IT WAS a victory for the grassroots of the GAA — a monumental one at that — and it happened 50 years ago this Sunday.
It was the removal of Rule 27, the ban that prevented players or members of the Association from playing or attending ‘foreign’ games, such as soccer, rugby, and hockey.
The ban, which was in existence from 1905 to 1971, was viewed by those outside the GAA as proof that it was out of touch with reality.
Many attempts were made to remove the ban, down the years, but each failed.
By having it, the GAA did itself few favours, insofar as attracting new, young members, and any very versatile youngster who was excelling in one of the prohibited sports, but who wanted to try his hand at hurling or Gaelic football, was very reluctant to do so.
But the passage of time changed mindsets and as the years passed, there was a growing clamour for the hugely controversial rule to be abolished.
The message from the grassroots of the Association to the powers that be was that the time had come to move into the real world.
And on April 11, 1971, there were just two counties still holding firm for the rule’s retention: Antrim and Sligo.
The rest had come firmly on board, seeing the much bigger picture, and the historic decision was finally reached at Congress on Easter Sunday, 50 years ago.
It was an Easter Rising of a much different kind and those that believed the GAA would lose much of its identity were proved wrong.
There were individuals — quite a few in a lot of counties — who never really accepted the decision and, to this day, those people, very much in the minority now, hold that viewpoint.
But common sense always prevails — well, a lot of the time, anyway — and as a result of that removal vote, the GAA has grown and grown into an organisation that we are all so proud of.
Back then, Waterford’s Pat Fanning was the president of the GAA and he was one of those who still opposed the abolition of rule 27.
But Fanning showed that he was a very strong president when he, in a very dignified manner, accepted the viewpoint of the vast majority.
Reflecting on it now, it was a ridiculous rule and the ridiculousness of it was illustrated when it applied to ordinary members of the Association.
If you were spotted attending a soccer or rugby match, or whatever games were prohibited, you received a suspension.
The GAA had in place 'vigilantes', people appointed to scan crowds at the banned games to see if any members of the GAA were present.
Here in Cork, in the old Flower Lodge, now the magnificent complex of Páirc Uí Rinn, one of the greatest midfielders the game of Gaelic football has ever produced, Kerry’s Mick O’Connell, was spotted watching Cork Hibs one Sunday.
He was also in attendance at a big European soccer game, involving the famous German side Borussia Monchengladbach and Hibs, but no action was taken against him.
However, during his time as President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, then a patron of the GAA, attended a soccer match involving Ireland and Poland, in Dalymount Park, and, as a result, he was removed from that patron’s role.
There were other instances of high-profile players getting into trouble for either playing or attending what were known as ‘foreign sports’.
Since that historic decision to remove the ban, the GAA has grown into a far more progressive organisation and even holding Congress in Belfast in that year of 1971, in a county that was opposed to the removal of rule 27, was seen as a huge step forward.
However, it took another 34 years before the GAA made another momentous decision to allow those other, ‘foreign’ sports to be played in GAA grounds.
The ban on not allowing members of the British forces to play GAA also went by the board and the removal of all those bans shows the progress that has been made by headquarters in Jones Road.
It took a long time for things to happen and for common sense to prevail, but when it did, 50 years ago this week, it was the making of the GAA.
Little did we know, all those years ago, when we made the trek to Flower Lodge, Sunday after Sunday — and Wednesday afternoons, too — to watch Cork Hibs in action at Flower Lodge, that one day the piece of ground that we stood on, at the Blackrock end, would now be a splendid terrace that caters for thousands of GAA fans.
And if it wasn’t for the wisdom of the Cork County GAA Board, that plot of land would now be a housing estate, similar to Glenmalure Park in Milltown, once the home of Shamrock Rovers FC.
It just shows how far the GAA has progressed and prospered since that great decision of 50 years ago, to the day next Sunday.
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