- The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884–2009
The centenary of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1984 was not well marked by the academic history community in Ireland, reflecting a snobbishness then existing in the academy about what constituted a legitimate topic for respectable historical research. A corresponding suspicion about the agenda of academic historians existed within the GAA, colored no doubt by the emergence of the revisionist school, which was seen in many circles as being anti-Irish. In the intervening twenty-five years a younger generation of historians has pioneered the study of modern Irish history from a much broader perspective, in the process recognizing rightly the importance of organized sports to later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish social and political life; the three editors of this collection have played a crucial role in this important and long overdue development within Irish historiography. The GAA has also matured and gained a level of confidence that has encouraged it to open its archives to academic research, in line with other modernizing trends such as the revocation of the prohibition on the security forces in Northern Ireland from joining the association and the hosting of the “garrison-games” of rugby and soccer on the hallowed soil of Croke Park during the recent redevelopment of Lansdowne Road. The result of both processes has been a welcome addition to the previously scant literature on the GAA. In addition to the current volume, some of its contributors have also produced The GAA: A People’s History (2009) and The Evolution of [End Page 311] the GAA (2009). The library of the Irish sports historian is now in a much healthier condition.
The editors are to be congratulated for encompassing such a wide range of subjects, although the essays covering the medieval (by A.B. Gleason) and early modern period (Eoin Kinsella) seem to be stretching a bit to find much evidence of the existence of specific ancestors to the modern games. Nevertheless we have evidence of its popularity in the banning of hurling by the 1367 Statutes of Kilkenny and the emergence of summer hurling in the seventeenth century, seen as an important step in the evolution of the modern game.
The strongest essays are those that cover the period of the GAA’s foundation and early years. This reviewer’s personal favorite is Paul Rouse’s account of the sporting and journalistic career of the association’s founder, Michael Cusack, until the early 1880s a devotee of the colonial pursuits of rugby and cricket, making him seem like an unlikely progenitor of the nationalistic GAA. Cusack’s conversion to native games is dated to around 1882 and is most likely explained by the political tensions aroused at the time by the land war and the home rule campaign; that year’s Industrial Exhibition of Irish-made goods that fostered an idea of a bright economic future for Ireland; the launch of the Irish language newspaper, The Gaelic Journal; and the establishment of the Dublin hurling club. The close relationship between Cusack’s journalistic and sporting endeavors is also an important theme of this essay.
William Murphy’s assessment of the GAA’s relationship with republicanism during the revolutionary years has benefited from the wealth of new literature on this period that has sought to place these formative events into a broader contemporary social and economic context, stemming from David Fitzpatrick’s pioneering study of regional republicanism in Clare, Politics and Irish Life (1977). Many prominent revolutionaries were leading figures in either the games or administration of the GAA (such as Harry Boland, Eoin O’Duffy, Austin Stack, and Sam Maguire, whose name is probably more resonant today than then), and membership of the GAA was an important revolutionary and organizational training ground—as Fearghal McGarry and Peter Hart have shown in the examples of Eoin O’Duffy and Michael Collins respectively. Nevertheless, Murphy convincingly argues that the relationship was largely one-sided with the revolutionary movement exerting more influence on the...