Gaelic Athletic Association


Organised sport played a very small role in the lives of Irish people in the mid-19th century. There was little time for leisure, especially in rural Ireland, since farm labourers worked a twelve-hour day and a seven-day week. Small tenant farmers were tied to their plots of land and whatever time they took off was referred to as their 'idle hours'. Michae1 Cusack, one of the founders of the G.A.A., noted how 'the Irish peasant too often wasted his evenings and holidays in smoking and card-playing.' Archbishop Croke also commented on this rural stagnation. And, of course, there was always a chance or excuse for drinking, with innumerable shebeens or unlicensed premises, where whiskey and poteen were consumed in large quantities.

Such sporting competitions as existed, especially in the athletic field, were strictly for gentlemen. There was a very noticeable class barrier, which excluded working-class people from taking part. It was presumed that only gentlemen could 'play the game', keep the rules and maintain a standard of propriety and fairness. According to the strict rules of amateur sport, an amateur was defined as 'any person who does not enter into open competition for either a stake, public money or admission money, nor is a mechanic, artisan or labourer.' Representing their county in sport was limited to the upper and middle classes. The G.A.A. hoped to undermine this existing class distinction in sport.

Another matter which called for change and reform were the ready-made and haphazard rules which governed Irish rural sports. Local custom often dictated the number of players on the field, the kind of ball used, etc. This divergence, if not disagreement, as regards rules and regulations, extended even to the broader, national level. It was not only in athletics, but also in the so-called Gaelic games, (hurling, football, handball, etc.) that trouble existed. It was said that some hurling matches were more in the spirit of 'faction fights' than sporting events. Referees had no whistles to control the game, and' usually took their position on horseback along the sideline, interfering only in very urgent and necessary cases by riding among the players and separating them. Such refinements as measured goalposts, time-keeping, size of ball or stick did not enter into consideration before the 1880s.

The first printed rules for hurling were drawn up by Pat Larkin of Kiltormer in 1869 for the guidance of the Killimor hurlers. These became known as the Killimor rules. A year later the laws of hurling, as played by the students of Trinity College, Dublin, were published. In October 1877, Maurice Davin, one of the future founders of the G.A.A., stated publicly: 'We are very much in the want of some governing body for the management of athletics in this country.' Davin, whose family owned a large farm and a flourishing business in Carrick-on-Suir, was an athlete with both a national and an international reputation. He knew that Irishmen could be as good as others on the sports field. He resented the fact that the Irish had no national athletics body to control Irish sport. The only organisation was the Amateur Athletic Association of Ireland, which was nothing more than an offshoot of the English Amateur Athletic Association. Davin wasn't the only Irish sportsman who was thinking along these lines.

Michael Cusack

One of the men most closely identified with the foundation of the G.A.A. was Michael Cusack. Born in 1847 in the Burren region of Co. Clare, Cusack became a national teacher and, after some years teaching in Blackrock College, set up his own Civil Service Academy where he offered grinds to students who wished to sit for the Irish and British civil service examinations. At the same time Cusack, a native speaker of Irish, encouraged his pupils to study the Irish language and to take part in Irish games. He was himself an accomplished all-round sportsman, playing hurling, football, handball and cricket, as well as competing in athletics.

Having retired from active participation in athletics he found himself called upon to help organise sports meetings in Dublin. The existing bodies, the Dublin Amateur Athletic Club and the Irish Champion Athletic Club, were too elitist and Unionist in outlook. During this time Cusack made the acquaintance of P. W. Nally, who was born in Balla, Co. Mayo in 1857. An all-round athlete, at one meeting in June 1876, he came first or second in sixteen out of eighteen events. A leading organiser in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he was elected to the Supreme Council of the organisation in 1880. He also took a keen interest in the Land Question. He was a man of many talents and interests, combining three different elements, extreme republicanism, anti-landlordism and enthusiasm for sport.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was the brainchild of Cusack and Nally. They met for the first time in July 1879. Cusack later recalled the meeting in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, where there was 'no more than a score of people in the vast expanse of public ground. ' Both men were struck 'by the dreariness and desolation of the scene and agreed that an effort should be made to preserve the physical strength of the Irish race.' During the next three years they organised national athletic meetings. Because of his arrest and imprisonment for Fenian activities in 1881, Nally dropped out of public view and wasn't present at the memorable meeting which launched the G.A.A. in 1884.

