Hidden history of the GAA WWI volunteers uncovered

A new book by a local historian looks at how the participation of GAA members in the First World War has been hidden to the untrained eye.

Monday, 18th November 2019, 7:00 am
Tommy Bradley of Coalisland who played gaelic football for Tyrone in 1913, on horseback while serving in the Royal Field Artillery

The Co Tyrone man behind the book is Donal McAnallen, a former employee of the GAA’s Ulster Council and the brother of Tyrone GAA captain Cormac McAnallen who died suddenly in 2004 of an undetected heart condition.

Donal, who has penned five other books including one about his late brother, stumbled upon a counterintuitive report when trawling the archives of Belfast Newspaper Library back in 2005.

He came across a headline in Ireland’s Saturday Night about the death of 1912 All-Ireland finalist William Manning. It read, ‘Belfast GAA Player Killed’. He read on to find that Manning was killed in action by a machine gun bullet while fighting for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in France in 1918.

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Donal McAnallen, the historian behind the research

It was at odds with the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ulster’s centenary publication in 1984 which said the Great War did not affect GAA affairs in Ulster.

To challenge that long-held popular view that the GAA, with its nationalist ethos and ban on members of the Crown forces, was hardly affected by World War One, Donal’s project – ‘Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers’ – has uncovered 70 GAA members from Ulster who signed up, and another 80 from the rest of Ireland.

Donal drew on a vast array of newspapers, military records, census returns and oral evidence: “In most newspaper reports there was a clear avoidance of the subject.

“To give an insight into how these men’s service was underplayed, in the Dungannon Democrat, a nationalist paper, they make a very cryptic reference to Patrick Holland (who left his position as county secretary to join the RAF). They said he has gone to ‘play the game’ on a larger scale.”

The 1912 Antrim All Ireland finalists including William Manning at the back, furthest right

‘Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers’ began life as an Ulster Council project but after Donal’s employment there ended it went into hiatus. Later when the Ulster Council were given the chance to sponsor the project they declined. The book was published with the support of National Lottery Heritage Fund and Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich Library.

Donal said: “Whenever we launched the book in Tyrone GAA Centre you had RAF cadets and unionist councillors alongside members of the GAA. Some people have said it’s very enlightening research. I’ve also got some criticism online for bringing this to public attention.

“That wasn’t unexpected as republicans have often depicted First World War soldiers with disdain and discouraged discussion of stories that did not fit their preferred narrative, so the GAA has been traditionally reticent about drawing attention to these men’s involvement in the war.”