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 The Early Days of the GAA

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Patrick C Kelly Founder of Athenry
GAA and first County Chairman

Never in its history had Ireland touched a lower depth of misery than during the middle of the nineteenth century. The great famine of 1847-48 was a national disaster and had broken the spirit of the people. The emigrant ship was taking the cream of the nation's manhood into exile while those who remained were engaged in a life or death struggle for their land and homesteads. Michael Cusack sought a way of restoring the courage, heart, self-reliance and love of country to the young people of Ireland. They had inherited a finer tradition in native pastimes than any other people and could look back with pride to the golden age and the Tailteann Games on the plains of Meath.

Hurling was by far the oldest and most superb field game known and was the glory of ancient warriors and the theme of medieval poets. The English invader had by Municipal Decrees and Penal Laws tried to crush the game but failed.

As early as 1367 the statutes of Kilkenny ordained "that the commons of the said land of Ireland shall be used not henceforth for games which men call hurling with great clubs and a ball upon the ground." In the year 1527 the Galway Urban Council ordered that the people "at no time use the land for the hurling of the little ball with hockey sticks or staves." But the people continued to play the game and in 1694 an act passed by the Williamite Parliament of Ireland imposed a fine on any person found playing the game on the Lord's Day.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, inter-county or inter-provincial games were often played with many of the Irish gentry taking part in the contests, which were played for money. A game involving Galway played near Banagher in September 1773 appears to have carried the biggest side bet recorded. "This day the grand hurling match between the counties of Galway and Tipperary for 1,000 guineas was finally decided in favour of the latter. There never perhaps was so great a company seen in the kingdom and at the lowest computation there could not be less than 10,000 persons present." Curiously enough the same two counties would meet in the first All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final in 1887.

The game of football was not as popular in rural districts as hurling and one of the earliest references to the game was in 1731 when a Mr. Wesley of Dangan "gave an entertainment to the tenants. There was played a great match of football between married men and bachelors." Another unique game witnessed in Dublin in 1740 was a match played on the river Liffey that was frozen with six inches of ice.

The early games usually consisted of kicking the ball beyond a certain point by every means possible without rules of any sort.

Like hurling, handball was part of the programme of the Tailteann Games. At that time the game was played by tossing the ball from one person to another, but evolved as a game played against a wall. Alleys consisting of one or three walls were usually found attached to wayside inns with four wall alleys built on private property.

 

Michael Cusack and Athenry

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Michael Cusack Founder of the GAA

Michael Cusack, a Clare born schoolteacher, was a man of vision who with Patrick William Nally of Balla, Co. Mayo organised National Athletic meetings in 1880-81 and contemplated forming a National Games Movement. But Nally was arrested for his I.R.B. and Fenian activities and sent to Mountjoy Jail, where he remained until his death ten years later. The Mayoman is remembered by the dedication of the Corner Stand in Croke Park to his memory.

In 1883 Cusack founded the Dublin Metropolitan Hurling Club and on Easter Monday the following year they travelled to Ballinasloe to play Killimor, but due to different rules, the game ended in chaos. The need for a National Body to control the native games and pastimes became even more evident to the Clareman. Writing in the "United Ireland" in October 1884 he called on the people "to take the management of athletics into their own hands and promote every form of athletics which is peculiarly Irish and remove with one sweep everything foreign and iniquitous in the present system." At that time Athletics in Ireland were controlled by an English Association, an anti-national and snobbish clique that practically excluded most of the population from competitions that existed. Cusack's call got widespread support and resulted in the meeting at Hayes Hotel, Thurles on the 1st November 1884, where the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed.

During 1885 G.A.A. clubs, or as they were known then branches, were established all over the country. Athenry was no exception and was among the first to affiliate to the new association.

The Club elected Patrick C. Kelly of Cross Street as Captain and his election immediately caused divisions within the Parish. The National League was opposed to Kelly and had refused him admission to the League. They claimed he had "taken land from which a tenant had been evicted." and they started a hurling club of their own in opposition the one headed by Kelly.

Three thousand people gathered in Athenry on the 29th May to hear John Redmond address a meeting of the National League. He was welcomed onto the platform by Rev. Fr. Edmond Thomas P.P., President of the local Branch and the meeting ended with a procession of League Hurlers wearing green and white caps and carrying hurleys.