Foundation Meeting

The Gaelic Athletic Association was officially' founded on November 1, 1884 in Hayes's Hotel, Thurles. It might .have been founded at Loughrea where there was a strong hurling tradition in south-east Galway and where the first set of rules had been written down in 1869. Cusack approached the bishop of Clonfert, Dr. Duggan, about becoming the patron of the new body but, because of his age, declined to act and advised Cusack to ask Dr. Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, 'a fine Gael, young, vigorous and energetic.'

Although Cusack sent out many invitations to the foundation meeting in Hayes' s Hotel, Thurles in November 1884, only seven attended. They were Michael Cusack, Maurice Davin, John Wyse Power, John McKay, John K. Bracken, Thomas St. George McCarthy, Patrick J. O'Ryan. Davin took the chair and in a short speech outlined what he considered to be the essential objects of the proposed association. Davin was elected chairman. Cusack, McKay and Power were elected secretaries. The new association was named 'The Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes.' It was agreed to invite Charles Stewart Parnell, Archbishop Croke of Cashel and Michael Davitt to become patrons of the new association. The new officers were requested to draw up rules.

The choice of Croke, Davitt and Pamell as patrons represented recognition of the major forces in the Irish nationalist movement of the day, and they all willingly accepted. In the course of his reply Dr. Croke accepted 'with the utmost pleasure.' In his letter, which was to become the unofficial charter of the association, he said: 'One of the most painful, let me assure you and, at the same time, one of the most frequently recurring 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 practically strangled our own manufacturing appliances but, together with her fashions, her accents, her vicious literature, her music, her dances, and her manifold mannerisms, her games also and her pastimes, to the utter discredit of our own grand national sports and to the sore humiliation, as I believe, of every genuine son and daughter of the old land. '

From this inauspicious beginning 'the association swept the country like a prairie fire.' Few movements in modem Ireland have taken root so rapidly and so firmly as the G.A.A. Inside a few months the nationalist community, almost everywhere, had answered the call that went out from the first few meetings of the new body.

Irish Culture

The aim if the Gaelic Athletic Association was to put Irish people in control of athletics and to promote the games of hurling, football, handball and, later camogie. But it was more than that. It was also a cultural force promoting the Irish language, encouraging Irish dancing and other aspects of Irish culture. It sought to make Irish men and women aware of their distinctiveness as a people and a nation, and this led, in time, to a desire for separation from the rest of Great Britain.

Although the G.A.A. was in no way connected with politics, very soon it came under the influence of the IRB. Many of its founders were members of the Fenian Brotherhood and, in fact, looked upon the G.A.A. as a recruiting ground for their organisation. Of its very nature the G.A.A. was a separatist movement and thus it had a special appeal for the IRB. Even Cusack had to admit that 'every social movement in Ireland is to a certain extent necessarily political.' And, whether he liked it or not, the association had set the nation 'on the march'. Indeed the G.A.A. seemed to act as a kind of 'national service' for young Irishmen who could be trained, kept fit and ready for the day of reckoning. In these early days, before a match, all the teams marched round the field, with hurleys on the shoulders in army fashion. The IRB made one famous bid to control the G.A.A., at the Thurles convention of November 9, 1887, when Maurice Davin was ousted from the presidency by an IRB candidate, E., M. Bennett. However, it was only a temporary setback and in January 1888 the IRB men were forced to retire, and Davin was reinstated as president. However, the G.A.A. maintained its nationalist outlook and stance, and some 2,000 G.A.A. men formed a guard of honour at the funeral of Pamell, carrying hurley sticks draped in black

