The Tralee GAA Sports of 1885 and the Fight for Irish Athletics
by Richard McElligott
Politics or Play?
On the 17 June 1885, Kerry hosted its first ever GAA event; an athletics meeting in Tralee. Significant as this was in a local context, heralding the start of Kerry's long and historic connection with the Association, its national impact would be even greater. The success of this sports meeting would establish the GAA's predominance in the control of popular athletics in Ireland. But its repercussions would also vibrate across Irish politics. The triumph of the Tralee sports led to an attempted coup within local Nationalist politics which erupted into a national controversy that was only ended with the breaking of the connection between the GAA and the Irish Political Party (IPP).
On the 1 November 1884, at Hayes Hotel Thurles, Michael Cusack presided over a meeting to establish the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes. As a young man he had been a successful athlete in his own right, and by the early 1880s was a familiar and respected athletics official on the Dublin sports circuit. Cusack justified the need for such an organisation stating that increasingly in Irish athletics:
labourers, tradesmen, artisans, and even policemen and soldiers [are]...excluded... The law is that all athletic meetings shall be held under the rules of the Amateur Athletic Association of England....the management of nearly all the meetings held in Ireland since has been entrusted to persons hostile to the dearest aspirations of the Irish people. Every effort has been made to make meetings look as English as possible - foot-races, betting and flagrant cheating being their most prominent features.
Prior to the establishment of the GAA Irish athletics had no governing body, rather events where run under the laws of the English Amateur Athletics Association (AAA). Ireland saw a growing tendency for local, traditional athletic meetings being supplanted by those run under the auspices of the AAA. These new formalised athletics meetings were increasingly excluding the ordinary athlete from high level competition.  For example, a 'mechanics' clause in the rules of athletic competitions before 1882, specifically barred 'all mechanics, artisans or day labourers' from events in Ireland. Cusack 'abhorred' this tendency of sporting organisations moving towards elitism. As more and more athletics meetings across Ireland became organised under AAA rules, he resolved to act.
Cusack, it is argued, saw the increasing Anglicisation of Irish sport as part of a deliberate plan to spread British cultural imperialism. This may seem hypocritical given that as late as 1882 Cusack himself was a fully fledged member of the 'Anglocentric world' of sport in Dublin. Indeed for several years few Irishmen seemed as committed to participating in and promoting English sports as Cusack. Not only did he play cricket during his time as a teacher in Blackrock College but when he set up his own school in 1877, he founded a rugby team and acted as both trainer and secretary, as well as playing in the forwards.  What brought about the dramatic rejection of English games in favour of the establishment of a native sporting organisation, to promote both Irish athletics and traditional pastimes, is difficult to answer. Certainly the political backdrop of the early 1880s, with the real possibility of legislative independence, and the Land War crisis, played a major factor.  Another motivation may have been Cusack's dubious talent for creating enemies everywhere. As Rouse has committed, Cusack was more properly born to serve on a one-man committee.. As abrasive as he was brilliant, Cusack's inability to work with others may have had a significant bearing on his decision not to try and reform athletics from within, but rather to create and run his own organisation, to take control of popular athletics in Ireland.
In any event, by 1884, Cusack was endeavouring to found a body which would both open up organised sport to the ordinary Irishman and would play a central role in creating and sustaining a new, distinct Irish identity. He enlisted the support of Maurice Davin who was perhaps Ireland's first internationally famous athlete. With Davin's help he organised the first meeting of what would become the GAA. The assembly in Thurles was small affair, with between seven and thirteen present. The gathering did little else but to establish the Gaelic Athletics Association in name and request the patronage of Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt, and Archbishop T.W. Croke. However, through securing the support of these three pillars of Irish, Catholic, nationalist society in the 1880s (land, church and political) Cusack ensured his new body would automatically have the attention of Irish nationalist opinion.
On 27 December a second meeting of the GAA was held in Cork. At this meeting a local group of prominent home rulers, along with some Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) members attended. Both saw potential in this new organisation and sought to gain influence within its ranks. The Irish Party members succeeded in getting a resolution adopted, drafting the entire organising committee of its National League organisation onto the GAA executive committee. Though it was never acted upon, the motion began to arouse suspicion among others involved in Irish athletics, that the GAA had a more political aim than merely an interest in the cultural revival of native pastimes.
