Jack Lynch, the present Irish prime minister, was suspended from the GAA when he was a young hurling star in County Cork because he attended, as a spectator, a game not approved by the association.
Even Eamon de Valera, Ireland's venerable president, was once vehemently attacked by the Gaelic Athletic Association for watching "foreign" games.
A few weeks ago the most famous Gaelic football player of all time, Mick O'Connell, the 34-year-old pride of County Kerry, was photographed at a soccer match. The picture was published on the front of the Irish Independent, the daily newspaper with the largest circulation in Ireland. Result: two days later O'Connell retired from active competition before any GAA disciplinary action could be taken against him.
Messrs. Hyde, Lynch, de Valera and O'Connell are merely the most prominent Irishmen to run afoul of Gaelic Athletic Association rules. According to those rules, any Irishman living in Ireland who plays, promotes or watches certain sports of non-Gaelic origin risks athletic suspension, which in some parts of the country amounts also to social ostracism. This athletic prohibition is known to Irishmen everywhere as The Ban. It is a holdover from the days when all Ireland was under British rule. Specifically, the GAA forbids its members from playing, attending or in any way supporting "games of the British garrison," that is, soccer, rugby, cricket and field hockey.
In recent years, an ever-increasing number of young Irishmen have been employing such ruses as using their own names when playing Gaelic games and pseudonyms when competing in rugby and soccer matches in order to circumvent The Ban. But practices such as this may soon be unnecessary. If all goes according to present plan, the prohibition against foreign pastimes will be removed from the rule book of the GAA when that group holds its annual congress on Easter Sunday. This year GAA members at the grass-roots level voted overwhelmingly in favor of ending The Ban. However, only the GAA congress, which is being held in Belfast, may amend the rules, and then only by a two-thirds vote of the county delegates. Since 30 of the 32 counties have instructed their delegates to the congress to vote for the Ban's abolition—only Antrim in British Northern Ireland and Sligo in the Republic voted for its retention—Patrick Fanning, the GAA president and himself a pro-Ban man, says it will go this year. There are some, however, who are not so convinced.
Actually, several rules having to do with foreign influences will be at issue. One of these states that "British soldiers, navy men and police shall not be eligible for membership in the GAA. A member of the association participating in dances or similar entertainments, promoted by or under the patronage of such bodies, shall incur suspension for at least three months." Of the controversial rules, this is the only one that undoubtedly will be retained, largely because of the presence in the North of British troops trying to keep the peace between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority.
Another GAA regulation requires every county committee secretly to appoint "vigilance members" whose duties shall be to visit the areas under their jurisdiction where "excluded games and entertainments" are held and to report "the attendance of members of the association at such functions as players or spectators."
A third rule—one conveniently ignored through the years—declares that no GAA club shall organize "any entertainment at which foreign dancing other than oldtime waltzing is permitted" and that "any member of the GAA who organizes or helps others to organize foreign dances for the benefit of the GAA" shall be suspended.
These strictures date to the turn of the century. A revival of Irish nationalism after seven centuries of British oppression found an outlet then in linguistic, literary, paramilitary and other groupings, all of which had as their objective the establishment of an independent Ireland. The revolution followed, and in 1921 the Republic came into existence. But chauvinistic sentiment continued unabated because the six northern counties remained under British control.