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Gaelic Athletic Association - Oral History Project

Foundations

gaa oral history project

An exchange of letters between two Irish sportsmen, Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin, in the summer of 1884 led to a general plan to hold a meeting in Tipperary on 1 November 1884 to establish an Irish athletics association. A plan was formed. On 11 October 1884 Cusack published an epistle ‘A word about Irish athletics’ in United Ireland. In that epistle, Cusack wrote that neglecting the pastimes of the Irish people was ‘a sure sign of national decay and of approaching dissolution, smoking and card-playing.’ He railed against the Englishness of everything now associated with Irish sport and declared: ‘We tell the Irish people to take the management of their games into their own hands, to encourage and to promote in everyway every form of athletics which is peculiarly Irish, and to remove with one sweep everything foreign and iniquitous in the present system.’

In the following edition of the paper, Maurice Davin offered unequivocal support for Cusack’s views and called for the establishment of an association to draw up proper rules for athletics, hurling and ‘Irish’ football. To lend a sense of gathering momentum, Cusack and Davin then combined to issue a circular which announced that a meeting was being called for Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles, Co. Tipperary on 1 November at 2pm ‘… to take steps for the formation of a Gaelic Association for the preservation and cultivation of our national pastimes and for providing rational amusements for the Irish people during their leisure hours.’

Although the meeting was fixed for 2pm, the new organisation immediately established what might be called ‘GAA time’ and so it duly started an hour late at 3pm that Saturday afternoon. Maurice Davin took the chair and spoke about the motivation for establishing the GAA. Michael Cusack spoke at length, also about the reasons for establishing the GAA, and read extensively from letters and telegrams received from those who could not attend. The meeting chose Maurice Davin as President, and Michael Cusack, John McKay and John Wyse Power as secretaries. Understanding the political and social mood of the decade, it was decided to approach Archbishop Thomas Croke of Cashel (considered the most nationalist member of the Catholic hierarchy), Charles Stewart Parnell (the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party), and Michael Davitt (the founder of the Land League), to ask them to act as patrons of the new association. All agreed to assume the position. Finally, the meeting chose as a name for its newly-formed organisation, ‘The Gaelic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes’ and concluded by promising to hold a second meeting in Cork in the foreseeable future.

After the work which Cusack and Davin had put into calling the meeting – and particularly given the publicity it had generated in the newspapers – the small turnout did not augur well for the future of the Association. The actual number who turned up at the meeting is a source of considerable debate, primarily because of how the meeting was reported in the newspapers. Three of the men known to be present were journalists. Michael Cusack, as well as running his own school, was a prolific columnist on educational matters in the Dublin press and, as already noted, secured a newspaper column for GAA matters. Two other founding members were full-time journalists: the Belfastman, John McKay, who wrote for the Cork Herald and Cork Examiner; and John Wyse Power, who was the editor of the Leinster Leader based in Co. Kildare. All three journalists published reports of the meeting.

The first report of the meeting was published in the Cork Examiner on Monday 3 November by John McKay. McKay (who quoted at length from a speech which he had given to the meeting) listed seven men as being present, though he did finish the list with the intriguing addendum, ‘&tc, &tc’. The men whom McKay wrote were present as well as himself, Cusack, Davin and Wyse Power, were J.K. Bracken (a Tipperary stonemason), St. George McCarthy (a police inspector and longtime friend of Cusack), and Joseph Ryan (a solicitor from Callan in Kilkenny). As United Ireland was published on a weekly basis, Michael Cusack’s account of the meeting did not emerge until the following Saturday. Cusack agreed with much of what McKay wrote, though he ignored McKay’s speech and focused on his own contribution and that of Maurice Davin. Cusack, too, listed seven people as being present at the meeting, although he also added that intriguing ‘&tc, &tc.’ On the same day, John Wyse Power reproduced Cusack’s article almost word-for-word in the Leinster Leader. The GAA has subsequently repeated as fact the idea that there were seven founding members of the association.

There is another contradictory version. Newspaper reports of the meeting also appeared in The Irish Sportsman and the Tipperary Advocate – it is unclear who wrote them, except that they were clearly written by the same person – list up to 13 people being present. These reports suggest that six other men (William Delahunty, John Butler, M. Cantwell, ?. Dwyer, Charley Culhane and William Foley) were also reported to have attended the meeting. To add to the confusion, in the late 1890s and early 1900s, several newspaper articles written by Cusack state that eight or nine people attended, and named Frank Maloney from Nenagh as another of those who attended. This brings to fourteen the number of people reported to have attended the meeting.