1. Michael Cusack and the promotion of Irish games.
The man who helped to develop distinctively Irish games was Michael Cusack (1847–1907). A native of Carron, Co. Clare, he qualified as a national school-teacher, and later joined the civil-service. He was greatly interested in Gaelic culture, language and literature. An athlete in his youth, he was also interested in Irish games. He organised athletics in Dublin where he worked as a civil servant. Cusack believed that Irish games were in danger of dying out. Athletics in particular, witnessed a decline in participants. Athletes were then under the control of the English Amateur Athletics Association. Rugby was seen as typically English and was getting popular in Irish towns. Football, also popular in towns, was thought to be more like English soccer than the traditional ‘Gaelic’ football. Hurley, a version of hurling played in Dublin, was more like hockey than hurling. Cusack wanted to revive Irish games and promote an Irish Ireland. He wrote in the Freeman’s Journal in 1885 that he wished to ‘nationalise and democratise sport in Ireland’. He persuaded some hurley players to join a Dublin Hurling Club which was established in December 1882. This led to tensions between the hurley players and the hurlers and the club folded in a year. Cusack founded another club in its place, the Metropolitan Hurling Club, in December 1883. This had more success and the Metropolitan was one of the first clubs to be affiliated to the later GAA.
Cusack now considered founding a national organisation to preserve Irish games, and published anonymous articles about this in nationalist newspapers. On 11 October 1884, the papers published his article ‘A Word About Irish Athletics’. Here Cusack appealed to the Irish people to reject English sports and customs, which he described as ‘imported and enforced’. He believed they would destroy Irish nationality. He condemned the holding of athletic meetings in Ireland under the rules of England’s Athletic Association. These rules did not allow competitors to take part in sporting events held by other organisations. He thought Irish people were abandoning their sports and activities, played in the open, in fields and at cross-roads. He thought they were demoralised by the terrible Famine of 1846-52, by poverty, and by English laws, and they had gone ‘back to their cabins’. Cusack urged them to come out and play distinctively Irish games. He felt they would improve their physical condition and morale. This would also discourage anglicisation, give people an interest in Irish culture and traditions, and stimulate pride in place and nation.
Within days, Maurice Davin wrote to the papers supporting Cusack’s ideas and he declared he was willing to help establish and run a new sporting organisation. Davin (1864-1927), a farmer near Carrick-on-Suir, had been a talented and successful international athlete. His ideas about sport and his reputation as a moderate nationalist won him great respect in the countryside and among the urban Catholic middle class. At the end of October, Cusack and Davin placed a notice in the Freeman’s Journal, United Ireland, and the Irish Sportsman announcing that a meeting was to be held in Thurles on 1 November 1884 to discuss the future of sport in Ireland and the establishment of a society to promote national games such as hurling.
2. The Foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
At the first meeting of what became the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), on 1 November 1884, those present (about thirteen people) agreed to ask Dr Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and Michael Davitt, head of the Land League, to become patrons of their organisation. All agreed to be associated with the new organisation. A second meeting was held in the Victoria Hotel, Cork, on 27 December 1884. It passed a resolution that the governing body of the GAA was to consist of the officers already elected, the committee of the National League, and two representatives from every athletic club in the country. The nationalist MP, William O’Brien, offered the GAA space in his newspaper, United Ireland, for weekly articles and notices.
At another important meeting, held at Hayes’s Hotel, Thurles, on 17 January 1885, rules were drawn up to regulate sports. It was decided to form a club in every parish in the country, and to ban members of any other sporting organisation from joining the GAA. The Dublin Harrier Clubs objected and organised opposition. They invited athletic and cycling clubs from all over the country to a meeting to oppose the ban. They declared that they ‘would not be bossed, ignored, put aside, or dictated to by any organisation’. E. J. Macredy, of Trinity College Dublin, proposed that athletes throughout Ireland should unite to ‘quash the Gaelic Union’, as he called the GAA. He argued that it was more political than sporting, and it wanted to promote only hurling. Cusack denied all this in the United Ireland. He argued that the GAA was not political and he condemned ‘the pernicious influence of those who encourage nothing but what is foreign to the Irish people and at which they can be easily beaten’.