Patrick C. Kelly never intended that his club should be the cause of disunity within the Parish and hoped that it would help the League in its aims and objectives. An attempt was made by the Hurling Club for unity when a meeting of the League was asked if the "Hurlers" could join the League. The Rev Chairman told the young man who asked the question that as far as the National League were concerned no such organisation existed and anyone wishing to join the League should do so in the normal way. The Athenry Branch were refusing to acknowledge the existence of the Hurling Club and the Association to which it was affiliated because of Kelly, and belief that the G.A.A. was a rival organization.

Despite all the opposition the Hurling Club continued to prosper and during the year won all their games except one. That was against Craughwell on 29th August and played in Athenry. After two hours play the game was abandoned with the scores level. Craughwell later claimed that they had won the game, but, according to the Athenry men, the issue had still to be decided.

 

Parnell addresses County Convention

1884007Charles Stewart Parnell visits Athenry

In November Charles S. Parnell addressed the County Convention of the National League in Athenry. The local President Rev. Edmond Thomas P.P read an address of welcome. As a patron of the G.A.A. he sought the support of the League for the new Association and advised the members of the league that it was not a rival organisation. Parnell and other VIP's were fortunate not to be injured when the platform on which they were seated collapsed.

Over seventy couples attended a "Hurlers Ball" in the Athenry Hotel on St. Patrick's Night 1886. It was a night of toasts, songs and speeches that started at eight o'clock and went on until daylight. Among the songs sung were "The Day We Celebrate" and "The Hurlers Song" and toasts were drunk to Dr. Croke, Parnell, Davitt and the Association's first President, Maurice Davin.

Then amid prolonged applause to a toast to Club Captain Patrick C. Kelly, he responded: "Brother Hurlers, the way you have received my name gives me great pleasure and the confidence you placed in me when you elected me as your Captain was not misplaced. Through the many matches we played I led you to victory except against Craughwell which is still to be settled and I have great hopes that victory will be ours. Brothers, the time you elected me, as your head was a critical one, a host of opponents sprang up and their whole patriotism was directed against us. But we laughed at the spasmodic efforts they were making to upset our Club, which would be as hard to banish as the Shamrock off our valleys. For long before the Saxon or Dane placed their accursed foot on the land of our forefathers, they trained their little ones in the manly and health giving sports such as hurling, racing and stone throwing. As Irish Nationalists we will continue to further the old national sports and no matter, what his creed or politics are, he is not worthy of the name of an Irishman who will not take delight in these games. I have again to thank you and I will always be proud of being your Captain."

Peter Healy was then called on to sing "God Save Ireland" during which all joined in the chorus with hats off.

On Easter Monday 26th April the hurlers travelled to Athlone to play Clara from Offaly. They went on the 11a.m. train and arrived in Athlone at 12.30 p.m. Athlone officials, who took them to O'Connell's in Connaught St. for refreshments, met them at the station. They then formed into a procession and, headed by the Athlone Brass Band, paraded through the streets followed by thousands of people. After crossing the Shannon they were met by the Clara team who joined in the procession. The procession then continued on the Leinster side of the river.C

The playing field was splendidly situated beside the Shannon. At 2 o'clock both teams took the field and were greeted with ringing cheers by the large crowd, which had gathered to see the game. The Athenry team looked well dressed in orange and green jerseys, with "Athenry G.A.A. Club" written in green and gold letters, white trousers and green and gold caps. The Claramen wore white jerseys with black trousers and green caps. After the usual preliminaries of crossing hurleys the ball was thrown in, and, after five minutes of lively play, Athenry scored a goal. With plenty of support, particularly from those from the Connaught side of the town, they kept up the pressure and added five points before halftime.

The Offalymen started the second half far more determined and tried hard to score. It was useless, however, against an Athenry team that succeeded in scoring again. Johnny Kelly pulled on a twenty-yard pass from Michael Geogan and sent the ball flying through the goalposts. Athenry won the game with the final score 2-5, to nil.

After lunch at Maddens both teams visited the historic sights of the town and were told by the oldest inhabitants of a hurling match played almost a hundred years earlier between Connaught and Leinster. Connaught won and brought the ball in triumph through the streets on the Connaught side of the town.

