On 17 November 2001, members and delegates of Irelandís GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) made a final decision on the future of something called Rule 21. A rule, long out-dated and a hangover from days gone by.
Firstly, for those unfamiliar with the GAA, this body is basically the "guardian" of the very popular Irish games, namely Gaelic Football and Hurling - comparable in cricketing terms to say, the MCC and their kinship to English Cricket. However, the GAA is also very strongly affiliated with the Catholic Church in Ireland, which in turn has a very strong influence on Irish life in general to this present day.
Rule 21 of the GAA code states, "Ineligible to join the G.A.A. are members of the British armed forces and Police (called RUC - Royal Ulster Constabulary). And; A member of the GAA participating in dances, or similar entertainment, promoted by or under the personage of such bodies (i.e.- British forces and Police) shall incur suspension of at least 3 months".
At this stage, the casual reader may be just a little bewildered by the above statement and wondering how it bares any significance to Irish Cricket. Well, I must agree, the fore-mentioned literature is a little bewildering. Largely, for the particular reason such a rule should still have existed here in Ireland in the year 2001, and with a peace process supposedly in full swing. Basically, rule 21 was discouraging, or should I say actually banning any member of the GAA from associating with any person in the British Military, any Police Officer in the RUC and more subtly, in between the lines you might say, any protestant. The six counties of Northern Ireland, have a protestant (and Cricketing) majority, which have been policed for half a century by British Troops and RUC Officers. The 26 counties in the South are predominantly Catholic and predominantly GAA members and supporters.
With recent political intiatives designed toward peace in the Northern Counties, where conflict between the catholic minority and protestant majority is centred, these areas have seen a great exodus of British Troops. The IRA better known as the Irish Replublican Army, is in the process of giving up itís weapons and the RUC have recently disbanded making way for a new Northern Police Force in which both Catholics and Protestants are welcome to join.
These events have contributed to callís for change regarding Rule 21. If one considers the fact, British Troops are disbanding and takes into account the demise of the RUC, then it will be apparent the rule has nearly changed itself. Yet still, I guess as a reflection of the long history of troubles between factions on this small island, there has been great conjecture, debate and controversy surrounding the change of this one GAA rule. There has been huge media coverage and general public opinion is still somewhat divided on the change.
How does this associate in any way with cricket in Ireland I still hear you ask? Well, a little known fact is, there was actually a time when the 32 counties of Ireland were something of a force, albeit a minor one, in the world of cricket. Teams from Ireland toured Canada and the USA in 1879, 1888, 1892 and 1909. The West Indies visited these shores in 1928 and were duly humbled by the locals. Many highly competitive games against touring English sides were also played during this period. A period that was, apparent now in hindsight, the halcyon days of Irish cricket. In the 60 odd years between 1860 and 1920 the game of cricket was rapidly increasing in popularity and beginning to flourish both on and off the field in Ireland.
Unfortunately during, and especially since that time, political, religious and social unrest kept mounting. Many Catholics throughout the land saw cricket as an English and therefore Protestant game, thus, participation in the game of cricket was coloured with a tarnished brush by the Catholic majority in the more populous south. The game here has suffered greatly since the beginning of the twentieth century as a consequence. From an Australian, therefore an outsiders (and I hope objective) point of view, I find this state of being in Ireland such a great shame.
The British introduced cricket to the Irish during the 1850ís, as it did in many other countries around the world at about the same time. In time, these other nations came to adopt the game as their own, in turn developing their own particular styles of play. Unfortunately Ireland as a whole, to this very day has not apart from, particualr styles and traits at the local level.
As a player here in the South of Ireland, I generally receive a largely negative reception from the non-playing locals who still view it as an English or Protestant game. Itís treated as something to be avoided and frowned upon. Memories tend to be very long in both the north and the south here and a grudge is not very readily forgotten. What is worse is that politics, religion and sport are all intertwined. Personally, I view this as a rather needless cocktail, though, as history is still proving, many here in Ireland would disagree.
Getting back to the GAA and Rule 21 and itís affect on cricket. Well, it just so happens another rule implemented by the GAA nearly a century ago also had a huge impact on the then, expanding game. The rule that was introduced at that time was, "no foreign games were to be played by any member of the GAA." For example, if a person were to play Hurling or Gaelic Football, he would not in turn be permitted to play rugby, soccer, cricket or any other "Foreign Game." If he were to do so, he would be ostracised by the GAA and frowned upon by the Catholic Church and community. This rule amazingly wasnít lifted until 1970. The damage to cricket in Ireland by that stage was well and truly done.
As a direct result of years of outlaw by the GAA, playing cricket in Ireland still feels like a bit of an up-hill battle. If it werenít for a band of cricket mad locals, I hate to think what state the game would be in right now. This small minority of people had to fight against religion, politics, history, prejudice and a fair quantity of ignorance just to play the game they loved. A fair effort considering, that the worst most of us in cricket-developed nations have to struggle against is just an opposing team. Throughout all this, my hope is that in their wisdom, bodies such as the GAA will eventually find there is absolutely no place for either social, political or religious issues in the world of sport.
The great game of cricket pits two groups of eleven equal men against one another on a fair playing field, it gives absolutely no regard to their religion, their past or their politics. It is meant as a test of skill, endurance and concentration. Put simply, a test of a teamsí character. What it is not, is a test of their preferred beliefs or ideals.
Amid the on going press debate and the continued divided opinions, on the 17 November 2001, a majority of two thirds of the GAA moved in favour of dropping Rule 21. The rule is now gone, hopefully forever. However, as easily as rules can be deleted, attitudes can sometimes prove a little more difficult to alter. With time and a little open-mindedness though, there is of course still hope. Not just for cricket here in the great Isle of Ireland, but for every sport and more broadly, for the future.
© Rick Barlow - Ireland