Today is the Gaelic Athletic Association’s birthday. The organisation has reached the grand old age of one hundred and thirty-five, boasts around half a million members worldwide and has probably done more for rural Ireland than electricity. In addition to the obvious sports of football (men’s and women’s), hurling, camogie and handball the organisation also administers a rather less visible pastime … any guesses?
Well done to whoever said ‘rounders’, which, some day, someone will definitively establish is a) Irish in its origins – we certainly set the first official rules b) the grandparent of modern baseball.
It’s astonishing to think that, at one point, the entire membership of the GAA could fit in the billiard room of a family hotel! You can still see the hotel any time you walk down the main street of Thurles, County Tipperary. The Hayes Hotel is, understandably, very proud of its seminal association with organised Gaelic games. However, it’s hardly likely that, back in 1884 the Hayes family would have had any idea the inconvenience caused to their regular billiard players, when an odd bunch of people hired the room for the night, would be well worth it.
Of course the games themselves long predated the establishment of an organisation to administer them. Hurling, as anyone in Tipperary will tell you proudly, existed in their county, before the first Kilkennyman climbed down from the trees and learned to walk on two legs. In Kilkenny, where they have only recently become aware of the existence of the ancient sport of Gaelic football, they will inform you that ‘the sport played with the larger ball’ (which is how they refer to it) is an unsuccessful adaptation of faction fighting. They will also insist that no one from Tipperary knows what they’re talking about.
Raise the subject with a Kerryman and he’ll tap his nose, whisper the word ‘Sam’, and smiling enigmatically. The official Cork GAA website reckons the Thurles meeting was really only a scoping exercise and that the real inauguration was in Cork on 27 December! A Meathman will direct you to the GAA’s own website where you will be informed that ‘the earliest records of a recognised precursor to modern Gaelic football date from a game in County Meath in 1670, in which catching and kicking the ball were permitted.’ Eat your hearts out Dubs!
It was the Clare man, Michael Cusack, himself a huge cricket fan apparently, who decided that our ancient sports (including rounders) needed to have their rules properly codified. It was no accident that they chose 1 November to establish the new Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes—thankfully they dropped the bit after ‘Association’. The date had a mythological significance as the ancient feast of Samhain, positioned half way between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Cusack may also have had a vague notion that the date would mark the beginning of the off-season. I wonder how that one worked out?
Right from its birth the GAA was much more than a mere sporting organisation. It was its close affiliation to extreme nationalist politics that almost caused its undoing. Back in the nineteenth century Irish Republican Brotherhood never managed to find a cultural association it didn’t want to infiltrate. Such was its overt influence within the GAA that the organisation began to haemorrhage members, and almost foundered. But you would have to say that it’s recovered pretty well since then.
Back to the contents of that billiard room on 1 November 1884. It’s a bit like the GPO during Easter week 1916, no one is absolutely sure who exactly was there. Definitely among those present were the seven acknowledged founder members of the GAA. These included Cusack, Maurice Davin—who presided over proceedings—two journalists, John Wyse Power from Waterford and Belfastman John McKay, a local politician J.K.Bracken (ironically, he was the father of Churchill’s ‘bestie’ Brendan Bracken), local solicitor Joseph O’Ryan and, mirabile dictu, a district inspector of the excessively unpopular Royal Irish Constabulary, Thomas St. George McCarthy, clearly included because they desperately needed someone from Kerry. Later, Cusack acknowledged that a Nenagh man, Frank Moloney, also wielded a billiard cue on that fateful night, though he tends to be overlooked. Local newspaper reports also mention six other men, mostly from Thurles, as being among those present.
You might assume that an organisation of the stature of the Gaelic Athletic Association was established at a really well-attended public meeting in Thurles in 1884, which, for the record, started at 3.00 p.m. But no, that’s fake history. The fact is, back then, they all fitted around a billiard table. But look at them now! Happy birthday to the GAA.