Our history, your story: GAA Oral History Project

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), News, Volume 17

1‘The GAA is really our stamp, it’s the rural man’s stamp. It says who he is, what you stand for, where your spirit comes from, ’tis your freedom, you know.’ These are the words of Micheál Mac an tSaoir, a Limerick hurling fan, who has told his story to the GAA Oral History Project. It is one of the 30,000 stories that the Project aims to collect in the next four years. The GAA Oral History Project got under way at Boston College Centre for Irish Programmes, Dublin, on 1 September 2008. Funded by the GAA, it will be the largest public history project carried out in Ireland since the Folklore Commission of the 1930s. The Project aims to record the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association through the memories and stories of anyone who has experiences or views that they wish to contribute.
The GAA was founded in the billiards room of Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, on 1 November 1884. Accordingly, 2009 marks its 125th anniversary. With this landmark anniversary as an impetus, the story of the GAA will be told by the ordinary members of the association—and by those outside the association looking in. This project will not only capture the stories of the big games and the star players of the GAA but will also celebrate those who volunteer on a local level, players and former players, management, administrators and officials, the jersey-washers, the teachers, the groundsmen, the parents ferrying their children to matches every week, the tea-makers and anyone who has had any experience with the GAA.
As Nicky Brennan, president of the GAA, stated at the launch of the Project in November 2008: ‘It’s not all about the good times either. This history is also about people who remain unhappy about certain courses of action. We want to be fair and balanced.’ Ultimately, the Project aims to record the history of everything that happens around the games and will address themes such as the role of the club in community life, the changing role of women in the association, travelling to matches, celebrating victories and commiserating defeats, politics and identity, the influence of religion and education, music, language and culture, the effects of emigration and immigration, and the media and literature surrounding the GAA.
The ambition of the Project is to carry out recorded interviews with thousands of people in Ireland and internationally in order to get the fullest possible picture of what the GAA means to Irish people, at home and abroad. Questionnaires will be distributed to GAA clubs, schools, local volunteer groups and members of the general public. Members of the public are invited to get involved by becoming an interviewee, completing a questionnaire or by sending an e-mail or letter to the Project describing their own experiences or telling their favourite GAA story. Contributions are also welcome in Irish.
In addition to collecting stories, we will be gathering club histories, photographs, recorded film and tapes around the games, club and county archives, minute books, posters and other ephemeral material. The key to the success of this project lies in creating a sense of ownership in every parish in Ireland and every GAA club globally. The structure of the GAA is the perfect vehicle to develop an oral history project.
Schools will play a fundamental part in the GAA Oral History Project. Our interactive website, www.gaahistory.com, features curriculum-based resource packs for both primary and secondary schools. Classroom projects based on these materials will develop student skills in the creating and documenting of history, analysis of historical material and oral history interviewing techniques. While particularly suited to the Transition Year Programme, this project presents an excellent opportunity for students at all levels to engage with their local community and contribute to a project of national importance.
A variety of internship opportunities will also be available for second- and third-level students. Members of the public are encouraged to get involved through the many volunteering opportunities available, including interviewing, collecting material and administrative support. The Project will depend on volunteers to allow for the recording of the GAA’s history at the most personal and local level. The Project research team has been working on developing a database and assembling an archive since the beginning of September 2008. Over 100 interviews have already been carried out and questionnaires received. Partnerships have also been developed with other organisations to maximise the reach of the Project.
The materials accumulated will create a series of books, websites, radio and television programmes, as well as a searchable digital archive that will be permanently housed and publicly accessible in the GAA Museum and Archive at Croke Park. It will act as an invaluable resource for researchers and historians and also for future generations who wish to understand not only the GAA but also the social and cultural history of modern Ireland.
Enquiries: Boston College, 42 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, +353 (0)1 6625055, info@gaahistory.com, www.gaahistory.com.

Regina Fitzpatrick is a researcher with the GAA Oral History Project.

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