The Clara Captain, P.J. Whyte than presented a beautiful green flag with a harp and shamrock as a token of victory to the Athenry team. They then marched to the station, again headed by the brass band and followed by a large crowd. There they thanked the Athlone officials and people for the great reception they had given them before boarding the train for the return journey to Athenry.

The Athenry team was as follows: M Broderick, fullback; J. Nolan, B. Malone, P. Farrell, quarterbacks; J Kelly (mor), J. Brennan, M. Connolly, P Farrell (Dubh), M. Geogan, half backs; J Clancy, D. Greally, T. Kelly, P. J. Kelly, J. Kelly, T. Loftus, A. Finnegan, F. Healy, T. Connery, M. Higgins, M. Burke, forwards; Patrick C. Kelly captain, John Curran and Michael Mullins, officials.

The Athlone game is important in that it was the first recorded occasion that flags were used to mark the pitch and the goalposts had crossbars. Playing the ball over the bar did not, however, earn a point but a free puck. It was also the first time that a team was named and placed.

The local Press carried a report of a game involving the Athenry hurling team for the first time in April 1886. "The players showed such taste and training-the G.A.A. has taken such a hold on the young blood of the country", was how the reporter described the contest against Kilconieron, and went on to tell the story of the game. Athenry's Mike Burke opened the scoring when he succeeded in sending the ball over the end line, which counted as a point after twenty minutes. Madden played well at full back for Athenry, as did Frank Healy, Patrick Farrell (Dubh), Patrick Farrell (Baun) and Jim Burke. After two hours each side scored only three overs and the game ended in a draw.

 

Cusack's Letter regarding Athenry Club dispute 

In a spirited and patriotic communication in May 1886 the National League forwarded their affiliation fee to the Central Branch of the G.A.A. The split in the Parish worsened with all kinds of allegations being made by each side against the other. After receiving the League letter Michael Cusack, then General Secretary of the G.A.A. wrote: "There is a most flourishing Branch of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the Parish of Athenry, Mr. P. C. Kelly is Captain. The National League has started another Branch but I have neither the power nor authority to recognise it. The President Mr. Davin's opinion is that I should write to the Captain of the team which took the field first and ask him if it is desirable that another club be formed in the Parish. If Mr. Kelly answers 'yes' I have no doubt the executive will gladly recognise the new club and accept the affiliation fees which I have received. Should Mr. Kelly, however, express himself satisfied that our movement is in a sufficiently flourishing condition in Athenry and that it does not stand in need of another prop, the matter drops for the present and those who desire to abide by the recommendation of the Thurles meeting can hardly play with the Athenry Branch of the National League."

Cusack's appointment of Kelly as arbitrator in the dispute led to widespread criticism "If the G.A.A. continues to acknowledge P. C. Kelly's club in preference to the exponents of the National Movement in Athenry the sooner the G.A.A. is dissolved the better" was the cry of Kelly's critics in the local press. They claimed the - young fellows' he led were expelled from various surrounding Branches of the National League and challenged him to produce even 21 players whose conduct in Nationalists affairs could bear investigation.

The Hurling Club and Kelly were infuriated by the allegations, as were many other clubs in the County. A week later Michael Connolly, Secretary of the Craughwell Branch of the National League and Hurling Club, spoke in favour of Kelly-'he leads a thousand men who can bear the strictest investigation and who are members of the League and Hurling Club and it is a gross falsehood to state that the men he leads were expelled from the League.' Appeals for unity to the Leagues and hurlers from leading personalities in the County failed and the split spread into several parishes.

Kelly replied to Cusacks letter to him regarding the situation in Athenry and arranged the largest Hurling Tournament ever held in the Country up to that time in a show of strength. He invited the Central Branch of the Association to send a representative to Athenry on the day of the Tournament, Ascension Thursday, June 3rd. So deep were the divisions in the Parish that on the same day the National League arranged a Tournament game against Newcastle also at Athenry. The Constabulary moved reinforcements into the town on the day and they patrolled the streets with loaded revolvers. Their action was unnecessary and, apart from a few minor incidents, everything passed off quietly.

