How The GAA Rescued Irish Sport & Restored Our National Pride


The history of the GAA is inextricably linked with the Gaelic revival of the late nineteenth century. This movement gained momentum in response to the decline of Irish language and culture, which had been decimated by the famine and emigration of the preceding decades. In reviving Irish sport, the GAA was crucial in helping to rebuild our national pride.

During the nineteenth century, there were many nails in the coffin of Irish culture. Our language almost died out because English speakers were more employable, and because people left rural communities in their droves. Children were punished for speaking Irish in school, so the incentive to adopt English at an early age was strong. Plus, Irish sports were almost completely forgotten.

Irish games were still played in some parts of the countryside but in the towns, English sports had taken over. The well-off played rugby, polo and cricket while athletics was popular among the ordinary folk. Many athletic clubs sprang up around the country; however, as they followed English rules and regulations, they did nothing to keep our traditional sports alive.

Culture For Everyone

Something was needed that would halt this decline and revive a sense of national pride. That something proved to be the GAA. It offered a means of reviving Irish culture that appealed directly to the population at large.

In fact, you could say that the GAA did more for Irish culture than the academics who painstakingly preserved our language, stories and history. Most Irish people didn’t have the time or the means to appreciate the work of scholars, but the GAA successfully brought traditional Irish sports to communities all over the country and placed them firmly into the world of ordinary Irish people.

Michael Cusack: a tireless advocate for the revival of Irish sports

The GAA has achieved huge success but it owes its humble beginnings to a handful of people. One of these was Michael Cusack, an Irish speaker from Co. Clare and a teacher who ran an academy in Dublin preparing students for Civil Service exams. Cusack had a keen interest in sports and encouaged his students to participate in sporting activities.

Hurley (as opposed to hurling) was played in Dublin at that time. It started in Trinity College in the 1860s and spread to many Dublin schools. The Irish Hurley Union was set up in 1879 to oversee the growing number of teams, but its approach aligned hurley more closely with the English game of hockey than the time-honoured game of hurling.

Some people wanted to see the game played in the more traditional style and so, the Dublin Hurling Club was established in 1882. Cusack became vice president of the new organisation. Weekly games of hurling were played in the Phoenix Park, but success was short-lived; tension between the new club and some of the established hurley clubs alienated players.

Fall In And Slash Away

The failure of the Dublin Hurling Club didn’t dampen Cusack’s spirits. The following year, he set up his own club. Initially, four people including himself turned up at the Phoenix Park to play, but interest grew. Cusack used his status as a journalist to advertise publicly for players interested in joining the regular Saturday meetings. Spectators were invited to “fall in and slash away”.

Cusack encouraged his students to attend the games. After several months, the players formed into two separate groups; the students became Cusack’s Academy Hurling Club and the other players became the Metropolitan Hurling Club. Some of the matches played by these two teams were boisterous to say the least, according to Cusack.

For instance, he wrote about a “gloriously enjoyable game” played in December 1883: “During the third and fourth quarters the hurling became so fast and furious, the goals were so threatened on the one hand and defended on the other, that spectators expected to be called on after each charge to help the disabled to Steven’s Hospital.”

Galway’s Padraig Mannion and Kilkenny’s John Power in action in the 2015 National Hurling League at Pearse Stadium. Photo by Sean Ryan.

In some parts of the country, the sport of hurling had never died. It was to such a place the Metropolitans travelled on Easter Monday 1884, having been invited to play against Killimor in Galway. Locally, there was great excitement – huge crowds turned out and a silver trophy was commissioned for the winning team.

During the game, it became apparent that the teams were playing to different rules. This led to some dispute and Cusack wouldn’t allow his team to finish the game. In the end, Killimor were declared the winners, but Cusack had become convinced of the need for a regulating body.

The Letter That Started A Movement

Cusack continued to develop the sport in Dublin, even setting up a third club called the Dublin Workingmen’s Hurling Club. Then, in October 1884, he wrote a strongly worded piece lamenting the decline of Ireland’s national pastimes. This letter was published in two popular newspapers, and was crucial in the history of the GAA:

“No movement, having for its object the social and political advancement of a nation from the tyranny of imported and enforced customs and manners can be regarded as perfect if it has not made adequate provision for the preservation and cultivation of the National pastimes of the people. Voluntary neglect of such pastimes is a sure sign of national decay.

