Fr Kevin Hegarty
He was the son of an impoverished Clare farmer. He died penniless. Yet he left a rich legacy. He was Michael Cusack, the founder of the GAA.
Last year the association celebrated the 125th year of its existence. In one of my columns in 2008 I mentioned that the GAA had employed a group of historians under the leadership of Mike Cronin, the academic director of Boston College in Ireland, to gather and collate material on its history.
Their work has borne significant fruit in the publication of two volumes, the lavishly illustrated and stylishly designed ‘The GAA - A People’s History’, and a book of scholarly essays, ‘ The Gaelic Athletic Association 1884-2009’.
Among the cornucopia of interesting things I found Paul Rouse’s essay on Michael Cusack particularly fascinating. The poet and novelist, Oliver St John Gogarty, declared that Cusack had a ‘mercurial temperament’. Rouse concludes that “It says much for Cusack’s personality that the genius who founded the GAA in November 1884 was the same peculiar genius who managed to get himself dismissed from that thriving association in the summer of 1886.”
Cusack was born in 1847, a native of Carron, a Clare village on the edge of the Burren. Educated locally, he became a monitor and completed his teacher training at the Enniscorthy District Model School. He taught in Newry, Clongowes Wood and Blackrock College. In 1877 he set up his own academy in Dublin to prepare students for civil service and other public examinations. The endeavour proved successful. At its height Cusack was earning £1,500 a year.
Though now a successful professional man he rejoiced in his peasant origins. He traversed the city of Dublin in strong working boots, a blackthorn stick swinging from his arm, dressed in a heavy frieze coat covering his broad-shouldered frame.
James Joyce satirised him in ‘Ulysses’: “The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broad shouldered deep chested strong limbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggy bearded wide mouthed large nosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewarmed hero.”
While there are elements of truth in the portrait, overall it is unfair. It drips of the disdain of the city dweller for the countryman who so ostentatiously paraded his peasant background. At the time, Catholic nationalists, in the drawing rooms of South Dublin, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Home Rule, wanted to forget their rural origins.
Cusack was a sports fanatic, playing rugby and involved in athletics. For a time he was even addicted to the peculiar charms of cricket.
By the early 1880s he had come to see rugby and cricket as ascendancy pursuits. He turned his attention to Gaelic games. Although football and hurling were played enthusiastically there were no defined rules or official competitions. An account from the 1880s gives an insight into the prevailing circumstances: “At the time there was no game in the country but rough and tumble. That was the biggest curse that ever came on the country. Two parishes organised a match; the day and 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.”
Cusack combined teaching with some journalism. In October 1884 he wrote an article in ‘United Ireland’ proposing the establishment of an organisation to promote Gaelic games.
The article elicited an enthusiastic response and in November he organised a meeting in the billiards room of Hayes Hotel in Thurles at which the GAA was founded. He became its first secretary and the association rapidly expanded.He found it impossible to work in a committee system. He rarely consulted anyone, neglected routine administration and was abusive towards opponents and colleagues.
He had a robust capacity for making enemies. In July 1886 a majority voted for his removal as secretary. His relationship with the association remained tempestuous for several years. Before his death in 1906, however, time had soothed the earlier enmities. The association recognised the seminal influence of this turbulent man in its foundation.