Category: Archive

Hibernbian Chronicle: GAA founded 118 years ago

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

All were nationalists committed to Ireland’s cultural revival. Their particular interest was the revival and promotion of traditional Irish sports like hurling and Gaelic football. Central to this endeavor was the creation of a national organization to establish a uniform set of rules for each sport (traditions varied widely across Ireland) and hold tournaments. By day’s end, they succeeded in founding just such a body, the Gaelic Athletic Association (or Cumann Luthcleas Gael in Irish) for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes.
The inspiration behind the founding of the GAA was the so-called “Gaelic Revival” that swept Ireland and Irish America in the late-19th century. Nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic launched a campaign to rejuvenate traditional Irish culture and in so doing reject what they deemed the alien, colonialist culture of the British. At the heart of it was the movement to revive the Irish language, but it also involved efforts to stir interest in Irish history, art, dance, music, literature, and sports.
In the early 1880s, Michael Cusack emerged as the leading inspiration behind the GAA. Cusack was born in 1847 in Carron, Co. Clare, and grew up to become a teacher and part-time journalist. After stints as a private tutor and professor at several colleges, he founded in Dublin a school that specialized in preparing men for the civil service examination. It prospered, earning Cusack a substantial fortune that allowed him to devote an increasing amount of time to nationalist causes.
Earlier in life Cusack had been an avid player of rugby and cricket, but he grew to dislike the elitism of the clubs associated with the sports. In many parts of Ireland, including Dublin, artisans and laborers were not invited to participate in sporting events organized by elite amateur clubs. Cusack also became convinced that the spread of English sports undermined Ireland’s rising sense of nationhood. So early in 1884 he began planning, eventually with the help of Davin, the establishment of what became the GAA. They met with other enthusiastic supporters of Irish sports and worked up a plan of action, not the least of which was to drum up popular support for the idea. Fortunately, Cusack was a natural when it came to promotion and in between meetings he published anonymous articles in nationalist newspapers calling for the creation of an organization to promote Irish sports.
Initially, Cusack was uncertain whether he should push for a revival of traditional Irish sports, or for renewed interest in classical athletic events (i.e., ones that did not originate in England) like running, jumping, and the hammer throw. Gaelic football had been played in Ireland for at least two centuries (the first recorded reference to sport dates from 1712). Hurling had even deeper roots in Irish history, dating back to before Christian times. Legendary figures of Celtic mythology like Cuchulain and Finn MacCool played the game. But popular interest in them had waned over the decades, in part due to British efforts to suppress them. In the end, after talking the matter over with hurling and Gaelic football enthusiasts, Cusack decided that he had no choice but to seek the revival of these truly Irish sports.
The turnout for the Nov. 1 meeting was smaller than hoped for, but it resulted in several key measures. It was agreed that a committee would be formed to begin the task of drawing up a uniform set of rules for Irish sports. Cusack also made the case for the establishment of a national athletic festival along the lines o the Tailteann Games held in ancient times by the O’Neill kings in Tara (this was eventually done in 1924). After Davin was elected president of the GAA, with Cusack and several others elected as secretaries, the meeting resolved to seek the support of Archbishop Croke of Cashel (for whom Croke Park in Dublin was later named), Charles Stewart Parnell, and Michael Davitt.
A second meeting in Cork on Dec. 27 drew a much larger crowd of enthusiastic supporters and the movement began to take hold. Hurling and Gaelic football teams adopted the uniform rules and, with the help of the GAA, began to promote wider popular participation in the sports. In 1887, barely three years after its founding, the GAA sponsored the first All-Ireland Football Final, an annual event that continues to this day.
The obvious nationalist undertones of the GAA attracted members of the nationalist movement (i.e., the IRB) who soon came to dominate the organization. Indeed, the GAA became an important launching pad for many nationalist careers. One of the GAA’s rules of membership — increasingly controversial in recent decades — excluded anyone who served in the Royal Irish Constabulary or British army. The body also barred from membership anyone who played non-Irish sports like soccer and rugby and prevented GAA fields from being used for these sports.
The GAA, like many nationalist organizations, fell on hard times in the wake of the Parnell-O’Shea scandal of the 1890s but was revived at the turn of the century. Cusack lived until 1906, long enough to see his dream of the revival of Irish sports become a reality. By that time Irish sporting events were drawing crowds as large as 20,000, prompting the GAA in 1913 to build the sports facility that became known as Croke Park. Two years later, Ireland saw the first All-Ireland final for camogie, a women’s version of hurling that proved equally popular.
The revival of Irish sports continued through the tumult of the War of Independence and Civil War. Even as the literary and artistic side of the Gaelic Revival waned with the creation of the Free State, popular interest in Irish sports continued to rise. In many ways, hurling and Gaelic football became the most enduring symbols of Irish national identify, perhaps even more than the government-sponsored effort to revive the Irish language.
Today, the GAA is Ireland’s largest amateur athletic association, with 2,800 local clubs and 800,000 members. Gaelic football and hurling remain Ireland’s two most popular sports.

Oct. 31, 1903: John Barrymore makes his stage debut in “Magda” at the Cleveland Theatre in Chicago.
Nov. 2, 1920: James Daly, leader of the India Mutiny, is executed.
Nov. 5, 1946: Twenty-nine-year-old John F. Kennedy begins his political career winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Oct. 31, 1931: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins is born in Rome.
Nov. 1, 1625: St. Oliver Plunkett is born in Loughcrew, Co. Meath.
Nov. 2, 1795: President James K. Polk is born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
Nov. 4, 1918: Actor Art Carney is born in Mt. Vernon, NY.

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