The GAA held its first official social function at the end of January 1885 in the Ancient Concert Rooms, Dublin, to commemorate the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. This sporting and literary festival was intended to bring Irish and Scottish ‘Celts’ together, and promote Celtic sports and culture in their countries. Dublin Castle sent members of G Division, which investigated ‘treasonable activities’, to monitor the proceedings, and they reported that the GAA was ‘a thinly masked Fenian conspiracy’.
3. Controversy with the Irish Amateur Athletic Union.
GAA rules for hurling, football, athletics and weight-throwing were published in United Ireland in February 1885. The Irish Sportsman, in reply, published the rules of the Irish Amateur Athletic Union (IAAU), the older sporting organisation under the control of a British body. Davin publicly criticised the British association’s attempt to impose its rules in Ireland, and defended the GAA’s decision. Davin’s letter to the papers sparked more controversy. Mr Christian, spokesman for the IAAU, accused the GAA of ‘putting through rules purporting to govern all athletic sports’. Cusack responded angrily. Davin now intervened and encouraged a sense of good will between all athletes. Cusack and other prominent leaders in the GAA attended the next meeting of the IAAU in early February 1885. There was a very heated debate between the rival organisations. The IAAU criticised the GAA for holding games on Sundays and violating the Lord’s Day. Cusack retorted that rich people played games on the Sabbath and condemned poor people for doing the same.
4. The Expansion of the GAA.
Far from damaging the GAA, the controversy gained the organisation sympathy and support because of its emphasis on national games and the need to bring Irish athletics and other sports under national control. The number of affiliated athletic clubs grew rapidly, and athletics was the main concern of the GAA in its first year. New clubs sprang up, all over the country and abroad, to promote hurling and football. The games were to become extremely popular very quickly, and enjoy a widespread revival.
This popularity was made very clear by the welcome given to Archbishop Croke, one of the most prominent and influential supporters of the GAA, on his return to Ireland from Rome in the beginning of May 1885. Workers in Kingsbridge station [now called Heuston] decorated the train taking Dr Croke back to Thurles with festive bunting and green flags, and enthusiastic crowds greeted the Archbishop’s carriage all along the route.
Tension between the GAA and IAAU increased in June 1885 when Cusack brought a successful libel action against the Dunbar family, owners of the Irish Sportsman, an unofficial organ of the IAAU. It sharpened when the rival organisations held sports meetings in Tralee on the same day (17 June). The GAA meeting far eclipsed the IAAU one, with 464 athletes, over 10,000 spectators, and four bands to add to the ceremony. The attendance at the IAAU meeting was very small. Controversy again followed this meeting. Edward Harrington, an MP and owner of a local newspaper, criticised the GAA’s actions and was expelled from the National League days later. The GAA effectively broke its links with the National League after this episode, although members of the League continued to join and to support the GAA.
5. The GAA's first Annual General Meeting.
The GAA held its first Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 31 October 1885 in Hayes’s Hotel, Thurles. In the main address, Davin described the Association’s achievements in its first year. Most notably, 150 sporting meetings were held throughout the country—athletics, hurling and football—all of which got great public support. The chairman read a letter from Michael Davitt appealing to them to establish a pan-Celtic festival, a subject he returned to frequently. The most important item for discussion was the ban on GAA athletes from playing other games. The day before the AGM, the Freeman’s Journal published an article asking for reconciliation between the GAA and the IAAU, and urging both to abolish their exclusion rules and allow athletes to compete at all the meetings of both organisations. Croke appealed strongly for an end to the ban in a letter published in the Freeman’s Journal two days later. John Purcell, (an IAAU athlete), in the same paper, appealed for an amicable settlement for the good of Irish athletics. Cusack said that Archbishop Croke’s request would be submitted to the Executive Committee of the GAA, and, in the meantime, the ban would be removed:
‘The G.A.A. prizes are now open to all. We shall see where the best athletes are. Our movement is a national one. He who is not a nationalist—I use the word advisedly—no matter what his religion or politics may be, need not come near us except for a prize. Our prizes are open to all honest men.’
