The following is an extract from ‘Forgotten Patriot – Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency’ by Brian Murphy. The extract details Douglas Hyde’s run-in with the GAA in 1938…
On 17 December 1938, the GAA Central Council revoked the patronage of Douglas Hyde, the President of Ireland, following a complaint made by the Patrick Pearse Club in Derry.
The background to this extraordinary decision by the GAA was that, on 13 November 1938, President Hyde, accompanied by the Taoiseach and Oscar Traynor, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and a patron of the Football Association of Ireland, attended the Ireland versus Poland soccer match in Dalymount Park. Hyde’s attendance at the soccer match was deemed by the GAA to be in direct violation of Rule 27, the ban on “foreign games.”
The GAA’s decision to expel Hyde was hugely controversial, but it actually reverberated positively on the office of the President. Hyde’s removal generated a media storm, which was generally condemnatory of the GAA’s action. In its editorial, the Irish Press castigated the GAA, stating that “the President is the head of the whole state and not of any section in it. He owes an equal duty to all citizens whatever views they may hold, or whatever form of recreation they may indulge in.”
Almost en masse, the country’s provincial and national newspapers editorialised strongly against the GAA’s action and public sympathy was also largely with Hyde. This was amplified by the dignified manner in which the President dealt with the controversy. He wisely decided not to drag his office into a running battle on the matter and chose to remain silent, declining all media requests for a statement.
The standing of the President and his office was also enhanced by a widespread impression that Hyde had acted in a proper and impartial manner in attending the soccer game and in refusing to favour one sporting organisation over the others. This impression was further reinforced when, in February 1940, Hyde, undeterred by the GAA’s action against him, attended a prominent rugby fixture. In his own unassuming fashion, Hyde was determined to be a President for all Irish people, irrespective of their sporting preferences.
Eamon de Valera had wanted to take the GAA to task immediately following Hyde’s expulsion, but the President, not wishing to inflame matters further, prevailed upon the Taoiseach not to make any public response. De Valera acquiesced in maintaining a silence, but his position was that “no single organisation had any right either to approve or bar the presence of the President of Ireland at any public function.” It was a point of principle in relation to which de Valera would bide his time, but ultimately return with a vengeance.
In August 1945, following Hyde’s retirement, de Valera finally got his opportunity to make his views forcefully clear to the GAA’s top officials. This occurred when the President of the GAA, Séamus Gardiner, and the GAA’s General Secretary, Padraig Ó Caoimh, wrote to Seán T. O’Kelly requesting a meeting with the new President of Ireland to pay their respects.
O’Kelly had been a cabinet member at the time of Hyde’s expulsion and would have been well aware of de Valera’s annoyance with the GAA. The upshot of this was that rather than getting an invite to the Áras, the GAA officials received an unexpected summons to meet with the Taoiseach in Government Buildings for the purpose of establishing the reason for their request to the office of the President, given the action taken against President Hyde.
This meeting took place on 10 August 1945 and the Taoiseach, in the presence of the Assistant Secretary to the Government, Padraig Ó Cinnéide, subjected the two most senior officials from the country’s leading sporting organisation to a verbal dressing-down. According to Ó Cinnéide’s valuable minute of the meeting, the Taoiseach forcefully impressed upon the GAA representatives that the organisation must understand that “the President is President of all sections of the community and cannot in any circumstances put himself in such a position as to seem, by implication or otherwise, to discriminate against any section of the community.”
Following a meeting of the GAA’s Central Council Executive Meeting on 17 August 1945, the GAA fully assented to de Valera’s view. De Valera’s insistence that the GAA bow to the President’s precedence and his unique position as head of state meant that an intolerable situation was brought to an end whereby future Presidents would or would not be welcomed at Croke Park – especially for national events, such as All-Ireland Finals – depending on their willingness to boycott other sporting bodies.
De Valera’s firmness on this point ensured that the office of President was able to transcend the petty politics of the ban. This was an important victory for the standing of the presidency in Irish life and helped it to develop into an office that was seen as truly representative of the entire community. This had been Douglas Hyde’s intention in initially accepting an invite to a soccer match, and his courage and dignity in not acceding to the GAA’s pressure to use the presidency as a tool in their efforts to ostracise other sporting organisations deserves to be recognised as politically astute and laudable.