The GAA and the development of nationalism

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 2(March/April 2011), Reviews, The Act of Union, Volume 19

Dr Thomas W. Croke, archbishop of Cashel—in the 1880s he maintained that ‘ball-playing, hurling, football-kicking according to Irish rules . . . may now be said to be not only dead and buried, but in several localities to be entirely forgotten’. (National Library of Ireland)

Dr Thomas W. Croke, archbishop of Cashel—in the 1880s he maintained that ‘ball-playing, hurling, football-kicking according to Irish rules . . . may now be said to be not only dead and buried, but in several localities to be entirely forgotten’. (National Library of Ireland)

In the 1880s many, including Dr Thomas W. Croke, archbishop of Cashel, maintained that ‘ball-playing, hurling, football-kicking according to Irish rules . . . may now be said to be not only dead and buried, but in several localities to be entirely forgotten. What the country needed was an Irish organisation to bring order and unity to sport on a nation-wide basis.’

In August 1884 at a meeting in Loughrea, Co. Galway, Michael Cusack outlined his plans to a group of local athletics enthusiasts to establish a national organisation for Irish athletes and to revive hurling. Living in Dublin at the time, Cusack continued the work of convincing others of the need for and usefulness of such an organisation, and he sent letters inviting people to attend an inaugural meeting in Thurles. On 1 November 1884 the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at Miss Hayes’ Commercial Hotel, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, by Michael Cusack (Clareman, teacher, sportsman and nationalist) and Maurice Davin (a Tipperary man who at the time was Ireland’s most famous athlete). Other founding members present were John Wyse-Power, John McKay, J.K. Bracken, Joseph O’Ryan and Thomas St George McCarthy. Many of the seven men who attended the meeting were Fenians. Not present at the Thurles meeting was Patrick W. Nally, a keen athlete and leading IRB organiser who also played a prominent role in bringing about the birth of the GAA: he was the one who suggested the organisation to Cusack. Maurice Davin was elected president of the new organisation. Three secretaries were elected: Cusack, Wyse-Power and McKay. In a brief speech Davin called for a body to draft rules to help revive Irish games and to 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. All three accepted, although Dr Croke soon resigned after conflicts with Cusack. The GAA drew up its first set of rules in 1885. The essential objectives of the association were:

(1) to bring about the organisation of Irish sport by Irish men;

(2) to draft new rules for Irish games;

(3) to devise schemes of recreation for Irish people.

Nally was the first to organise a national athletics sports meeting, on his father’s farm in Balla, Co. Mayo.

At the time of the GAA’s founding, Ireland’s morale was at a low ebb. The GAA became one of the great cultural revivalist organisations founded in that era. The Irish people began to recognise, and take pride in, Irish culture. ‘Celtic Dawn’ was an accurate description of the changes at many levels of Irish society. As injustices were rectified and educational and economic opportunities created, some of the growth and cultural expansion that had been halted by the Act of Union re-emerged.

 This cultural renaissance, advanced by many members of the GAA, led to an increasing desire for Home Rule. Irish separatists at this time still primarily promoted a ‘constitutional’ solution to their aspirations, rather than the ‘physical force’ solution fostered by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The IRB, however, utilised meetings of the GAA as prime opportunities for recruitment—not the last time that the Brotherhood would exploit other organisations to further its separatist aims.

Further, the same influences that inspired many of the rebels—the GAA and Irish nationalism/separatism—also appealed to the younger members of the clergy. As the mood and opinions of the people changed following the Rising, these younger members of the clergy were able to comfort their parishioners, as well as change the view of the older members of clergy of the Catholic Church from the bottom up.  HI

Joseph E.A. Connell is the author of Where’s where in Dublin: a directory of historic locations, 1913–1923 (Dublin City Council, 2006).

Further reading:

M. De Burca, The G.A.A.: a history of the Gaelic Athletic Association (Dublin, 1980).

S. MacNamara, The man from Carron (Dublin, 2006). 

 

 

 

 

 

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