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29 October 2009 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The founding of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael


CUMANN Lúthchleas Gael, the Gaelic Athletic Association, was founded 125 years ago and in that century and a quarter it has played a central role in Irish life as an organisation promoting national games and national identity. The GAA was often crucial in the struggle for independence and counted among its members many of those who fought and died for Irish freedom.
The game of hurling has its origins in ancient Ireland while, as in most of Europe, forms of football were also played by people in the countryside. But throughout the 19th century organised sports in Ireland were the preserve of the privileged classes. It was the coming together of the idea of distinctively Irish sports and the demand for popular, non-elitist organisation and participation that gave rise to the GAA.
Leading nationalists recognised the potential of native games. Young Ireland leader Thomas Francis Meagher organised sports meetings and hurling matches in Waterford in the period prior to the Rising of 1848. The founder of the Fenians in the United States, John O’Mahoney, urged the Fenians at home to form an association to promote athletics with a separatist outlook.
A key figure in prompting the foundation of the GAA was Patrick Nally, a Mayo athlete and ‘Head Centre’ of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Connacht. He organised sports meetings on his family’s land with Charles Stuart Parnell as patron. In 1879, he met with Michael Cusack and discussed the idea of a sports body. In 1883, the Supreme Council of the IRB set up a sub-committee with the aim of establishing a nationally-minded athletic movement.

It was thus with IRB backing that the foundation meeting took place and the GAA was founded by Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin, the organisation’s first president, in Thurles in 1884.
Two of the seven founding members, J.K. Bracken and John Wyse Power, were IRB men. In the Parnell split in 1891 the IRB backed Parnell as did the GAA, whose patron he was. A contingent of 2,000 GAA members carried hurleys in Parnell’s funeral cortege.
The early years saw tensions within the GAA between Home Rulers and republicans but the organisation managed to preserve its integrity by not becoming involved in party politics. That did not mean it was not political. Like Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League), which was founded in 1893, the GAA fostered a strong sense of national identity and organised its members democratically at local, regional and national level and this was a subversive act in an Ireland totally dominated by the British Empire.
The GAA was therefore a vital element in the mix of forces which led to the revival of Irish nationalism and republicanism at the start of the 20th century. It proved to be the biggest single recruiting ground for the Irish Volunteers when they were founded in 1913. Many of the leaders and rank and file in the 1916 Rising and the subsequent struggle were prominent GAA members. These included Con Colbert, Seán Mac Diarmada, Austin Stack, Michael Collins and Harry Boland. Sam Maguire of the IRB and London GAA gave his name to the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship trophy.
The organisation of the GAA at local level, then and now, was a force for social cohesion, promoting a definite sense of community. This was especially important in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising and during the Black and Tan War. With national leaders imprisoned, leadership passed to regional and local level.

The importance of the GAA as a meeting place was recognised by the British regime, which banned its games and attacked players and spectators. This culminated on Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, when British forces attacked Croke Park, killing 13 people, during a challenge football match between Dublin and Tipperary. It is often forgotten that the match was in aid of the families of republican prisoners.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the GAA helped to ease tensions and restore normal community life. In the Six Counties, however, conditions remained similar to those that had existed in all of Ireland under British rule. GAA members were subject to harassment from the RUC and after the reintroduction of British troops in 1969 several GAA grounds were confiscated for military installations. Members were murdered by British forces and unionist death squads, Aidan McAnespie (Aughnacloy) in 1988 and Seán Brown (Bellaghy) in 1997, being only the most prominent examples.
125 years on, the GAA remains a hugely positive force in Irish life and an expression of inclusive national identity.
Cumann Lúthchleas Gael was founded in the billiard room of Miss Hayes’s Commerical Hotel, Thurles, on 1 November 1884, 125 years ago this week.

Michael Collins, Luke O'Toole and Harry Boland in Croke Park, 1919 


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