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Athenry Town Band and club ffficials with hurling and football players

The National League Club assembled at the Temperance Hall, headed by a brass band, paraded out to meet the Newcastle men followed by a large crowd. Over 140 hurleys were counted on the shoulders of the young athletes on parade. When they met the Newcastle men led by their Captain Thomas Jordan, the procession became one and returned through the town to the field. The Tuam Herald reported that 3,000 people had gathered to watch the match, which lasted two hours. It did not matter according to the organisers who won as long as the game was played in a friendly and manly manner. Afterwards both teams went to the Temperance Hall for refreshments where Fr. Edmond Thomas addressed them. He told them that it gave him much pleasure to see such a number of young, men playing their games under the banner of the National League and, as long as they adhered to the rules of the League, they could count on his support. Thomas Jordan on behalf on Newcastle said that they did not come to encourage disunity. They came to maintain unity and individuals who cause disunity are the curse of the Country.

The Hurling Club Tournament was the general topic of conversation throughout the County and was looked forward to with great interest. The parent body sent down Mr. L. C. Slevin to ensure that the rules were adhered to and set about trying to resolve the split.

It was a splendid day, glorious midsummer sun, as the trains entered the Athenry station. On the platform the players were formed into two lines, two paces apart facing inwards to allow the visitors pass between them. There were fourteen teams of 21 players all wearing their club colours and carrying hurleys.

When all the trains had arrived they marched from the station into the town preceded by bands playing inspiring national airs. After refreshments they formed into line again and marched to the field about a mile from the town on the Craughwell road. The field was the property of Mrs. Dooley of Cartroe Lodge and in the adjoining field a spacious tent was erected in which refreshments were served.

The appearance of the Athenry team in their orange and green jerseys drew much favourable comment and applause. Over 7,000 spectators were present as the bands led the players onto the field. Among the teams taking part were Castlegar, Peterswell, Kilchreest, Claregalway, Craughwell, Kilconieron, Oranmore, Abbeyknockmoy, Labane, Clarinbridge, Garbally and Skehana.

The first game played was between Athenry and Castlegar. It was plain from the beginning that the home team would be the victors. During the first twenty minutes they scored a goal and four points and in the second half a goal and five points to two points for Castlegar. Several games were played and a member of the National Press who was present stated that it was the best hurling he had ever witnessed.

The outstanding success of the Hurling Club tournament caused a lot of discussion in the National League Club. They were not to be outdone by the 'hurlers'. Under a Committee comprised of John F. Broderick, Michael J. Lardner, Peter P. Broderick, Andrew Keary, Joseph Sweeney and M. J. Monaghan, they organised a sports day with hurling and football games on the 29th June. The games were played on grounds owned by Joseph Barrett at Prospect and again thousands of people from the surrounding locality were reported to have attended.

Teams from Newcastle, Kiltullagh and Kilconieron were met on arrival in the town by the local team and Temperance Band. As they moved in procession, numerous green flags and banners were visible as well as the Stars and Stripes.

The Athenry team first crossed hurleys with the Kiltullagh men. Neither side scored a goal but the home team managed to score four points and was declared winners. Next to play were Newcastle and Kilconieron and, after a well-contested game, Kilconieron was victorious winning by one goal. A football game was then played between Athenry 1st and 2nd teams and attracted considerable interest with excellent play by both sides. The game was very interesting and ended in a draw. There was a large entry for the 880 yards race, which was won by Jose Jordan of Newcastle while John Waldron, after a severe struggle, won the 440 yards. In the long jump the honours went to John Walsh with a jump of nineteen feet.

The split continued and on Sunday 25th July both Clubs were invited to play in hurling tournaments at Craughwell. Again the local press were represented by one of Kelly's biggest critics, and his comments added further to the already explosive relationship that existed between the two factions in the Parish. He wrote "P. C. Kelly's Club started early in the morning, they had five cars including the sub-agents trap supplied by 'Gerard himself ' for the benefit of the boys who are doing the work of the landlords so well.' The article then went on to state that 'the National League did not leave until after Mass."

The League Club played Dooris at Ballymana and it appears that Kelly's team played Craughwell G.A.A. at a different venue. On the way home the two sides met at Craughwell and hurleys were used in anger. A young man named Doherty was struck and injured by one of Kelly's team and in the row that followed the Craughwell Gaelics' favoured Kelly's side.

