Cusack’s stand for Gaelic Games

Second Reading

‘THE CITIZEN’ Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association.  Pic: NUI Galway Digital Collections

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

It used to be said that the three most powerful institutions in the Republic of Ireland were the Catholic Church, Fianna Fáil and the GAA. Only the GAA remains strong in the first quarter of the 21st century.
The All-Ireland series in hurling and football has just concluded to capacity crowds in Croke Park. This year also marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Michael Cusack. The son of a Clare farmer, he has left a rich sporting legacy.
Cusack was born in 1847, the darkest year of the Great Famine, in the village of Carron on the edge of the Burren. He was one of a family of five, four boys and one girl. He excelled at school, becoming a senior monitor at the age of 14.
He qualified as a national teacher and taught in Newry, Clongowes Wood and Blackrock College.
In 1877, he set up his own academy in Gardiner Street in Dublin, where he prepared students for the Civil Service examinations and for entry to university. The academy prospered for a number of years. At one stage he was reputed to be earning £1,500 per year, a considerate sum in the late 19th century.
Though he had become a successful professional, he was proud of his peasant origins and flaunted them on the streets of Dublin. Rejoicing in his nickname of ‘The Citizen’, he traversed the city in strong working boots, a black thorn stick swinging from his arm, dressed in a heavy frieze coat.
James Joyce cruelly satirised him in Ulysses: “The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero … from his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity.”
Cusack was a sports fanatic, playing rugby and cricket and involved in athletics. He was also a cultural nationalist and a member of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language.
By the 1880s he abandoned rugby and cricket, seeing them as the pursuits of the Ango-Irish ascendancy class, and turned his attention to Gaelic games. In this he was supported by a Mayo Fenian PW Nally. Although hurling and football were played enthusiastically there were no defined rules or official competitions.
An account from the 1880s gives an insight into the lack of organisation:
“At the time there was no game in the country but rough and tumble. Two parishes organised a match, the day or place appointed, usually on some boggy commonage, as there were no shoes worn, but every man got out in a white shirt and flannel underpants. The ball was set in motion and before ten minutes every two on the pitch were at each other’s necks, with friends on both sides, giving and taking heavy blows.”
In October 1884, Cusack wrote an article in the United Irishman newspaper advocating the establishment of an organisation to promote Gaelic games.Within a month, the GAA was founded in Hayes Hotel in Thurles. Cusack was appointed its general secretary.
The new organisation developed quickly. Cusack’s arrogance, however, led to friction. He found it impossible to work in a committee system. He rarely consulted anyone, he neglected routine administration and he was abusive towards colleagues. He had a robust capacity for making enemies.
By 1886 he was voted out of office. His relationship with the GAA remained difficult for several years. Before his death in 1906, time had soothed earlier enmities. The association recognised the pioneering influence that this talented and flawed man had on its foundation.