Controversy continued in 1886. A row developed between the Cork branches and the central executive. Cork clubs protested at the outlawing of the Munster Football Association and the expulsion of its president, J. Murphy, from the GAA, where he had held the office of Vice-President. A public meeting of protest was held in Cork. This was reported in the Freeman’s Journal. Days later, Cusack attacked the Freeman’s Journal for printing what he called a biased account of the event. At the same time, a resolution, reputedly from the North Tipperary GAA Club, repeated Cusack’s criticisms, and accused the Freeman’s Journal of cutting down a speech Archbishop Croke had made in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. It urged people not to support ‘papers hostile to the National Pastimes’. E. Gray, editor of the Freeman’s Journal, rejected the accusations and insisted that he had always supported the GAA. Dr Croke, a personal friend of Gray’s, also dismissed the allegations and criticised members of the GAA for fighting in this fashion in public (Daily Express, 8 March 1886). Cusack wrote an angry letter to the Archbishop and claimed he would‘with God’s help, face you and Gray’, if necessary. The row intensified when Dr Croke again wrote to the Freeman’s Journal, citing Cusack’s words, and threatening to resign if he continued to bring the organisation into disrepute. Other officials in the GAA, shocked by the Archbishop’s threat, condemned Cusack’s letter in the Cork Examiner, 24 March 1886, and emphasised that it was not approved by the GAA. Davin, President of the GAA, called a special meeting to be held in Thurles on 6 April to discuss the situation. Cusask, when asked for an explanation, admitted his behavior was unacceptable, stated that he regretted the incident, and that he had written to the Archbishop to express his deep regret. The meeting voted, 38 to 14, to accept Cusack’s explanation and lay the matter to rest.
6. The Lifting of the IAAU Boycott Rule.
In response to popular pressure, the IAAU lifted its boycott rule, and allowed its athletes to take part in competitions organised by other sporting bodies. A great meeting between GAA and IAAU athletes was held in Queen’s College Cork [now University College Cork] in April 1886. Another special general meeting was called for July 1886, at which officers of the GAA accused Cusack of seriously neglecting his administrative duties, and claimed he was extremely difficult to work with. Cusack defended himself but was, nevertheless, forced to resign from the post of Secretary. Angry at being dismissed from the organisation that he had founded, and no longer given space in the United Ireland, Cusack started a rival weekly newspaper in January 1887, the Celtic Times, which was hostile to the current leadership. The GAA responded by setting up its own paper, the Gael.
In spite of internal conflicts, the GAA continued to grow in numbers and popularity. A great public event in November helped to boost its popularity even more. On the first of the month, six football matches between clubs from Wexford and Wicklow were played on the lawn of Parnell’s family home and estate at Avondale, Co. Wicklow. Special trains were laid on from Dublin and Wexford for the event.
7. The GAA and the IRB.
As the organisation grew, so too did the number of members who were sworn into the IRB (the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret militant organisation). The more militant political element in the Association was evident at a meeting in Thurles in September 1886. P. T. Hoctor, well known as a left-wing nationalist and a member of the IRB, was elected Vice-President. A motion was passed, with great enthusiasm, that John O’Leary, a Fenian leader in the failed rising of 1867, who had just returned from exile, be elected a Patron of the GAA. Revolutionary nationalists took note of these events. They realised the potential of the GAA as a recruiting ground for new members and began to infiltrate the association. A decision was also taken to help raise funds for a memorial to the Irish revolutionary, Charles Kickham.
The question of banning members of the GAA from playing football or rugby was also debated. A representative from a Limerick club pointed out that members of the GAA were not prohibited from playing cricket. The committee justified its decision because, it argued, the GAA did not cater for cricket, but it insisted on its right to make rules for games that did concern its members. The ban was adopted.