“The strength and energy of a race are largely dependent on the National pastimes for the development of a spirit of courage and endurance. A war like race is ever fond of games requiring skill, strength and staying power…But when a race is declining in martial spirit, no matter from what cause, the national games are neglected at first and then forgotten….

“We tell the Irish people to take the management of their games into their own hands, encouraging and promoting in every way, every form of athletics which is purely Irish and to remove with one sweep everything foreign and iniquitous in the present system.

“The vast majority of athletes in Ireland are Nationalists. These gentlemen should take the matter in hand at once and draft laws for the guidance of the promoters of meetings in Ireland next year. The people pay for the expense of meetings and the representatives of the people should have the controlling power. It is only by such an arrangement that Irish athletics can be revived and that the incomparable strength and physique of our race will be preserved.”

The GAA is Established

Maurice Davin, a well-known champion athlete, replied publicly a week later promising support for the establishment of a governing body for Irish games. In it, he referred to hurling as a game that was only remembered by older people, such was its decline: “Irish football is a great game and worth going a long way to see when played on a fairly laid out ground and under proper rules. Many old people say hurling exceeded it as a trial of men.”

The following week, Cusack sent a letter to the newspapers announcing that a meeting would take place in Hayes’s Commercial Hotel, Thurles on 1st November. This meeting – another vital step in the history of the GAA – was attended by Cusack and Davin along with John Wyse-Power, John McKay, J.K. Bracken, Joseph O’Ryan and Thomas St George McCarthy. Another prominent founding member was Patrick W. Nally, although he was not present at the meeting.

At the meeting, the organisation’s newly elected president, Maurice Davin, called for a body to draft rules that would revive Irish games and open athletics to the man in the street. The meeting also agreed to invite Archbishop Croke, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt to become patrons. This invitation was accepted by all three.

Sorely Needed

Archbishop Croke was a strong supporter of the Irish nationalist cause. He was held in some suspicion by British authorities on account of his associations with the Land League and Charles Stewart Parnell. His letter accepting the position of patron clearly outlines his opinion that the new organisation was sorely needed:

“One of the most painful…reflections that as an Irishman I am compelled to make in connection with the present aspect of things in this country is derived from the ugly and irritating fact that we are daily importing from England not only her manufactured goods which we cannot help doing since she has nearly strangled our own manufacturing appliances, but… her games also and her pastimes to the utter discredit of our own grand national sports and to the sore humiliation of every genuine son and daughter of the old land.

“Ball playing, hurling, football kicking according to Irish rules, ‘casting’, leaping in various ways, wrestling, hand-grips, top-pegging, leap-frog, rounders and tipin-the-hat and all such favourite exercises and amusements among men and boys may now be said to be not only dead and buried but in several localities, entirely forgotten and unknown…

“Indeed if we continue travelling for the next score years in the same direction as we have been going for the same time past, condemning the sports that were practised by our forefathers, effacing our national features as though we were ashamed of them, and putting on with England’s stuffs and broadcloths, her ‘masher’ habits and such effeminate follies as she may recommend, we had better all come and public abjure our nationality, clap hands for joy at the sight of the Union Jack and place ‘England’s bloody red’ exultingly ‘above the green.’”

Patriotism & Pride

The GAA drew up its first set of rules in 1885. New clubs spread rapidly throughout the country. Not only was it tremendously successful in reviving Irish national pride, it also encouraged local patriotism because competing at county level soon became – and still remains – a source of great passion, enthusiasm and rivalry.

Kerry’s Aidan O’Mahony and Eoin Bradley of Derry in action in the 2009 National League final.
Photo by Ciaran McGuiggan.

This growth in national pride fed into an increasing desire for Ireland to govern itself. However, there were differences of opinion within the GAA (and across the country) as to how that should be achieved.

A split occurred within the GAA between IRB supporters, who wanted an independent republic, and those who favoured Home Rule. Matters came to a head in 1887 when the IRB candidate, Edward Bennett, defeated Maurice Davin for the presidency. There was even talk of forming a rival athletic association. Fortunately, in January 1888, Archbishop Croke brought the two sides together and Davin was re-elected president.

After Archbishop Croke died in 1902, the GAA decided to erect a memorial in his honour. In 1913, Jones’ Road Sports Ground was purchased for the princely sum of £3,500 and re-named Croke Park. Thanks to his involvement in the GAA the archbishop’s name is remembered to this day, and the rest is history.

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