50 years since GAA scrapped its ban on ‘foreign games’

On April 11, 1971, the GAA voted to lift its ban on members participating in ‘foreign games’ such as soccer. DIARMUID O’DONOVAN traces the life span of the controversial rule
50 years since GAA scrapped its ban on ‘foreign games’

On April 11, 1971, the GAA voted to lift its ban on members participating in ‘foreign games’ such as soccer. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

BETWEEN 1905 and 1971, members of the GAA, both players and non-players, were barred, under threat of suspension, from attending or participating in games that were seen as being of British origin.

These games included soccer, rugby, cricket and hockey and were sometimes known as “the Garrison Games” because they were strongest in the towns that had British army barracks.

For most of its existence, this rule was Rule 27 in the GAA rule book. However, all sports people in Ireland knew Rule 27 as ‘The Ban’.

The history of The Ban is as old as the GAA. In fact, it is not untrue to say that the GAA was founded because the rules of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA) effectively barred all but the upper classes from taking part in athletic competition.

The GAA was founded in 1884 and in the first 20 years of its existence, it was influenced by the Land League boycott campaigns, Sinn Féin’s promotion of an Irish economy, and the Gaelic League’s promotion of the Irish language.

It became fashionable to promote all things Irish, including its Gaelic Games, and to shun all things British.

Nowadays the idea of one sporting organisation actually prohibiting its members from exercising their free will to play a different sport, is viewed as an anathema. However, the GAA was founded in a different world where right or wrong often depended on race, wealth, language, and religion.

There were several variations of the Ban during the early years of the GAA. It was not until 1905 however, that the Ban, which lasted until 1971, was put into the rule book.

Cork were not very supportive of the ban in 1905. By 1908, however, J.J. Walsh had become Chairman of the Cork County Board and as the Board’s emphasis became more nationalistic, support for the Ban became more hardline.

Not surprisingly, in light of the tragedies of the War of Independence in Cork, the intolerance of “foreign games” solidified within the Cork GAA community. The withdrawal of Christian Brothers College from participating in all Gaelic games was one consequence of this hardening attitude.

Christians contested the 1918 Harty Final, and not long afterwards the Cork Board demanded that the school withdraw from rugby if it wished to continue playing Gaelic Games. The school authorities decided to stay with rugby.

It was 97 years (2015) before Christians returned to playing top class schools hurling.

The Ban was a very effective strategy in terms of establishing the GAA as Ireland’s premier sporting organisation during the 1884 to 1930 period. It began to lose its lustre, however, after Ireland gained independence.

Soccer was the most popular of the ‘Garrison Games’ at the dawn of the new state. It was easily played by boys in town and city streets.

At adult level, League of Ireland soccer players were paid and the game also provided an outlet to play abroad in England.

The Ban forced many players, especially urban- based players, to choose between Gaelic Games and soccer. This often split friendships and led to bitterness between associations. The GAA in particular often regarded players and promotors of soccer, rugby, cricket and hockey as second class citizens.

At the level of participation, however, players were generally players first and idealists after, leading many GAA players to cross codes and play soccer or rugby incognito.

The GAA, in reaction to this. was to form vigilante committees to attend soccer and rugby games and report on GAA members playing or attending these games.

It is said that Limerick’s most famous hurler, Mick Mackey, was such an avid rugby supporter that the Limerick County Board made him a member of their vigilante committee to avoid having to suspend him.

The President of Ireland, Dr Douglas Hyde, was removed as a patron of the GAA following his attendance at a soccer international between Ireland and Poland in 1939.

Later that year in Cork, Jim Young, who went on to win five All-Ireland medals, was suspended for attending a rugby dance. (A song was written about the suspension. It named Cork trainer, Jim ‘Tough’ Barry as the informer. Barry took offence and sued the promoter of the song for £300 in damages. The judge who heard the case had slight sympathy for Jim Barry and awarded him one shilling).

In 1952, Cork faced a dilemma when both their goalkeepers, Mick Cashman and Jim Cotter, were injured and unable to play in the first round of the Munster Hurling Championship. The third choice goalie was under suspicion for playing soccer.

The selectors asked Dave Creedon to come out of retirement to play. Creedon did, and went on to win three All-Ireland medals in 1952, ’53 and ’54.

The advent of television, and the broadcasting of rugby and soccer games, meant the Ban became meaningless by the 1960s.

Motions to remove it were debated at the GAA Annual Congresses of 1962 and 1965, but were overwhelmingly beaten, although they did lead to a greater debate on the topic among the general membership.

Pat Fanning, one of the most vociferous speakers in favour of keeping the Ban in 1965, was GAA President when it was finally removed.

By then there were sufficient numbers in favour of removal, but Fanning has been given credit for the manner in which he chaired the debate and ensured that there was no rancour or division between the pro and anti-Ban supporters within the GAA family.

Ultimately, the GAA was not affected by the removal of the Ban by 1971. The organisation had put a commission in place in 1969 to examine every aspect of the GAA at that time. Its findings were also published in 1971 and the recommendations transformed the Association over the next two decades.

If anything, it was soccer that suffered a setback after the ban. For example, there were two very strong League of Ireland sides, Cork Hibernians and Cork Celtic, in Cork in 1971. Within six years both were defunct.

At Junior soccer level, the number of clubs exploded in the 25 years after the removal of the Ban.

However, many of the GAA players who dabbled with soccer in winter continued to give their priority to Gaelic Games and the standard and quality of play in Junior soccer was diluted rather than improved.

Now, 50 years since its removal, the Ban is merely a quirk in the history of Irish sport. It started as a necessary evil and served its purpose in developing Gaelic Games and supporting the nationalist cause.

Between 1921 and 1971 the Ban lost its purpose. Since then the GAA has maintained its position as Ireland’s premier sporting organisation and has gone on to develop its facilities and structures beyond all recognition.

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