Irish History Live


The Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.) was, according to Hutchinson, one of ‘no less than three attempts since the 1870s to stage an ethnic revival’.[1] It is suggested that the organisation was founded as a consequence of an article, 'A Word about Irish athletics', most likely penned by Michael Cusack,[2] which lamented the fact that traditional Irish games had been abandoned because of English rule. This article argued that the Irish who played sports were degraded by being forced to compete in and be defeated at an English game, and that the only solution was for the Irish to take the management of their own games in their own hands. It could be argued that the G.A.A. was a perfect example of an organisation that appealed to the separatist ideals of a radicalised population.

The popularity of the organisation can be measured by comparing its membership with that of its two rival organisations at the same time. Eighteen months after its formation in 1884, the G.A.A. was estimated to have 50,000 individual members. Six months later, there were around 400 affiliated clubs. The Irish Football Association, founded in 1880, had 124 clubs affiliated to it ten years after it was established. A decade after it was founded, the G.A.A. had 875 member clubs. Rugby Union also had a much slower growth rate than the G.A.A. Beginning with thirteen clubs in 1874, Rugby Union had yet to reach 100 clubs six years later. The G.A.A.’s founder Michael Cusack dismissed its rugby rival as 'a denationalising plague [carrying] on through winter the work of ruin that cricket was doing through the summer'.[3]

The G.A.A. had a clear affinity with Irish nationalism. The primary patrons of the association were Cusack, Archbishop Croke of Cashel (the most political of the Irish Catholic hierarchy), Charles Stewart Parnell (the leader of the Home Rule Irish Parliamentary Party) and the radical nationalist and founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt. [4] Individual clubs took on the names of many famous Irish martyrs and heroes. Evocative acts such as these were described as ‘a deliberate challenge to west Britonism’. [5] Mandel states that nationalism was so central to the G.A.A.’s popular cultural role that the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) was effectively in charge of running the organisation for some time. The success of the G.A.A. can be attributed, in part, to the strong political element and affinity of Irish nationalism. Indeed, the G.A.A. was even described as ‘a political organisation ... in which athletics played only a minor role’. [6] This, however, may be deemed a somewhat unfair representation, given that it was extremely popular as a sporting spectacle. Garnham has argued that in the past, the G.A.A. had been reluctant to permit scholars to study its records and this in turn resulted in an overreliance on records from the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.). These sources may have presented the association as a highly politicised and potentially seditious organisation. [7] This R.I.C. viewpoint may be understandable in the context of the infamous ‘ban’ that barred Crown forces from taking part in the organisation. Mandel states that a precursor to this infamous ban was instituted as early as January 1885 and that by the 1900s, the ban had been extended to police, jailers and servicemen, even as paying spectators. [8]

The extent to which the organisation was a vehicle for spreading nationalism can be seen by the militant anti-British elements that made up the membership. As previously mentioned, there have been claims that the organisation was run by the I.R.B. There are also claims that ‘a substantial proportion of those who fought and were gaoled at the time of the Rising, were members of the GAA, [it is] true also that it has been alleged that the bulk of the Irish republican forces came from the ranks of the GAA’. [9]

[1] J. Hutchinson, The dynamics of cultural nationalism: the Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state (London, 1987), p. 117.

[2] W. F. Mandel, ‘The I.R.B. and the beginnings of the Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xx, no. 80 (1977), pp 418-38.

[3] Ibid.

[4] N. Garnam, ‘Accounting for the early success of The Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxxiv, no. 133 (2004), pp 65-78.

[5] W.F. Mandel, ‘The Gaelic Athletic Association and Popular Culture 1884-1924’ in O. MacDonagh, W.F. Mandle and Pauric Travers (eds), Irish culture and nationalism, 1750-1950 (Dublin, 1983), p. 106.

[6] Mandel, ‘The I.R.B. and the beginnings of the Gaelic Athletic Association’, pp 418-38.

[7] N. Garnam, ‘Accounting for the early success of The Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxxiv, no. 133 (2004), pp 65-78.

[8] Mandel, ‘The Gaelic Athletic Association and Popular Culture 1884-1924’, p. 105.

[9]Ibid, p. 108.


This entry was written by Barry Sheppard. At the time of writing, Barry was a part-time student, studying History and Social Sciences. He is now a MA student. He is interested in social and cultural history, in particular the study of Irish cultural nationalist groups.  

To read a longer entry about cultural nationalism written by Barry Sheppard, please click here.

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