8. The Annual General Meeting of 1886.
The AGM of 1886 was held in Thurles on 15 November. It was an important one. Here political tensions between constitutional and militant nationalists came to a head. Eighty-four clubs were represented, evidence of the great success of the GAA in the countryside only two years after its foundation. On the administrative side, the GAA wrote a constitution, which still remains largely intact today. Athletics no longer had precedence over hurling and football. County Boards were established, and most importantly, a decision was taken to hold All–Ireland annual hurling and football championships.
The increasing politicisation of the GAA was sharply evident and deeply disruptive at this AGM. Davin, President, read a letter of thanks from John O’Leary (Freeman’s Journal, 16 November 1886), newly-elected patron of the GAA, which concluded with a quote from Thomas Davis, ‘our prophet and our guide’, to the effect that physical strength would help nationalists prepare for battle:
‘When we’ve skill our strength to wield, Let us take our own again.’
In spite of this widespread support for nationalism, members were divided. Some supported constitutional nationalism, namely, Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party; others supported radical, militant nationalism and the Fenians. An article concerning politics in the new constitution stated:
‘That the Gaelic Athletic Association shall not be used in any way to oppose any national movement which has the confidence and support of the leaders of the Irish people.’
This statement was deliberately vague and could be interpreted in different ways. Parnellites could read it as meaning that the GAA would not interfere with the objectives and methods of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Fenians could interpret it as meaning that the GAA would not oppose any militant nationalists.
9. The Politicisation of the GAA.
Irish people were greatly demoralised in 1886. Constitutional nationalism suffered a serious setback when the Conservative party won the mid-year elections in 1886 with a secure majority. Many tenants faced economic hardship, near-famine conditions in places, because of two successively bad harvests. Many were unable to pay rent. Three Irish Parliamentary Party politicians, William O’Brien, John Dillon and Tim Harrington, started a ‘Plan of Campaign’ to force landlords to lower rents. Violence ensued in some areas between landlords, tenants and police. These conditions led to an increase in support for militant nationalists.
Dublin Castle took great interest in the Fenian infiltration of the GAA, as is evident from the detailed reports written by local policemen, Government agents, and informers within the GAA. The very names of clubs often represented the political opinions of the officials, if not always the members. The Parnells, the Davitts and the Smith O’Briens indicated supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party; while the Ballina Stephenites, the Kickhams and others were Fenian supporters. In February 1887, the executive decided to exclude members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) from the GAA, and from participating in sports or tournaments run by it:
‘in consequence of their action towards the people throughout the country. ... This resolution not to apply to the army or navy’
Not everybody agreed. John Wyse-Power, one of the founders, resigned his post as assistant secretary. Davin, who was not present at the meeting, objected strongly to banning of members of the RIC. Two months later, Davin walked out of an executive meeting in protest at the resolution which, he argued, the executive did not have the power to make. In May of that year, Davin resigned as President of the GAA.
10. The Executive and tensions within the GAA.
At a meeting in May, the executive suspended the Dublin Grocers’ Assistants’ Athletic club because they held sports with a handicapper who was not certified by the GAA. The organisation insisted that clubs must only use an officially-approved handicapper to ensure that the sports were played according to the Association’s rules. There were only a few qualified handicappers, however, and many clubs held their meetings without one, using local people instead. The executive forbade an upcoming sports meeting organised by the Grocer’s Assistant’s Athletic club, but the meeting went ahead as planned. The GAA issued a poster the night before the sports meeting that warned people not to participate, arguing that they would destroy the Association if they ignored official decisions:
‘NATIONALISTS OF IRELAND! Down with dissension! Discountenance disunion! Support not the would-be wreckers of the G.A.A. Down with the men who would disgrace the Association that has for its patrons the tried true and illustrious Irishmen, Archbishop Croke, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt and John O’Leary. Who are these men who try to prove that Ireland is not worthy of self-government? The Grocers’ Assistants’ Sports Committee. Do not by your presence at their meeting commit an act of treason to Ireland. GOD SAVE IRELAND.’
This seemed to be rather drastic step over a minor incident. It reflects the difficulties in creating an organisation under the control of a central executive, the strains within the GAA, and the attempts to hold the divided association together. Tensions were high since Cusack’s expulsion and Davin’s resignation. After the meeting the GAA Central Committee responded with harsh measures. The executive expelled the Grocers’ Club from the GAA and suspended all athletes who participated in the meeting.
