On Monday 13 October 2014 at Queen’s University Belfast the GAA launched a new initiative to recognise the participation of GAA members in the First World War. ‘Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers’, a nine-month research project to be undertaken under the auspices of the Ulster Council of the GAA. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and will attempt to identify as many as possible of the GAA members from Ulster who died in the war. The project is being facilitated under the auspices of the QUB Living legacies 1914-18 project.
Until now, the widely documented participation of numerous GAA men in the Irish revolutionary movement in the 1913-21 has led to a perception that members of the association had no connection to the First World War. Preliminary research has revealed that dozens of Gaelic players from Ulster joined regiments of the British army and fought in Europe between 1914 and 1918. The majority of those identified to date came from west Belfast, where recruitment among nationalists reached high levels, largely due to the scale of unemployment in the area. These include twenty members of one Belfast GAA club who enlisted. William Manning, a Belfast man who played for Antrim in the 1912 All-Ireland football final, was shot dead while serving as a lance-sergeant with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in France in 1918. Several club and county players who took part in Gaelic games in other parts of Ulster – including Tyrone, Derry, Cavan and north Antrim – have also emerged as participants in the war. Private Patrick Corey from Cookstown, who played for Tyrone in the 1909 Ulster Football Championship, died in the uniform of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1915. For several reasons, this subject has not been researched in depth previously: a longstanding reluctance among nationalists to discuss or detail memories of the war; several of the GAA clubs affected by recruitment were in the junior leagues and no longer exist; and the fact that most of the soldiers in question appeared to be in the lower ranks of their regiments, and therefore their military service or deaths were less likely to be recorded prominently.
Speaking prior to the launch Martin McAviney, president of the GAA’s Ulster Council, commented that ‘as an organisation Ulster GAA have already placed on record its commitment to working with all sections of society to use the decade of commemoration as an opportunity to promote both reconciliation and peace building. The GAA as an organisation has a strong tradition of commemorating its past deceased members and it’s in that context that we use this event to reflect on members of the Association who were active or died during World War one. The centenary of the Great War provides the GAA an opportunity to do this in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund and First World War Centenary Committee. The event also provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our shared history and reflect on how we can build a shared future’.
As part of the project, similar events will be held at provincial venues in the coming months, and the research findings will be published in a legacy booklet next year.