Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic Athletic Association

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Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic Athletic Association

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which was responsible for reviving the ancient Irish field game of hurling and for codifying and popularizing Gaelic football, the modern version of the traditional Irish form of football, was founded in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, on 1 November 1884. The association was the earliest expression of the late-nineteenth-century Irish cultural movement that triggered the political revival that led, in turn, to the Easter Rising of 1916 and the establishment in 1921 of the modern Irish state now known as the Republic of Ireland.

The GAA was the brainchild of Michael Cusack, a Clare schoolteacher who campaigned for ten years beginning in 1874 for the reform of Irish athletics to enable all social classes to participate and for the revival of hurling, which was almost extinct mainly as a result of the famines of the late 1840s. Because Cusack had laid the organizational foundations in provincial Ireland, the new association was an instant success, spreading to most parts of Ireland in its first year. In its early years it concentrated on field and track athletics rather than on hurling or Gaelic football.

Despite its initial success, the GAA in its first fifteen years struggled to stay alive. Internally, it came under attack from two rival nationalist factions, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), with both attempting to gain control of it. Externally, it had to fend off a new unionistdominated body, the Irish Amateur Athletics Association. At a stormy convention in Thurles in November 1887 the IRB gained control of the GAA, and the other delegates set up a rival body. The split was quickly healed through mediation by the GAA's charismatic patron, Archbishop Thomas Croke of Cashel, but Fenian influence on the GAA continued until 1901.

The decline in the GAA's fortunes during the 1890s was due to several factors. Feuding between the IRB faction and IPP supporters continued long after Croke's mediation and led to the resignation of the GAA president, Maurice Davin. The association's support for Charles Stewart Parnell after his involvement in a divorce case caused mass withdrawal of Roman Catholic clergy, hitherto an influential element. Continued domination of key posts by the IRB led to a steady fall in membership, which was aggravated by the GAA's failure to exploit its leading role in 1898 in the 1798 Rebellion centenary celebrations.

At the 1900 convention a group of mostly younger officials ensured the election of Alderman James Nowlan of Kilkenny as GAA president and of Luke O'Toole of Dublin as secretary. Displaced was Frank Dineen of Limerick, who had served as either president or secretary since 1895, and who with Michael Deering of Cork had controlled the central council until Deering's sudden death before the convention. Nowlan retained the presidency for twenty years, and O'Toole the secretarial post for almost thirty. Unlike Dineen and Deering, neither was an IRB member; both belonged to a younger nationalist generation disillusioned by the Parnell split. Their elections marked a new, more competent GAA, determined to avoid the bitterness of the post-Parnell decade.

When in the early 1900s the Gaelic League's membership exploded, it brought into the GAA a new influx of members, too, and after the foundation in 1907 of Sinn Féin by Arthur Griffith, the GAA benefited from a growth in militant republicanism. Almost 300 of the participants in the Easter Rising of 1916 were GAA members. During the subsequent War of Independence (1919–1921) the association provided the backbone of what became the Irish Republican Army; many GAA officials, such as Michael Collins and Harry Boland, played leading roles in the rival underground government.

Peace returned in 1924 after five years of hostilities, and the GAA became part of the establishment of the new Irish Free State. With the appointment in 1929 of a dynamic new general secretary, Pádraig Ó Caoimh, the association began to prosper for the first time since the 1890s. Ireland's isolationism in World War II was turned to advantage by the GAA, and the 1930s saw record attendances at Gaelic games. Attendances fell steeply on the arrival of Irish television in 1961, but the ending in 1971 of the prohibition on GAA members playing or attending non-Gaelic games reflected a new mood of optimism in the association. Moreover, a radical streamlining of its administration followed a searching self-analysis by a commission, composed partly of nonmembers, which met from 1969 to 1971.

The 1984 celebrations of the GAA's centenary lasted for most of the year, beginning and ending in Ennis, the capital of Cusack's native Clare. The all-Ireland hurling final was switched from Dublin to Thurles, regarded as the cradle of the association. The importance of the GAA in the social life of modern Ireland was emphasized by some of the centenary events, which included a government reception, a history symposium at University College, Cork, and issuance of a set of commemorative postage stamps. The publication in 1980 of a history of the GAA was the first of many local histories.

In the years since 1984 the GAA has faced some major new challenges. Chief among them have been the growth of an urban society where Gaelic games have often been undervalued, the constant threat to GAA revenue caused by soccer football beamed into Irish homes by television, and the implementation of a costly program to provide comfortable accommodation for family and corporate groups in the major stadia. In addition, the spread of commercial sponsorship to a basically amateur body built on voluntary effort has not been easy. Since the commercialization of the two football codes in Britain, it is difficult to see how erosion of the GAA's amateur codes can be postponed indefinitely.

Predictably, in a country where almost every activity has political undertones, the association has had its share of criticism from the start. The overlapping of politics and sport has concerned many who point to the GAA's inability to alleviate tension in Northern Ireland, where to be involved in the GAA is to be identified as a nationalist. Nevertheless, the association's contribution to modern Irish society has been impressive. In the vanguard of the cultural renaissance in the late 1800s it brought color and sporting rivalry to a drab countryside traumatized by the Great Famine. In the early 1900s the GAA played a prominent part in the shift from cultural to political nationalism. In the political and military struggle from 1919 to 1921 it supplied many of the foot soldiers of the revolution as well as some of its finest officers. In a country always in danger of being swamped by foreign sporting cultures, the GAA has held its own.

To appreciate what the GAA has achieved, one needs only to contemplate what would have happened in its absence. Field and track athletics would be run from London, and Irish athletes would compete in the Olympics in the colors of other nations. The 2,000-year-old game of hurling would almost certainly be extinct. In place of Gaelic football, now Ireland's most popular outdoor game, soccer football would reign supreme. Thanks largely to the GAA, the mass exodus from the Irish countryside, now well-nigh unstoppable, was at least slowed for the greater part of a century.

SEE ALSO Cusack, Michael; GAA "Ban"; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League; Literacy and Popular Culture; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Sport and Leisure


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Irish Independent GAA Golden Jubilee Supplement. 1934.

Irish Press GAA Golden Jubilee Supplement. 1934.

Mandle, W. F. "The IRB and the Beginnings of the Gaelic Athletic Association." Irish Historical Studies 20, no. 80 (1977): 418–438.

Mandle, W. F. "Sport as Politics: The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884–1916." In Sport in History: The Making of Modern Sporting History, edited by Richard Cashman and Michael McKernan. 1979.

Mandle, W. F. The Gaelic Athletic Association and Irish Nationalist Politics, 1884–1924. 1987.

O'Sullivan, T. F. The Story of the GAA. 1916.

Tierney, Mark. Croke of Cashel. 1976.

Marcus de Búrca

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