11. Dr Croke and the search for compromise.
Dr Croke was displeased with the actions of the executive and criticised it in a speech in Charleville. Although he praised the successes of the GAA, the Archbishop advised the executive to be wary of being dictatorial on issues. Controversy surrounded the executive again in August 1887 when it suspended three Dublin clubs for not following official rules. The Freeman Athletic Club, suspended for planning to hold a sports meeting without an official handicapper, asked Dr Croke to intervene on their behalf. The executive refused to discuss the matter with the club or the Archbishop Croke. He then suggested that Michael Davitt should act, with him, as an intermediary. The executive, again, dismissed his offer. P. T. Hoctor, editor of the Gael, made it clear that the executive did not want interference from patrons.
‘We do not want one or all of the patrons as judges. We wish them to remain in their high and dignified position of honour, from which they should only descend to countenance, support, or protect us, but certainly not to judge or sentence us. We further can only recognise as judge in this, as in all other matters belonging to the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Central Executive of that body with, of course, the inevitable annual reference of all matters in dispute to the Convention as the final and supreme court of appeal.’
Croke, Davitt and Parnell appealed to the Freeman club to accept the GAA rules for the sake of unity, and to ‘prevent a growing bitterness of dispute from becoming a cause of disunion and possible disruption of a movement of which all Irishmen are proud’. The club, comprising mainly employees of the Freeman’s Journal, the unofficial paper of the Irish Parliamentary Party, refused to compromise. The conflict, in part, reflected tensions between the IRB-dominated executive, including Hoctor, and constitutional nationalists, represented in the Dublin club.
On 10 September the Freeman Club held their sports meeting as planned and without GAA sanction. The central executive suspended the club, the athletes and the Dublin County Committee. The Freeman’s Journal and other papers criticised the decision. In an interview in the Freeman’s Journal in October, Davin explained that he resigned because of his strong objections to the actions of the executive in banning the RIC from the association without holding a meeting of the general committee. He argued that Article 15 in the GAA Constitution decreed that new rules could only be introduced, or existing rules changed, by the general committee. He criticised the executive’s refusal to allow Dr Croke and Davitt intervene in the dispute with the Freeman Athletic Club, and accused its members of acting like dictators in an article in the Freeman’s Journal, October 1887.
‘As an illustration of how high feeling runs, I may mention I observed in two issues of the Gael paragraphs and a letter amounting to threats of personal violence to members who seem to differ from the present Executive if they attend the meeting. I am convinced that the spirit of fair play among Irishmen generally would not for a moment condone conduct of that kind. ... Everyone should concentrate attention on the election of a proper Executive and the amendment of the Constitution.’
In other words, Davin was calling on GAA members to oust the current executive. Suspended clubs and athletes planned to attend the impending 1887 Convention and to demand that they be reinstated. Many GAA members blamed the executive for ongoing controversies and were especially grieved about Davin’s resignation. Others felt the rule excluding the RIC from the GAA was ‘looking for trouble’ and criticised the ‘introduction of politics into a purely athletic Association’. Many clergymen were concerned about the power of Hoctor, and another IRB man, Fitzgerald, who dominated the Executive, and were increasingly seen as too extremist. Fitzgerald’s agenda, ‘to wipe out the British name and nation in Ireland’, disturbed many GAA supporters who were solidly behind the constitutional movement. The executive’s treatment of Dr Croke also angered many supporters of the GAA.
Nevertheless, the executive had many supporters in the GAA and amongst the public, especially from nationalists who wanted the ‘Fenian section’ to remain in power. Although they admitted that the executive had made some bad decisions, these supporters argued that they were determined men with strong opinions but of the right political convictions. Thus, the main issue at the 1887 Convention was whether the ‘Fenian section’ or the parliamentarians should control the GAA.