For the first few years of its life the G.A.A. was much more concerned with athletics than with hurling and football. To Cusack the need for nationalists to control Irish athletics and the desire to open athletics to every social class were more important than the revival of hurling and Irish football. Until 1887 hurling and football games were usually subsidiary events at athletic meetings. The rules of hurling and football were adopted early in 1885. An important decision taken was that of the parish rule, the principle of one club for each parish. Goals were the only scores allowed in the early days. Later the point was to be introduced for a ball going over the crossbar. There was such a thing as a forfeit point, which was given if the defender carried the ball over his goal line. If the same defender put the ball over his own crossbar, three forfeit points were awarded to his opponents. The forfeit point was to disappear in the 1886 convention, after which the side points made their appearance for the first time. Wrestling was to be permitted until 1886. Two players came into collision and at once got into handigrips. Only one fall was allowed. If the players attempted a second on the same occasion, the referee intervened. The number of players was twenty-one aside until 1892. During the early years the goal had no equivalent in points. After some years five points, and later three points, were declared equal to a goal. Play was limited to one hour after 1886. In the same year games between clubs of different counties began to grow in importance and the first All-Ireland hurling and football competitions began in 1887. After that these two games grew in importance and gradually surpassed athletics in popularity and scale in the association. In 1922 the athletics side of the association's activities was hived off to a new organisation, the National Athletic and Cycling Association.

The association spread 'like a prairie fire', to use the words of Cusack. The early decades were used to spread the game into every county. About the turn of the century the provincial councils were set up and gradually the format of provincial champions contesting the All-Ireland championships evolved. Football became the more important game, becoming a force in virtually every county. In contrast hurling was more confined, being strongest in the south-east and hardly spreading north of a line from Dublin to Galway, with the exception of the Glens of Antrim and the Ards Peninsula.

Non-Political

Although the association cherished its non-political character, it was always a very strong force for nationalism. It was through the G.A.A. that Michael Collins was introduced to the national movement. He joined the Geraldine Hurling and Football club in London, and soon became secretary. It was through the endorcement of the 'ban' - the G.A.A. prohibition on foreign games - that Collins first gained real notice in Irish national circles in London. His war cry was 'No soccer for Gaels'. His appeal resulted in the break up of many clubs affiliated to the London board of the G.A.A. The Geraldines remained loyal and Collins soon, found himself treasurer of the board. The I.RB. weren't long in sensing the value of Collins to their organisation and he was initiated into the Brotherhood in November 1909. By 1914 he had become treasurer of the movement for the entire south of England.

General Eoin O'Duffy, a former secretary of the Ulster G.A.A. Council was introduced into the Irish Volunteers by Collins. According to O'Duffy, the first question Collins addressed him was about the strength of the G.A.A. in Monaghan. He sought O'Duffy's help in recruiting Volunteers from the clubs. O'Duffy continues: 'The upshot was that I went back to Monaghan a Volunteer and within a short time had recruited virtually every able-bodied member or supporter of the G.A.A. into Volunteer activities.' Similar things happened all over Ireland. Collins enrolled G.A.A. officials for his army of freedom, and in turn they enrolled all who came within their area of influence - parish, county and province.' The strength of the G.A.A. as a nationalist force was recognised when the British authorities in Ireland banned the games and harassed the members of the association during the War of Independence. When the unfortunate Civil War followed the G.A.A. were again to the fore trying to keep people united and seeking to restore harmony where division existed.

Growth & Expansion

The games expanded at a great rate during the late twenties. Marathon hurling matches contributed to this growing popularity. Tipperary and Cork played three games in 1926 before a decision was reached. Even more dramatic was the three-match All-Ireland between Cork and Kilkenny in 1931. These games gripped the imagination of the public and lifted the G.A.A. into the foremost sporting organisation in the country. The advent of the Irish Press in 1932 brought expanded coverage of the games and led to the cult of the personality. Players like Lory Meagher in Kilkenny, Mick Mackey in Limerick and Christy Ring in Cork became folk heroes and pin up stars ahead of their time. There were football heroes as well. The arrival of Michael O'Hehir in 1938 brought a new dimension to the expansion of public interest. O'Hehir, in his inimitable style, brought the games, Sunday after Sunday, into the homes across Ireland through his radio broadcasts. His knowledge of hurling and football and of the players involved made bad games sound good, poor games sound great, and great games into epics.

For many years Irish men and women have emigrated across the world. Wherever they went they brought the games with them. In places like Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. as well as across the sea in England and Scotland, the games were organised and championships played.

Today, the Gaelic Athletic Association prides itself in being the greatest amateur, sporting organisation in the world. It has reached a new level of sophistication in the organisation and promotion of our games. It has become a very wealthy organisation with magnificent stadia bulging at the seams with enthusiastic crowds. Above all it presents the games which continue to have the widest appeal for the greatest number of Irish men and women.


Millennium Souvenir Clár, Ballygalget C.L.G., AGM, December 28. 1999