As 1885 dawned rival parties became unnerved by the rapid success Cusack's association was making. In January the GAA announced that after St Patrick's Day no athlete would be allowed compete in a GAA event if they had already competed elsewhere under the rules of another athletic body. Five days later the Irish Cyclist Association (ICA) met and one delegate called on Irish athletes to unite 'to quash' the GAA. It is easy to understand the fury of delegates when someone, who until recently had been part of their clique, was now suddenly striking out on his own and attempting to pull the rug of Irish athletics from under their feet. This was only exasperated by the fact several prominent athletic club representatives in Dublin had a personal dislike for Cusack over past disagreements. In response to the GAA's draconian legislation athletic club representatives gathered in Dublin on 21 February and formed the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA) with John Dunbar as its hon. secretary, to contest the Associations claim for control of Irish athletics. The war to govern Irish athletics had begun. Cusack however had already decided on the first battleground and it would be Tralee.
Cusack planned to use local nationalist support to fix a GAA athletics event on the same day that the local County Kerry Amateur Athletic and Cricket Club (CKAACC) had advertised for their annual sports, the 17th June 1885. Cusack chose the town as a show of strength against the anti GAA body for several reasons.
Kerry was an area known for considerable cooperation between Nationalist and Unionists in sport. In Tralee the CKAACC committee included among its members the local landlord Col. Denny and his two sons, along with Edward Harrington president of the Tralee's National League and editor of the nationalist Kerry Sentinel.
Another reason was that the CKAACC had hoped to remain neutral in the battle for the supremacy of Irish athletics. An explanation as to why the Tralee club decided not to affiliate with the IAAA was due to their past experience with its secretary, John Dunbar. Dunbar had been the official handicapper at their annual games in 1883, he had however been deemed unsatisfactory due to his arriving late and then leaving to catch the 5pm train to Dublin, when the event was little more than half way completed. The following year another handicapper was employed and Dunbar, taking offence, had travelled to Tralee and at the sports was heard to remark that 'he would take good care the Kerry fellows should not win anything in Limerick.' The next day several Kerry club members travelled to compete at the Limerick athletics at which he officiated as official handicapper. They subsequently 'much to their astonishment found themselves handicapped out of everything'. This event had naturally soured the relationship between Dunbar and the Tralee club. Munster at this time was seen as the traditional powerhouse of Irish athletics. Clubs such as the Limerick AA, Queens College Athletic Club Cork and Mallow Athletic Club were among the first to affiliate with the IAAA. Tralee was thus the largest athletic centre, in this vital province for the control of Irish athletics, which had remained neutral.
Meanwhile the Tralee sports ground (on the site of the present day Austin Stack's Park), was widely regarded as among the finest in the country. Sport claimed Tralee 'possess the best ground in all of Ireland' which was much larger than even Lansdowne or Ballsbridge. The CKAACC committee, backed by such wealthy men as Col Denny and Sir Henry Donovan, had been able to raise an estimated £1,200 to develop the ground. During the first months of 1885 the committee had begun laying down a cinder track for foot and cycling events and a new stand and palisade was being erected. For Cusack, Tralee presented a fantastic opportunity for a show of strength. If a GAA organised event could mobilise popular sentiment to usurp such a previously successful athletics meeting, courted by a rival body, in one of the premier grounds in Ireland, the future success of his organisation could be secured.
Through his column in United Ireland Cusack began to rigorously promote his rival GAA meeting. Enlisting local nationalist support he proudly proclaimed that in the National League rooms in Tralee a meeting was held to establish the first branch of the Association in Kerry. Cusack boasted that the meeting declared it would boycott the CKAACC event 'under the auspices of the selfish foreign faction'. The members also pledged that any person patronising the event were 'not worthy of the name Irishman'. The principal men who formed this branch and acted as promoters for the GAA event included prominent local members of the National League such as the old Fenian and Land Leaguer William Moore Stack and local IRB officers Batt O'Connor Horgan, Michael Power and Maurice Moynihan. Edward Harrington, a promoter of the CKAACC sports was incredulous at this action. Harrington was a prominent Constitutional Nationalist, having been elected first president of the Tralee branch of the National League when it was formed on 15 February 1885. He strongly believed that sport had no role as some ''political football'' within the League.