12. The Convention of 1887.
The annual convention of 1887, held in Thurles on 9 November, attracted large crowds of interested parties, and included two delegates from over 800 branches. Unfortunately, Maurice Davin did not attend, and his conciliatory manner might have eased tensions. The meeting was held in the Courthouse because the gathering was too large to fit in Hayes’s Hotel, where the first meetings of the GAA were held. Trouble began when the Dublin clubs were refused admission. Opponents of the Executive, who filled the galleries, protested loudly.
There then followed trouble about the election of a chairman. Alderman Horgan of Cork and P. T. Hoctor proposed P. N. Fitzgerald, a prominent member of the IRB. Father Scanlan of Nenagh objected strongly to Fitzgerald and proposed instead Major O’Kelly of one of the suspended clubs (Moycarkey). There were angry exchanges from the crowd. One delegate shouted ‘Down with the National League’. Another shouted, ‘Only men ready to die for their country should be at the head of the GAA’. An argument broke out between Scanlan, some priests that supported him, and others who supported Fitzgerald. Peace was restored only when Father Scanlan and his supporters were ejected from the courthouse, where they mingled with the Dublin delegates who had been prevented from entering, and held an opposition meeting behind Hayes’s Hotel.
13. The IRB and the Central Executive of the GAA.
The IRB got substantial control of the central executive of the GAA at this convention. Fitzgerald was elected Chairman. He opened the meeting with a statement that he regretted the fight that had just taken place, and:
‘thanked God that there were men in Ireland who would not stand for clerical dictation’.
Another IRB candidate, E. M. Bennett of Ennis, was elected President in preference to Maurice Davin, 316 votes to 210. Opponents denounced the outcome and argued that Davin would have been elected if Scanlan and his supporters had not been ejected. Delegates approved of a vote of sympathy for William O’Brien who was in prison for his role in the Plan of Campaign.
In the meantime, delegates outside the courthouse passed their own resolutions. They also voted sympathy with William O’Brien, voted their support for Dr Croke as patron of the GAA, and for Maurice Davin as President, and finally, condemned the delegates in the Courthouse. Father Scanlan warned that the Association was being taken over by Fenians who would destroy the National League. Later, Dr Croke wrote to the papers to express his great disappointment and shock about the trouble in Thurles. He condemned ‘sinister’ elements in the Association, and threatened to resign as Patron.
‘Nothing, therefore, remains for me but to disassociate myself, as I now publicly do, from the branch of the Gaelic Athletic Association which exercised such a sinister influence on yesterday’ proceedings.’
The Freeman’s Journal, which printed Archbishop Croke’s letter in full on 11 November 1887, denounced those in the GAA who advocated armed revolution, arguing that a rising was doomed to fail, and would lead to terrible bloodshed.
‘There has never yet been a revolution in Ireland every detail of which was not known to the Government. If there be anything of the kind now on foot we are perfectly certain that the Government knows all about it. ... They could put their hands upon every man connected with it whenever they thought fit. ... If they do not do so it is because ... they would rather let the mischief ripen in order to utilise it for the purpose of destroying the Home Rule movement.’
The paper also published a letter from the priests who had been turned out of the meeting. They denounced the outcome of the convention which, they argued, had been ‘packed’, that is, it had succeeded only because anyone who objected was thrown out. The new President, Mr Bennett, responded by emphasising that the GAA was non-political and was not against the clergy or the National League. This letter, in turn, provoked many angry replies, especially from clubs that objected to the executive. Father Scanlan, whose father was a prominent Fenian and whose brothers had fought in the rising of 1867, denounced the way the executive handled the meeting in Thurles. He accused Bennett, Fitzgerald, and John O’Leary of making slanderous speeches in Ennis against Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party. According to reports, the speakers claimed that the Party wanted:
‘the proud privilege of paying England’s national debt, fighting England’s battles and assisting her to spread the knowledge of Christianity by the aid of the bayonet and the bullet’.
Scanlan, and many others, appealed to Davin to resume the office of President of the GAA, which he agreed to attempt. A writer in the Freeman’s Journal criticised the GAA’s handling of the controversy, and especially, their mistreatment of Dr Croke, he urged the GAA to rethink its policies.
