Tuesday, August 14, 2018

GAA protests against conscription August 1918

As August 1918 approached, the Athy Show committee completed arrangements for the annual Show scheduled for Thursday, the 15th day of the month. Local newspapers carried advertisements for the Show which indicated an unusual combination of competitive races. The agricultural labourers’ race over jumps was to be followed by a boy’s relay race and a driving and horse jumping competition. Pride of place was reserved for what was described as the ‘horse jumping championship of All Ireland’. An admission fee of one shilling allowed one to enjoy not only those competitions, but also a step dancing competition and what was described as a ‘slack wire performance’. Bands were promised to be in attendance and no doubt Athy Pipers Club and the Leinster Street fife and drum band were expected to take part. That summer, the last summer of the four-year long world war, witnessed labour problems on the Verschoyle estate in Kilberry. The local farm labourers employed by A.R. Verschoyle of Cloney Castle went on strike following their employer’s refusal to entertain a demand for a wage increase of five shillings to bring their weekly wage to 30 shillings per week. The enlistment of local men during the war had created labour shortages and the South Kildare Labour Union had organised the local farm labourers in seeking better terms for its members. A large-scale labour strike threatened for south Kildare was reportedly averted in the last week of August. At the same time the Dublin based Irish Transport Workers Union increased its membership by taking over the South Kildare Labour Union. Unrest in south Kildare was not confined to the tillage fields. Public protests supported by local church and civic leaders had followed the British government’s planned extension of conscription to Ireland. The conscription crisis erupted at the start of April 1918 and in early May more than seventy of the country’s Sinn Fein leaders were arrested and imprisoned. They were allegedly involved in a wartime plot with Germany and in following up that claim the British government issued a proclamation on 4th July requiring ‘all meetings, assemblies or processions in public places’ to require an authorisation from the local R.I.C. The General Secretary of the G.A.A., Luke O’Toole, called a meeting of the G.A.A. Central Council for 22nd July, following which a decision was taken that G.A.A. clubs would not conform to the British government’s Proclamation. The G.A.A. authorities decided to organise a day of protest scheduled for Sunday 4th August 1918 when G.A.A. clubs throughout the country were directed to hold G.A.A. matches at 3 p.m. Designated as Gaelic Sunday it was the G.A.A.’s response to the governments order of 4th July which five days later saw crown forces prevent an Ulster championship match taking place in Coothill. About 1,500 camogie, football and hurling matches were played on Gaelic Sunday without any interference from the R.I.C. or crown forces. The County Kildare list of matches included a football match in Athy between the local team and Bert. Another game was scheduled for Clane between Clane and Mainham. The Leinster Leader of 10th August carried the following report on that match. ‘Clane and Mainham met at Clane on Sunday in a friendly football contest when Mainham attained an easy victory. There was a fair attendance. Mr. W. Merriman had to relinquish the post of referee in order to play the duty of collecting a team to represent Clane devolving upon him. The fact that several prominent players were in the immediate vicinity and yet declined to play is a matter which we consider cause for strict investigation at the next meeting of the County Board. The action of those individuals will hardly commend itself to the general body of the Gaels of Kildare – quite the opposite we consider.’ The country’s response to the British government’s order of 4th July was such that the government was forced to claim that it had never intended to interfere with ordinary meetings, games or sports. The exemption however did not apply to political utterances or Sinn Fein activity. Athy teacher J.J. O’Byrne was arrested for reading the Sinn Fein manifesto in Emily Square on 15th August as part of a nationwide act of defiance by Sinn Fein clubs. O’Byrne who was secretary of Athy Sinn Fein club, was imprisoned while awaiting trial and two months later he received one year’s hard labour for ‘making a statement likely to cause disaffection in contravention of the Defence of the Realm Regulations’. The month of August 1918 ended as had the previous 48 months with the death of many Athy men fighting overseas. The summer month of August was for many Athy families ‘a wicked month’, a headline later enshrined in Irish literary history by the Clare born writer, Edna O’Brien.

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