Newcastle was the venue on September l9th for yet another tournament. The attendance was numerous and they could not have selected a more favourable day. The warm and genial sun shone with its entire splendor on the ripening harvest fields. The Athenry senior and junior teams of the National league with Kiltullagh and Kilconieron arrived at the scene of the action headed by the Temperance Band and the newly established Young Blood Fife and Drum Band. The teams were met on the field by the Newcastle senior and junior sides, Turloughmore and Garbally. The first to play were Newcastle and Athenry juniors and the game ended in a draw. Kiltullagh defeated Turloughmore and Newcastle seniors were the victors against Kilconieron. The last game between Athenry and Garbally also ended in a draw. The Newcastle Club entertained all the players in first class style and their hospitality and kindness was much spoken of. Athenry were in action again on 3rd October, playing Kilchreest in a tournament at Craughwell.

First Galway GAA Convention

With matches being played all over the County the need arose for a central body to control the games. Notices appeared in the local papers calling on all G.A.A. Clubs to meet in Athenry on Sunday, 24th October 1886. Arrangements for Galway's first County G.A.A. Convention were made by Patrick C. Kelly and took place in the Athenry Hotel at Cross Street. It was hoped that by meeting in Athenry the split could be resolved and the Central Branch sent the Associations Vice-President Mr. P. Hocter to the Convention.

Amid loud applause Kelly was selected to take the chair and addressed the gathering. He thanked the delegates for their great attendance and for calling on him to preside. Since its inception, he told them, the G.A.A. had to contend with many difficulties, yet it was still making progress. They wanted to keep the young men of Ireland at home and stop emigration. He continued: "In Athenry district he was sorry to say that they were opposed by a group that resorted to every device possible to destroy the movement in the interest of a rival association." He trusted the meeting would have the effect of bringing all together in harmony and that the other side would see the folly of persisting further in their attitude. They wanted all to be united in one family. Their opponents had accused them of joining landlords and deserting the cause of the people and had written to their friends in America about them. The G.A.A., he said, wanted to revive the Old Irish games and pastimes and in doing so, they would have the support of every true Irishman without any relation to politics, which were not supposed to interfere at all.

The meeting had a very laudable object in endeavouring if possible to reconcile both sides. The delegates agreed that the disunity was deplorable and disadvantageous to the two sectors. Apart from the support and encouragement which the clergy gave the rival club, it had at its head John F. Broderick who was very popular in the district and whose energy was a great acquisition to the club. The National League reacted to the G.A.A. Convention by issuing a long statement. It read: 'The Chairman posed as an outraged man, he propagated sports which he considered would be a means of keeping the young men of Ireland at home and because of such action he was assailed without stint or limit by the National League. The accusation if it could only hold, would, indeed justify any action he could take to defend the National Sports. Like the famous proclamation of Tooley Street went forth the mandate from Athenry that Galway should assemble in solemn conclave, and if it did respond, if a circumscribed area of half a score miles denote the compass of the County. The meeting we read was convened for the purpose of cementing the feud but as it takes two to make a fight it also inferentially should take two to heal the wound.

Mr. Hocter said that Athenry was the only town in Ireland in which any opposition was afforded the Gaelic Athletic Association. For his information be it known to him that the Athenry National League have no quarrel with the G.A.A. but that it cannot stultify its mission, even for the sake of sport by accepting for leadership of national pastimes a man deemed unfit to enter its ranks.

The G.A.A. is open to all sections according to the dictum of the Chairman. If this is the standard of its excellence the Athenry National League can well afford to disassociate itself from them and pursue the tenor of its own way by alliance of National Sports and National Politics.

The National League initiated Sports in Athenry under the auspices of the G.A.A. and forwarded its affiliation fee to Mr. Cusack. The money was not acknowledged or refunded and the club today is as strong as the League and "there is perfect synonimity while on the opposite side the usual muster of a team of 21 cannot be gathered from the extreme ends of the Parish. If a club so withered by decay presumes to speak for Galway, they are at liberty to do so, outside the Parish of Athenry, as with that Athenry has no concern, but if it presumes to speak the voice of the Parish, the householders within a radius of 12 miles confine will attest to the contrary".

The National League Committee members signed the statement. The accusations made left little room for any move by the G.A.A. Central Branch to resolve the dispute. It was a clash between leading local personalities and two National Organisation's politics.

Michael Cusack was dismissed as General Secretary of the Association at a meeting in Dublin on July 4th, 1886 for among other reasons failing to keep accounts.