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  • Home and Away:The Gaelic Games, Gender, and Migration
  • Sara Brady

The creation in 1884 of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) contributed to a larger Irish nationalist effort at the turn of the twentieth century to distinguish Ireland from Britain through language, literature, drama, and other expressive culture. According to the nationalist rhetoric, Gaelic games needed to take the place of such contemporary diversions as cricket, polo, tennis, soccer, and rugby. These activities, nationalists asserted, were not merely not "Irish"; worse, they were "British," and needed to be taken out of circulation and replaced by the "ancient" pastimes of hurling and Gaelic football. Considered as constructions of an Irish nationalist project, the Gaelic games evidence an astonishingly successful undertaking, while at the same time revealing fissures and destabilizing the nationalists' cohesive vision of culture. Founding members and patrons of the GAA favored a masculinized figure—the Gaelic body—performing on a sentimental pitch, the Gaelic field. This de-Anglicization of Irish sport continues to inform more recent athletic activities, both at home and abroad. The cracks in culture that the present-day GAA displays tend to run along the lines of gender and migration.

Michael Cusack's "A Word on Irish Athletics," published on October 11, 1884, in both United Ireland and the Irishman, argued that Home Rule for Irish sport was a necessary response to the hegemony of the British Amateur Athletic Association, whose rules pressured Irish athletic organizations to conform to the codifying principles of British sport. Cusack declared,

No movement having for its object the social and political advancement of a nation from the tyranny of imported and enforced customs and manners can be regarded as perfect if it has not made adequate provision for the preservation and cultivation of the national pastimes of the people. Voluntary neglect of such pastimes is a sure sign of national decay and dissolution. . . .

We tell the Irish people to take the management of their games into their own hands, to encourage and promote in every way every form of athletics which is peculiarly Irish, and to remove with one sweep everything foreign and iniquitous in the present system. The vast majority of the best athletes in Ireland are nationalists. These gentlemen should take the matter in hands at once. . . . It [End Page 28] is only by such an arrangement that pure Irish athletics will be revived, and the incomparable strength and physique of our race will be preserved.1

Cusack's letter easily mixes a nationalist project with "pastimes," and warns of the consequences of such a movement leaving behind those activities. He clearly enunciates the importance of performance to nation-making in warning that national decay will follow "voluntary neglect" of expressive culture. Further, Cusack conflates nationalism with sport, arguing that the survival of the Irish "race" relies on the strong athletes who, by nature, hold allegiance to the Irish "nation."

Less than a month after Cusack's call to Irish athletes, the first official—if poorly attended—meeting of the GAA took place in Thurles, County Tipperary, on November 1, 1884. In the wake of that meeting (attended by at most a dozen persons), Cusack sought and received the patronage of several key nationalists including Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt, and Archbishop Thomas W. Croke, whose letter of support to the Nation in December, 1884, echoed Cusack's concerns about British influences. Croke lamented, "we are daily importing from England . . . her pastimes, to the utter discredit of our own grand national sports, and to the sore humiliation, as I believe, of every genuine son and daughter of the old land."2 His endorsement, which serves as an unofficial charter of the organization, describes Irish sports as "favorite exercises and amusements amongst men and boys" either "dead and buried" or "entirely forgotten and unknown" in the face of "foreign and fantastic field sports" like polo and cricket, which, he explains, are not "racy of the soil, but rather alien, on the contrary, to it, as are, indeed, for the most part the men and women who first imported and still continue to patronise them." Croke places the desire for revitalized Irish games close to the land while firmly rejecting...


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