The Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland has, for very good reasons, tended to receive the bulk of Irish historian’s attention when it comes to sporting matters. Emerging in Mandle’s studies from the 1980s as a birthplace of the Irish Revolution in the early twentieth-century, the organisation’s relationship with the Irish state has undergone several historical revisions. Rouse’s recent assertion that although the GAA did not provide the bulk of the volunteers in Ireland’s Easter Insurrection (1916) and the subsequent War of Independence (1919-1921) with Britain, it nevertheless encouraged the idea that it had is particularly pertinent in the present article. In essence, the organisation sought to promote itself as Ireland’s primer sporting organisation with deep roots to the founding of the state itself. That the organisation was permitted to do this within the public sphere provides the impetus for today’s post.

In the early 1930s, the Irish Free State’s military began revising its own physical training systems. Driven in part by changes within Great Britain and mainland Europe more generally, Military leaders began evaluating continental forms of training for Irish troops. In time, the Sokol system of physical culture from Czechoslovakia was chosen and by 1934, it had become the de rigueur form of training for Irish troops. The path to this decision had not been a simple one as aside from the regular difficulties of trialling a new system, the Military’s decision had been heavily criticised by members within the Gaelic Athletic Association, who questioned why the GAA had not been chosen for training troops. For them, training for sport was more than enough to train for war.

Bringing Sokol to Ireland

Prior to 1934 the Irish Military, largely inspired by the British Military’s system of physical training, used Swedish or Ling gymnastics to bring new recruits into fighting condition. Combined with other forms of physical exercises such as swimming, life saving and quite notably boxing, this system was largely based upon equipment free training systems designed to stimulate every muscle of the body. Originating during the early nineteenth-century, the Ling system’s impact on European forms of physical education cannot be overstated. By the dawn of the twentieth-century, the system, albeit with notable modifications, could be found in classrooms, army barracks and gymnasiums across large swathes of Western Europe. By the 1930s its time however had past, not just in Ireland but also in other nations such as England. Driven in part by the impressive fascist military regimens of mainland Europe and also by rumblings within Great Britain about the utility of the Ling System of Gymnastic training, the Southern Irish Military began to explore new training options for troops.

Situated now in the affluent Dublin suburb of Rathmines, the Cathal Brugha Archive highlights many of the issues facing the Army School of Physical Culture during this process. Aside from the obvious difficulty of teaching and learning a new system of physical training, the army was faced with the prospect of lengthy training courses and expensive equipment depending on the system chosen. In time a decision was made to trial the Sokol system of physical culture, a system which although requiring musical accompaniments for displays, was largely based upon the use of one’s own body alongside inexpensive equipment. The following Pathé clip below displays the subsequent Irish brand of Sokol in all its glory.

In 1934, Lieutenant Tichy from the Czechoslovakian Army was brought to Ireland to exhibit the Sokol System of Physical Culture for Military troops. By that time, the System which originated during the mid-nineteenth century, had become a staple of military and civilian life within Czechoslovakia. Brought over initially for a short trial, Tichy did enough to impress the head of the Army’s physical training, J.J. Hogan. Soon Hogan and several other men underwent their training in Sokol. Done during the summer months, the System was first exhibited to the wider Military hierarchy by December 1934 before a small team of Sokol trained men underwent a series of public displays the following year. Hailed as scientific, modern and effective, the system was welcomed in many quarters, with some notable exceptions.

The GAA’s Objections

Writing in the Catholic Bulletin soon after the first public display of the Sokol system, J.J. Murphy spoke on behalf of many within the G.A.A. when he declared that

Anyone who had the misfortune to waste money on seeing their stolid sequences of worn out stunts on horseback, stunts of surprising antiquity, done in the old, old circus style, at Ballsbridge last month, will see how the bone cases of those Army Heads are disinclined to do anything of their own, anything congenial to the Irish tradition, even in their own very limited field of physical training

Of fundamental importance to Murphy, and indeed other critics, was the foreign nature of this system of physical culture. Continuing his criticism of the system, Murphy insisted that ‘The heads of the Gaelic Athletic Association had better get busy, and provide some suitable specific for sending this spate of Sokol back to Bohemia.’ As illustrated by Samek’s article on the subject, Murphy’s objections were corroborated by a series of anonymous contributors to Irish periodicals in the following months. Disparate in their tone and language, the articles nevertheless tended to follow the same schema. First that the Gaelic Games of football and hurling represented one of the most complete systems of physical training in existence. Second that the Irish Military had scandalously overlooked the GAA in favour of a foreign import. Aside from the potentially xenophobic undertones, it is worth exploring why these ardent followers of the games felt so strongly on the matter.

