According to all contemporary reports the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in the billiard rooms of the Commercial and Family Hotel in Thurles, Co Tipperary on November 1, 1884 was a brief affair.
Maurice Davin issued a short statement pointing out the absurdity of Irishmen permitting Englishmen to organise Irish sport, emphasising that this had led to the decline of native pastimes and called for a body to draft rules to aid in their revival and to open athletics to the poor.
Michael Cusack followed with a longer speech censuring the Irish media for ignoring Irish sport. From this beginning has grown the organisation we know.
The foundation of the GAA in Derry came within a year of the foundation of the central organisation. Many of those involved in the establishment came from Derry City.
It is believed that St. Patrick’s Waterside was in existence even before the County Board was formed but the first club to affiliate to the GAA was Desertmartin in 1886 but there is no record of them ever playing any games.
By 1888 a Derry County Board had been established and was paying affiliation fees to the GAA Central Council. One of only eight counties to do so at the time. By 1889, 14 clubs were active across the county.
In early decades up to the 1930s, the County Derry competitions took in a number of clubs from County Donegal and County Tyrone and at various times clubs from South Derry played in Antrim and Tyrone leagues.
The lack of growth in the 1890s was partly attributed to the disapproval of the local Catholic Church hierarchy on playing games on a Sunday. County Derry also competed sporadically in the Ulster Football Championship from 1904 onwards. Disruption was caused by political conflict in the 1910s and again in the early 1920s, but the County Board was re-established for a brief period in 1926, but was definitively set down in 1929 and has remained intact ever since.
In the city of Derry however it is far from untrue to say that in decades past it was not a bastion of the GAA. Even if the desire had been there to establish a Gaelic games outlook in the city, whilst the the GAA began its hold in the county, in 1890 Derry Celtic Football Club was established and so began the city’s love affair with Association Football. Derry Celtic FC was formed at St Columb’s Hall and in 1893 became St Columb’s Hall Celtic and became Derry Celtic again in 1900. Between 1894 and 1900 they played at Celtic Park, now the primary GAA ground in County Derry.
In 1900, Derry Celtic moved next door to the Brandywell where they remained until they were voted out of the Irish League in 1913. Formed in 1928 and accepted into the Irish League in 1929, the Brandywell remains home of course to Derry City FC.
Derry City were offered the opportunity to buy Celtic Park in 1933, but hesitated and so an opportunity presented itself to the GAA and some inter-county games and club games began to be played there. In 1943, the GAA bought Celtic Park.
Therefore story of the GAA in Derry has two strands-that of the City and the County. The slowness to initially establish itself at the same speed as other counties on the island saw sporadic playing of both football and hurling. The mid-twentieth century did see expansion of the GAA in rural Derry but it also witnessed the near collapse of the organisation in the city because of the stiff competition from soccer, as said above.
With the purchase of Celtic Park by the GAA in the early 1940s, significant advances were made, but many of the clubs that sprang up soon disappeared simply through lack of popular interest in Gaelic games.
Also, the very visible intertwining of the GAA and nationalist politics throughout the history of the Association from its inception right up to the reignition of the conflict in the 1970s and beyond also may have had an effect in Derry City.
In a city with a nationalist majority but under the strict rule of the unionist minority bolstered by the Protestant dominated RUC who were backed up by legislation that was predicated against any expression of nationalist culture may have been off-putting for many.
The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland) 1954 was bitterly resented by nationalists who saw the Act as being deliberately designed to suppress their identity. Although it did not refer explicitly to the Irish tricolour, it did the Union Flag. The Act gave the Royal Ulster Constabulary a positive duty to remove any flag or emblem from public or private property which was considered to be likely to cause a breach of the peace, but legally exempted the Union Flag from ever being considered a breach of the peace. As a result, of all the flags likely to be displayed in Northern Ireland, almost exclusively the Irish tricolour would be deemed a breach of the peace. However, the Act was not a wholesale ban on the Irish flag, and it was often allowed to remain flying, especially at GAA grounds.
The perennial divide too between the city and county in terms of players eventually chosen for county teams remains a source of acrimony as well with rural players always seeming to get the nod over their city counterparts has proved a stoppage to players staying in the game as well.
Whilst this is changing due to the huge renaissance of the GAA in Derry City it remains to be seen whether this trend will reverse. And, candidly, given the performances of the County Derry Senior football panel in very recent Ulster Championships it is hard to see long-term progress being made unless the County Board start utilising the talent within the county’s biggest population centre.
Clubs such as Daire Óg, Éire Óg and Sarsfields plied their trade in the city and of course at Celtic Park. But as the 1960s progressed and the Troubles approached, political protest as an expression of nationalism began to eclipse sporting expressions. Doire Colmcille CLG was established in 1969 following the amalgamation of those three city clubs.
The die had been cast and as Celtic Park languished into abject dereliction. Derry’s inter-county football matches switched back again to venues such as Ballinascreen and Glen. A combination of a simple lack of interest in the city outside of a hardcore of supporters, the Troubles and the fact that it suited the rural dominated County Board to keep county games in their hinterland resulted in the Lone Moor Road venue simply falling apart.
An article in the Derry Journal in January, 1986 said: “It is no secret that Celtic Park, in its heyday, one of three GAA county pitches in Derry, is in a sorry state. Despite numerous promises dating back to 1943 when the Derry City Board of the GAA purchased the playing fields that it would be brought up to scratch.”
Referring to the return of Derry City FC to senior football in 1985, the article continued: “It is ironic that the latest effort to get Celtic Park upgraded coincides with the revival of senior soccer at the Brandywell, less than a stones throw away and the relegation of Doire Colmcille to the third division where they join Sean Dolan’s, the only other Gaelic football team in the city.
“Even though the odds are stacked against them, Seamus McGilloway, Chairman of the City Board, is confident that the latest push to upgrade Celtic Park, spearheaded by a small but dedicated nucleus of supporters, is one most likely to succeed. Plans for a major improvement scheme were drawn up over ten years agao and at long last it looks as if work will get underway soon.
“Celtic Park was purchased by the City Board in 1943 for £1,000, and although Derry City even then could not be considered a hot bed of support for the GAA, the money was raised within seven weeks. The purchase of Celtic Park represented the ninth attempt to establish the GAA in the City-the previous attempts being in 1888, 1902, 1905, 1908, 1913, 1916, 1929 and 1934.
“That was 40 years ago and Celtic Park is no better off than it was then. Seamus McGilloway is confident the time is ripe to make the move again, even though he readily admits it will be an uphill struggle. The Troubles, he says, have been blamed unfairly for the lack of desire for Gaelic games in the city. He feels the County Board must bear some responsibility-Celtic park to his knowledge is the only county pitch in the country to be allowed to fall into such a state of dereliction.”
It appeared that the time for talking was over and at last something was going to happen.
As the 1990s dawned the revamped Celtic Park opened, with the intention of establishing a dedicated focal point for Gaelic games in the city it reclaimed its spot as the primary county ground. The addition of floodlights in 2008. The erection soon afterwards of a 3,600 seater stand brought the capacity up to almost 20,000 and has made sure the ground is amongst the best in Ulster.
The city now has a thriving GAA club scene. Na Piarsaigh Doire Trasna, Brian Ogs Steelstown GAC, Doire Colmcille and Sean Dolan’s representing the footballing side of things whilst Na Magha are the city’s hurling representatives. Throngs of youngsters are queuing up to sign up across the city and the establishment of first class club facilities augurs well for the future.