A NEW project has set out to commemorate every GAA member who was killed during the decades-long conflict that broke out in the North in the late-sixties, including many from Tyrone.
Peadar Thompson, from Relatives for Justice (RFJ), is spearheading the project, taking shape in the form of a book which will be published in the coming year.
Mr Thompson delivered a presentation to TDs and Senators at Leinster House last Wednesday alongside Eugene Reavey, a life-long Gael who lost three brothers during a loyalist attack in Whitecross, Armagh in 1976.
Explaining the thought process behind the initiative, Mr Thompson said that the impact of the ‘Troubles’ on the GAA was something that hadn’t been sufficiently investigated or appreciated.
“Relatives for Justice support bereaved and injured victims of the conflict, and a lot of the families we support are involved with the GAA.
“The question that always came up was ‘how many members of the GAA were actually lost during the conflict’, and that’s something we didn’t have the answer to. We’ve gone through the records and our current number is 168, but, in reality, it’s probably more.
“I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half reaching out to the families of the bereaved, interviewing them and we’re in the process of writing a book. It’s going to be a family testimony on the stories of the victims and the role of the GAA in their lives.”
Mr Thompson was particularly keen to emphasise that the background of the victim wasn’t a particularly relevant factor in their research, as long as they had an active involvement in the GAA at some point in their lives.
“It’s a fully-inclusive project in relation to the circumstances of their death – whether they’re IRA men, Joseph Campbell, who was a member of the RUC, or, more recently, Ronan Kerr, who was in the PSNI. All that is entirely irrelevant to us – all that matters to us is that they were a Gael.
“All we’re looking for is people who had an active involvement in their club, whether they played, organised or were a member of a committee. If they played up until minor level and were killed when they were in their fifties, we’re still going to include them.
“Each club reflects its own community, or area. For example, Na Fianna Coalisland have lost several players. They’ll hold commemorations, local tournaments, blitzes etc in memory of their members who were killed, but those won’t be held provincially or nationally. It will only be within that area.
“Other clubs have had members killed who haven’t acknowledged it or done anything to memorialise the members who were lost, and that can come down to a plethora of reasons.”
The upcoming book also delves into the wider issues involving GAA and the ‘Troubles’ from the organisation’s response to the Hunger Strikes (of the 420 protesting prisoners in the H-Blocks in 1981, 104 were GAA members) to the British Army occupation of a portion of the GAA grounds at Crossmaglen.
Also touched upon is the targeting of high-profile club members like Bellaghy chairman Sean Brown, who was murdered in a loyalist attack in 1997.
“As well as having testimonies from the families of the victims, we’ve identified key themes that are conflict related. Undoubtedly the main one that stands out is the GAA members who were killed because they were members of the GAA – the people who killed them wanted to send out a message to the nationalist community.
“Professor Martin McGovern, an expert in social and conflict studies, is going to write a piece explaining that. We also have Dr Anna Bryson from Queen’s University, who is going to talk about the importance of recording oral history, and we’ll have someone speak on the history of the Hunger Strikes and the big historical debates that took place at that time, regarding whether the Association should support the prisoners or not.
“I’d be hopeful that the project will spark a lot of conversation regards the fact that the organisation suffered a lot in the North and had an experience in the conflict that is yet to be acknowledged properly.”
Once the project reaches completion, Thompson hopes that the GAA will approve the erection of a fitting and lasting memorial to its members who lost their lives during the conflict.
“I delivered a presentation to TDs and Senators where we outlined what the project is about and what we’re trying to achieve.
“As well as the book, we’re hoping to put together an exhibition of personal belongings as well – things like jerseys and football boots.
“At the end of the project we’re going to request that the GAA erect some form of memorial at Croke Park in memory of each Gael who was killed.”
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