In the course of the GAA Centenary Mass in Loughrea Cathederal on Wednesday, the Bishop of Clonfert, Most Rev Dr Cassidy, traced the history of the GAA and the impact it has had on the nation over the past one hundred years. He said, “In the Summer of 1897, two men met in the Phoenix Park. They met not by accident but by design and they were meeting for the first time. The two men in question were Patrick Nally from Balla, County Mayo and Michael Cusack from the Burren in County Clare. They were struck by two things on that particular day, namely, the size of the park and the absence of the people’’.
Writing in the United Irishman twenty years later, Cusack recalled that they couldn’t count more than twenty people in that vast expanse of public ground. Both men were distressed by the dreariness and desolation of the scene and agreed in Cusack’s words ‘‘that an effort should be made to preserve the physical strength of the Irish race’’. Such leisure as the plain people of Ireland enjoyed was spent largely in idleness, or as Cusack again remarked, “in smoking and card playing”. People spoke apparently about their idle hours when everything was lonely and stagnant in the land.
Archbishop Croke described the situation with characteristic vividness and directness.
“ In driving through the country during my visitations’’ he said, “there was nothing that grieved me so much as to see fine strapping big fellows lying beside the ditches on their faces and hands or else with their hands in their pockets and humps on them. One of the more elementary reasons why there was need for the GAA, why the GAA was founded, was to take the hump off the back of the Irish people’’.
Another reason for the founding of the GAA was the urgent need to reverse the decline in games that were distinctly Irish. It came as a surprise to me to discover for instance, that in the late 1860’s, hurling and football were being rivalled or even replaced by cricket. Knocked for six so to speak. At that time, nearly every town in Ireland had its own cricket club and even the inhabitants of traditional hurling strongholds like North Tipperary and North Galway were dressing in white and retiring for tea.
A much bigger factor in the decline of native games was of course the Great Famine of 1847. Its victims were not merely the dead but the demoralised too. The Home Ruler A M Sullivan recalled the effect of the Famine on the ordinary people. “Their ancient sports and pastimes everywhere disappeared and in many parts have never returned. The outdoor games, the hurling and football are seen no more”.
Such developments were of acute concern to a man like Cusack. A hundred years ago in an article entitled ‘’A Word on Irish Athletics’’, he expressed the conviction that ‘’no movement aiming at the social and political development of a nation could ever be complete unless it provided the cultivation and preservation of the nation’s games’’. Archbishop Croke was particularly incensed by the tendency ‘‘to condemn the sports that were practised by our forefathers, effacing our national features as though we were ashamed of them. ’’We have no reason whatever’’, he insisted, ’’to be anything but Irish’’. So the founders of the GAA weren’t just concerned with fitness but with Irishness too. It wasn’t enough to be fit. It was also important to be proud. They saw the need to take the hump of our backs not just in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense as well.
There was yet a third reason why the GAA was needed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was needed to help being about a democratisation of sport. In Ireland the poorer people were excluded from most sporting activities. There was a form of apartheid in force based largely on class. If you were a gentleman you hunted, fished or shot. If you weren’t a gentleman, you poached. Even athletics which nowadays has such a democratic and cosmopolitan character, tended in those days to be an aristocratic preserve. The upper and middle classes ran around in their own circles. They couldn’t imagine themselves competing against artisans and labourers, even in separate lanes. One gets the impression that they would have broken all records if they were able to jump over their own high notions.
Elitism of that kind was anathema to the founders of the GAA. Popular sport should be precisely that; popular. It should be controlled by the people themselves rather than the ruling class. It should come from below rather than above. It should come from within rather than outside. Apart from the national dimension which was very much in evidence, there was in the thinking of the founding fathers, a strong streak of egalitarianism. You find it in one of the declared objectives of the association at the inaugural meeting in Thurles, namely, “to devise schemes of recreation for the bulk of the people, especially the poor’’.
There was a fourth reason why the GAA was needed and founded. It was the need, right through the country, to organise games and to standardise rules. Indeed, as far back as 1877 Maurice Davin, one of the future founders of the GAA went on record as saying “we are very much in the want of some governing body for the management of athletics in the country”. Seven years later that “governing body’’ began to take shape. Time does not permit me to analyse in depth the achievements of the GAA since its foundation. One thing we can say for certain. It has galvanised us as a people. It has kept us alive and kicking or if you prefer, alive and pucking over the past hundred years.
The objectives for which the Association was founded have been largely realised. First of all, the GAA has contributed enormously to the physical and social well-being of our people. Idleness has given way to involvement, social life has shed its dreariness and the Sunday match has taken its place after and alongside the Sunday Mass. Secondly, through dedication, organisation and standardisation, the Association has ensured the survival and guaranteed the future of our native games.
Thirdly, it has realised its dream of egalitarianism. It has eliminated the class distinction in sport which so incensed its founders and helped make athletics in this accessible to all. Croke Park or any other gaelic park on a Summer Sunday is a reflection, indeed a microcasm of Irish life. Fourthly and finally, the GAA has encouraged us to be more Gaelic. It has helped us to take legimate pride in our own Irishness.
Connacht Tribune, July 17th 1984
Full Version Available in “Pride in the Parish Volume 1”