Oscar Traynor and ‘the crime of playing soccer’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2016), Volume 24


By Brian Hanley

Born in Dublin in 1886, the son of a Fenian, Oscar Traynor was a skilled tradesman (a compositor) and a member of the IRB and the Irish Volunteers. He took part in the 1916 Rising as commander of the Metropole Hotel garrison. After his release from internment in Knutsford and Frongoch, Traynor became second-in-command of the Dublin IRA, where one of his tasks was production of the underground journal An t-Óglach. He was made commander of the Dublin IRA in November 1920 after the killing of Dick McKee on Bloody Sunday and was in charge of operations in the city in the bloody period leading up the truce of July 1921, including the attack on the Custom House. Traynor took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and was in charge of the forces in Barry’s Hotel during the fighting in Dublin. He was captured in July 1922 and imprisoned until 1924. He was elected a Sinn Féin TD for Dublin North in 1925 and remained loyal to the party after Fianna Fáil was formed in 1926. In June 1927 Traynor was again elected as an abstentionist TD. In 1929, however, he stood (unsuccessfully) as a Fianna Fáil candidate for the first time in the Dublin North by-election. He was elected in 1932 and remained a Dáil deputy until 1961. He also served as Minister for Defence during the Emergency. In 1948 he became president of the Football Association of Ireland and remained head of the FAI until his death in 1963. It was that final fact that marked Traynor out somewhat from many of his colleagues: his allegiance to what was often dismissed as a ‘foreign’ game.

Goalkeeper for Belfast Celtic

Traynor began playing soccer for the Frankfort club on Dublin’s north side at the age of fourteen. He also played for another Dublin club, Strandville, before becoming Belfast Celtic’s goalkeeper in 1910. He played for the club for two years, touring Germany and Austria-Hungary with them. Traynor’s sporting career was secondary to his involvement in the revolution, but he remained unapologetic about his choice. In February 1928 he wrote on ‘the crime of playing soccer’ for Football Sports Weekly. He stressed that he was ‘not egotistical enough to pose as a “thorough Irishman”’, but as he did believe in the right of Ireland to ‘the fullest measure of freedom [and] have striven for that in the past … it is only as such an Irishman I can give my opinion’. Traynor asserted that ‘the manhood and womanhood of a nation are reflected in their means of amusement’ and that he believed that all young Irish men and women should take part in sporting activities. But he asked:

‘Should someone who finds the Gaelic code of football irksome and who feels doubts about indulging in the genuine national pastime, hurling … refrain from a manly game of football because it is foreign? Is he, likewise, debarred from taking part in cross-country running, swimming, boxing, gymnastics, chess or the very ordinary game of cards—none of which can be claimed as solely Irish in origin?’

In elevating hurling to the status of the ‘genuine national pastime’ he was engaging in a familiar trope during debates between soccer supporters and GAA enthusiasts at the time. Many soccer supporters accepted that hurling was authentic but tended to view Gaelic football as a somewhat contrived game, designed to provide the GAA with an alternative to soccer and rugby. But Traynor also went on to claim that soccer was not a foreign game at all but ‘a Celtic game, pure and simple, having its roots in the Highlands of Scotland’.

Turnout of Dublin GAA clubs unaffected by Easter Rising

He provocatively asserted that when interned in Frongoch after the Rising he was ‘amazed at the number of old soccer colleagues who were daily appearing there. I can also remember the caustic comments of several of the Gaelic footballers from Dublin at the turnout of these [GAA] clubs, whose membership was in no way impaired as a result of the Easter fight.’ Traynor claimed that he was

‘… merely mentioning these facts to show that the game a man played did not influence his convictions one iota. The Gaels who did not believe anything could be achieved by such extreme methods as insurrection did not allow themselves to be carried away by personalities taking part in the Rising, any more than the soccerites allowed themselves to be deterred from taking a part because a section of their countrymen regarded them as a de-nationalising influence.’

Oscar Traynor (right), with Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and President Douglas Hyde, watching the Irish Free State soccer team beat Poland 3–2 at Dalymount Park in November 1938. Applying Rule 27, the ban on ‘foreign games’, the GAA in the following month controversially removed Hyde as a patron of the organisation. (Getty Images)

Oscar Traynor (right), with Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and President Douglas Hyde, watching the Irish Free State soccer team
beat Poland 3–2 at Dalymount Park in November 1938. Applying Rule 27, the ban on ‘foreign games’, the GAA in the following month
controversially removed Hyde as a patron of the organisation. (Getty Images)

Traynor then raised an issue that the GAA had successfully evaded since the Great War: that some of its membership had served in the British forces during that conflict. Traynor recalled

‘… seeing a hurling match in which a certain individual distinguished himself by the brilliance of his play. A few Sundays later I went to see the same team play and at once noticed the absence of the player mentioned, and on inquiring for the reason was informed he had joined the British Army. I later on heard of his being killed in France. I have no doubt that hundreds of Gaels fought in the British Army, and possibly with distinction. Were these men influenced by the game they played when they sacrificed their lives in the cause of England? Was Kevin Barry influenced by the game he played when he sacrificed his young life? Some of the highest executive officers of the Republican movement, from 1916 onwards, played the despised foreign games and I never heard any of them apologizing for doing so.’

Mentioning Kevin Barry, a revered republican martyr but also a rugby and cricket player, was an astute move by Traynor. He went on to suggest that ‘most of the readers of Sports Weekly could, like myself, give a long list of patriotic Irishmen who either played rugby, or soccer or cricket, and not only played it, but did so with distinction … I have happy recollection of having met one of the highest executive officers of Dáil Éireann at a Rovers–Bohemian match, and he is as sincere a believer in that cause today as he ever was.’ Traynor asserted that the

‘… most admirable trait of the Irish soccerite is his refusal to be banned as a good Irishman. He all but loses his voice at today’s soccer final, but tomorrow completes the job at an all-Ireland Gaelic football final.’

For Traynor there was no contradiction in following both native and ‘foreign’ games. He concluded by asserting that he was

‘optimistic enough to hope for the day when Ireland will be represented on the rugby and soccer fields by representatives selected from every quarter of Ireland, when every town and village will have its club striving today for rugby or soccer honours, and tomorrow or the next day for the honours of the Gaelic game. We are regarded as chivalrous, generous people; are we not broad-minded too? We’ve had champions in every branch of sport in the past, when “bans” were non-existent. We’ll have them again when “bans” no longer exist.’

Pluralist views ahead of their time

At the time Traynor made this appeal he was still close to the IRA and regarded by the Garda commissioner as personifying ‘subterranean crime’, but he was confident enough to challenge the idea that true republicans could only identify with Gaelic sports. Nevertheless, it seems that Traynor was in a minority among republicans on this issue and would often be reminded of the fact. In 1943, during a dispute about the status of Gaelic games within the Irish Army, the central council of the GAA would claim that during the War of Independence the IRA had been recruited ‘almost exclusively’ from the ranks of the Association. This barb was aimed at Traynor, now Minister for Defence. His example shows, however, that the revolutionary movement was far more diverse than the GAA might have wished, while Traynor’s views on the possibilities of pluralism in sport were ahead of their time.

Brian Hanley is the author of The IRA: a documentary history (Gill and Macmillan).


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