In a fascinating study of the GAA during the 1930s, Tadhg Ó hAnnrachain laid bare some of the prevailing ideas amongst the organisation’s members. Combining elements of Catholicism, nationalism and the general European engagement with body politics, the GAA promoted itself as the only sporting outlet capable of maintaining the health, strength and beauty of the Irish race. These ideas, as Ó hAnnrachain, astutely demonstrates, came not only from members within the organisation itself but also from high ranking clerics and politicians in Irish society. Owing to the accepted wisdom that the GAA had played a pivotal role in Southern Ireland’s path to independence, the organisation’s symbolic importance had risen far beyond the sporting field. The idea that the GAA provided a greater form of physical training for Irish troops than the Sokol system was born from the esteemed, perhaps overly so, position that the organisation held within Irish society. The criticisms of JJ Murphy and company were defences for Irish ways of being against so called foreign imports.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that this was a relatively new approach within the Gaelic organisation. Writing in 1923, the prominent journalist with strong ties to the GAA, O hAonghusa promoted foreign systems of training for athletes interested in improving their performances on the pitch. To compliment the physical benefits accruing from matches and training, O hAonghusa proved steadfast in his belief that dumbbells, Indian clubs and callisthenics would improve players’ speed, strength and stamina. While conceding that not everyone wished to build a physique like Eugen Sandow, a Prussian born physical culturist credited by many as the first modern bodybuilder, O hAonghusa displayed an openness to foreign systems of training lacking from GAA’s members one decade later. By then, Irish society and indeed, Irish politics had changed quite irrevocably. Economic wars with Great Britain and a strengthening of clerical-state ties had begun to foster parochial worldviews amongst some Irishmen and women. The outbursts of Murphy et al. were a rather fascinating microcosm.

This distrust of foreign systems of physical culture continued well into the mid-century. Christy Ring, one of Ireland’s finest hurlers operating from 1937 to 1963 later claimed that the only course of physical culture he engaged in was with a sliotar, the ball used in hurling. Ring’s comments echoed those of Phil O’Neil who writing at the same time produced ‘The Game of the Gael’, some of which is given below.

Of late they are giving a deal of attention

To physical culture, with every invention.

Without too bold, sure I’d like just to mention

That hurling’s the manliest sport of them all

A tonic for all it’s the surest and best,

Good for the shoulders, the arms and chest.

If your sickly or seedy, a cure that is speedy,

Have a good game with the ash and the ball.

Similarly, one of the first recognised trainers within the GAA, Eamonn O’Sullivan noted that even rudimentary forms of physical training were almost entirely absent within the GAA during the 1950s. The belief that the GAA’s training and matches alone would suffice was an enduring one.

Conclusion

As incredulous as it may seem, the belief that Gaelic Games alone could prepare troops for warfare did permeate the minds and words of some within 1930s Ireland. For such writers, the importation of the foreign Sokol system was an insult to Irish customs, beliefs and systems of training. Though such dissenters failed to prevent Sokol’s adoption first within the Irish military and then within several schools and recreational gymnasiums, they managed to force change in their own way. Prior to the outbreak of World War Two, the Sokol system was

‘Gaelicised’ to make it more acceptable to certain Irish schools. Irish music was required to accompany the exercises and Irish dancing became a key component of the system. Those promoting Gaelic Games had failed in preventing the rise of Sokol in Ireland. They had however succeeded in modifying it for Irish audiences thus bringing it closer to the perceived bastion of Irish identity, the GAA.

Despite the claims of many jingoistic writers during the nineteenth-century, Irish military men in the 1930s had moved past the idea that training for sport was training for war, much one imagines, to the chagrin of the GAA.

Sources

Primary

Cathal Brugha Archive

  • Physical Training Sokol Drill – Particulars of Exercises etc. Application by Newry Christian Brothers Schools 2/41656
  • Staff Duties Section, Sokol – Physical Training Course at School of Physical Culture, 16.7.34-21.12.34 (ORA 106/03)

Murphy, J. J., ‘Physical culture plans: a plea for national principle (a protest at the adoption of the Sokol system and a plea to the G.A.A. to produce a national system)’, The Catholic Bulletin, Vol. XXIV (1934), pp. 577-584.

O hAonghusa, T., An Gaedheal Óg  (Drogheda, 1923).

O’Neil, Phil, ‘The Game of the Gael’ (n/d – available from author).

Ring, Christy, ‘Christy Ring Writes’ (n/d – available from author). 

Secondary

Mandle, W. F., The Gaelic Athletic Association and Irish Nationalist Politics, 1884–1924 (Dublin, 1987).

Rouse, P., Sport and Ireland: A History (Oxford, 2015).

Samek, D., ‘The Czech Sokol Gymnastic Programme in Ireland, c. 1900–1950’, in G. Power & O. Pilney (Eds.), Ireland and the Czech Lands Contacts and Comparisons in History and Culture (Häftad, 2013), pp. 139–151.

Ó hAnnrachain, T., ‘The Heroic Importance of Sport: The GAA in the 1930s’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 25:10 (2008), pp. 1326–1337.

Fogarty, Weeshie, Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan: A Man Before His Time (Dublin, 2007).