‘When it comes to the point that a man like Dr Croke has publicly to disassociate himself from the Association which he fostered and practically created, then we say it is time every man connected with the Association to pause and consider whither he is going.’
Newspapers printed lists of clubs that objected to the new executive and reported that these had formed a provisional Committee to replace the existing one. Supporters and opponents kept the debate alive in a spirited correspondence to the newspapers. Meanwhile, attempts were made to end the divisions in the GAA. On 22 November, Archbishop Croke invited Davitt and Davin to Thurles to discuss how to reorganise and reunite the Association. P. N. Fitzgerald, who was also in Thurles, met Davitt after his meeting with the bishop and they came up with plans for resolving the dispute. The executive issued statements that the Thurles Convention had been legitimate, that it was not anti-clergy, and that any insults to clergymen were the rash remarks of individuals that did not reflect GAA policy or attitudes. Fitzgerald officially wrote to the executive to appeal for reconciliation. In this letter, read before the executive on 23 November, he also expressed the wish that Dr Croke be reunited with the Association.
‘Whatever the future of the Association may be, I would respectfully ask His Grace, Archbishop Croke, to consult the other patrons and see if an amicable understanding could not be come to. It is not a time for division amongst any class of Irishman. The Gaelic Athletic Association should be open to all; an Irish nation should include all sections of Irishmen. To make independence easy, Ireland requires the aid of all her sons.’
The executive voted a motion to distance itself from any hostility to Dr Croke, to the clergy, and the National League. Croke responded generously, and in a letter to the Freeman’s Journal, stated that he had no grievance with the executive. He suggested also that the GAA consider de-centralising power, that is, giving each county control of its own affairs, and setting up a Central Appeals Boards to deal with matters of common concern. Members of the executive met Dr Croke in Thurles and agreed to discuss problems in another general Convention early in the New Year. Davin, Wyse-Power, and two others agreed to help organise the proposed Convention. So ended the great split.
The disputes in the GAA in 1887 did not destroy the association. In fact, it continued to grow at an impressive rate. Dr Croke claimed that the membership was then over 50,000, only three years after its foundation. Hurling and football matches were held all over the country in the summer and autumn of 1887 in preparation for the All-Ireland competition, although the final did not take place that year because of the ongoing controversy. The GAA stopped publishing its newspaper, the Gael, after the dispute was resolved, and Cusack’s Celtic Times also ceased publication after 14 January 1888 (due to lack of funds, not peace overtures).
14. The Reconciliation, January 1888.
IRB dominance of the GAA executive was ended at the convention held in Thurles on 4 January 1888. Here, the ‘Fenian section’ was outnumbered, the IRB-dominated executive ousted, a new Council appointed, and Davin unanimously re-elected President. Dr Croke submitted a letter to congratulate the association for ending the dispute. He also urged the executive to eliminate abuses such as heavy drinking at sports meetings and to ensure that players who had to travel to matches on Sundays and holidays attended mass. The committee agreed to send letters of thanks to Dr Croke, Davin, and others who had helped to end the dispute. Finally, a vote of sympathy was passed for the political prisoners.
It seemed as though the ‘Fenian section’ in the GAA had been rooted out and that the Association had emerged from its first great crisis, re-born and re-organised. But the Fenian movement had merely gone underground.
Some changes were made in the playing rules of hurling and football: the referee was given greater control over members guilty of misconduct, he was to have a whistle, which he was to blow whenever the game had to be stopped, for any reason. The size of playing pitches was fixed at a minimum of 140 yards by 84, and a maximum of 196 by 140. Convention decided, however, that the unfinished 1887 championships were to be played out under the old rules.
The final games of the championships, begun under the old administration, still remained to be played. At Birr, Co.Offaly, on Sunday, 1 April 1888, the first All-Ireland hurling final was played between the winners of the Galway and Tipperary county championships. The weather was perfect and special trains carried enthusiastic supporters from the adjoining counties. Tipperary won, their score being one goal two points to nil. It augured well for the future.
Gillian M. Doherty & Tomás O'Riordan