In the Beginning…
At 3.00 p.m. on Saturday 1st November 1884, a small group of men – at least seven and possibly as many as fourteen – met in the billiard-room of Miss Hayes’s Commercial Hotel in Thurles, and there founded the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes. The seven founder members were Michael Cusack, Maurice Davis (who presided) John Wyse Power, John McKay, J. K. Bracken, Joseph O’Ryan and Thomas St. George McCarthy. Also admitted later by Cusack to have been present was Frank Moloney of Nenagh, while the following six names were published as having attended by the more detailed press reports of the time: William Foley, – Dwyer, – Culhane, William Delehunty, John Butler and William Cantwell. All these were from Thurles except Foley, who was from Carrick-on-Suir, like Davin.
The foundation meeting of the G.A.A. – if such it was indeed – was the culmination of several feverish months’ work by Cusack since he had enlisted the support of Davin in August. The activity included a meeting in the Galway town of Loughrea of a group of local athletic enthusiasts, possibly Cusack and certainly Bishop Duggan of Clonfert, who is said to have recommended Archbishop Croke of Cashel as a patron of the proposed body. Cusack also seems to have considered holding the first meeting in Cork, according to a brother of Davin; he had even chosen the title “Munster Athletic Club”.
In October, two prominent nationalist weeklies, “United Ireland” and “Irishman”, carried identical anonymous articles by Cusack, summarising the case for a body like the G.A.A. In subsequent issues the same month, Davin and Cusack openly supported the project, and finally Cusack sent out a circular for the Thurles meeting. This he had drafted in Dublin with the help of a number of hurling enthusiasts. So small was the attendance in Thurles that it may have been an exploratory or preliminary meeting. If so, the real foundation meeting was held in Cork City in the Victoria Hotel on the 27th December, attended by a group of Cork Home Rule personalities led by the Lord Mayor-elect, Ald. Paul madden.
Of the five other founder-members in addition to Cusack and Davin, John Wyse Power was a Waterford journalist, then on the “Leinster Leader” staff in Naas, and later on the “Freeman Journal” in Dublin. McKay was a Belfast journalist then on the “Cork Examiner”, who later worked in the House of Commons in London before returning to Cork in the early 1900’s. Bracken was a Tipperary stonemason, whose son, Viscount Brendan Bracken, was a member of Sir Winston Churchill’s World War II coalition government. O’Ryan was a solicitor in Thurles and Callan in Kilkenny. McCarthy, a Kerryman, was a police officer in Templemore.Criticism for Press.
Apart from Cusack’s contribution, the proceedings in Hayes’s Hotel were brief. Davin took the chair, and in a brief speech called for a body to draft rules to help revise Irish games and to open athletics to the man in the street. Cusack’s long speech criticised the national press for boycotting Irish sports, put forward the idea of a national athletic festival on the lines of the old Tailteann Games, and referred to over sixty letters of support he had received.
After McKay had also spoken, Cusack and Power proposed and seconded Davin as president of the new association, and the meeting then elected Cusack, Power and McKay secretaries. The meeting adjourned after agreeing to ask Archbishop Croke, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt to become patrons, with instructions to the new officers to draft rules.
Two of the founders were journalists, so the press coverage accorded the foundation meeting was far greater than a gathering of a dozen enthusiasts would normally generate. There was also other press reporters present. Most sent back enthusiastic reports.
Cusack himself reported on the foundation meeting for “United Ireland” and was very enthusiastic in even his opening line: “At a well attended meeting which was held in Miss Hayes’s Commercial Hotel in Thurles last Saturday, a Gaelic Association for the preservation and cultivation of National pastimes was formed”.
The Leinster Leader and the Cork Examiner (whose reporters John Wyse Power and John McKay were founders of the Association) were more detailed than Cusack’s 600-word transcript. McKay even contradicted Cusack when he said: “The meeting was poorly attended and several important athletic clubs in the South did not send a representative but perhaps this was due to the fact that the notice given was very short”. The attendance at the second meeting in Cork on the 27th December was better, maybe as a result of the Cork Examiner’s gentle admonishment of the Southern athletic movement.
Wyse Power was also interested in giving a good impression using the same “At a well attended meeting, etc” opening line as Cusack.
The cork Examiner report ran to 1,500 words and included the full text of the circular and the letter from Michael Davitt in which he pleads: “Why not make an effort to revive the Tailteann Games? A national festival could be organised to come off at some historic spot, at which prizes could be awarded for merit”. The report ends with a long speech by (ironically) Mr. McKay, reported verbatim. The account is the most detailed of all those given of the foundation of the G.A.A. down to the “hear hears”
Some interesting points from the Cork Examiner coverage of the meeting emerged:
Cusack professed he admired the English Amateur Athletics Association and stated that the G.A.A. “could not do better than adopt somewhat similar rules”.
Attendance at the meeting was not regarded as solid enough foundation by at least McKay. He places great stock on the fact that a second meeting would be held within a month.
Hurling and football are not mentioned. The whole meeting talked about athletics, and athletics in the sense of one large-scale meeting for Celtic peoples, as Davitt mentioned it, the Tailteann games.
Cusack mentioned that he had tried to get real Irish athletic events included on athletic programmes, mentioning specifically the high jump, the long jump, throwing the hammer, slinging the 56 lbs. and putting or throwing the 16 lbs. The Davin brothers, Pat and Maurice held all the records for these events at the time. Cusack himself was probably once a record holder in the throwing event.
Finance was not regarded as a problem: the Caledonian Games had yielded £200 profit on an investment of £300 the previous Easter at Ballsbridge. The founders thought that there was a lot of money to be made from athletics promotion and the G.A.A. would easily fund itself. A figure of £1,000 for the Tailteann festival was mentioned, and Davitt thought that £500 would be forthcoming from the Irish in America.
Support was forthcoming from Caledonian Games organiser Morrison Miller, Welsh Nationalist Kimmersley Lewis, and messages were received from Professor Roehrig on behalf of all the Irish in America, and Mr. Lynch from the Irish in Australia (this is in Cusack’s and Wyse Power’s reports, not in McKay’s).
Cusack’s critical comments on the sporting press are not reported in the Cork Examiner.
The Association was given the rather cumbersome name of the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of our national Pastimes. Within weeks it had been abbreviated to the Gaelic Athletic Association.
Cusack reported that Croke, Parnell and Davitt were to be asked for patronage. McKay said they were appointed patrons.
That caused some considerable confusion as Cusack to task the only English newspaper which had a correspondent at the meeting, the Daily News, for stating that “patrons had been appointed”. Cusack’s ire was raised by a far more hostile press coverage from the Daily Telegraph of the 6th November which reported: “Olympic Games for Ireland hardly seems a serious proposition, yet this is the objective of a new society just started by the Archbishop Croke, Mr. Parnell, Mr. Healy and others of the National Party in the sister Isle. We may be sure that an agrarian offence is no disqualification for a competitor”.