Harrington in his editorials in the Sentinel, began to attack a certain section of local nationalists for establishing the GAA to boycott the CKAACC sports and using 'vindictiveness under the name of sport to injure men who for no political or partly reason had invested their money in providing a recreative and pleasant amusement ground for all classes of Tralee'. In response to the boycott the local gentry did all in their power to hinder the event. When Horgan, elected president of the Tralee GAA, 'had the audacity' to apply at a petty sessions hearing in Tralee for an occasional licence to have drink sold at their event, Sir Henry Donovan, president of the CKAACC, was able to use his power as chair of the sessions to deny such a licence.
Cusack travelled to Tralee a week before the event to enlist the support of the local clergy, including Fr M McMahon parish priest of Boherbee, and help the local GAA promote their meeting. As a result the GAA sports, held in Rathonane, near the present day Greyhound track, proved an extraordinary success. United Ireland reported:
Money was subscribed most liberally...Not counting those who entered for hurling and football, the entries amounted to the unprecedentedly large number of four hundred and sixty four. On the morning of the sports the people came swarming and trooping in from every part of the country...Every mode of conveyance would seem to have been utilised, and when neither vehicle or beast of burden was available the people walked in...Every artery of the town poured its stream of human life into the great tide which flowed noiselessly towards the hurling ground in Rathonane paddock.
The Kerry Weekly Reporter commented that all 'the varied attractions of the [Co. Kerry] A.A. & C.C. could not bring together attendance, whereas the concourse assembled to witness the Gaelic sports was countless'. It was stated that upwards of 10,000 people had attended. That same evening at Ahamore outside Tralee, a hurling match was organised by the local GAA between the townlands of Rathoo and Kilury versus Abbeydorney and Killahan each team comprising twenty five men aside.
The CKAACC sports in contrast were a financial disaster with only a few hundred of the local gentry attending the events. The Kerry Evening Post reported:
The attendance on the ground was not at all what it should have been, though the large stand was well filled with the elite of the county. Outside the stand, however, there was a marked absence of the public who usually support the Athletic Meeting. This was caused no doubt by the action of those men who wished to merge athletic meeting into political meetings, and who held opposition sports on the same day. So well had those men stumped the county putting false issues before the people, that though thousands of country folk entered town that day, they were drawn away to the opposition sports by the strain of a few brass instruments and the shrill fifes playing national airs. As an example of the issues placed before the country people, I can vouch for the fact that one fair maid from the country was heard asking another of her class whether she was going to the Protestant sports of the Daniel O'Connell sports. It should be also mentioned that a vast amount of intimidation was also introduced to prevent the people from attending the sports, and it was really ridiculous to see some prominent members of the opposition standing on the road leading to the club grounds with a notebook and pencil taking down the names of those proceeding to the sports. This kind of intimidation...was calculated to do a great deal of harm.
We can see that the local GAA organisers and Cusack himself, were not above intimidation or playing on sectarianism to ensure the success of the Rathonane event. From this position of strength, the local GAA continued to flex its muscles. John Stack, president of the Listowel National League, held a meeting on June 27 to establish a GAA branch there. Over the next two months, athletics events under the GAA were held in Listowel, Castleisland and Killarney, where the meeting opened with a hurling match between the men of Kenmare. Early events in Kerry thus followed a similar pattern to the rest of the country in the formative years of the GAA. The rules of hurling and football were still not properly defined and differed from area to area. It was far easier to organise athletics meetings which had more standardised and accepted rules governing them. Cusack's ambition to secure the GAA's permanence in athletics meant that initially, football and hurling played only a secondary role to athletics events.
As a result of the astounding success of the Tralee sports, the GAA swiftly gained control of popular athletics at a provincial level as the IAAA retreated to its urban strongholds of Dublin and Belfast. Throughout the remainder of the summer, the vast majority of sports meetings reported in the national press were run by the Association. At an IAAA meeting that November it was reported that 150 athletics meetings had been held under the auspices of the GAA that year. The IAAA could not hope to match such popularity. Though it would continue to exist as a formal body for another thirty seven years, it would never again seriously challenge the dominance of the GAA's control of Irish athletics on a national level. Finally in 1923 the GAA Athletics Council (formed in 1905) was merged, with what remained of the IAAA, into a new body, the National Athletic and Cycling Association (NACA) for the governance of Irish athletics.
However the 17 June would also have another lasting effect on the Association. In the aftermath, a local political dispute developed into a national controversy whose fallout led to the official link between the National League and the GAA being permanently severed.
At a meeting of the Tralee National League a week after the event, Edward Harrington was stripped of its presidency and expelled from the branch. He was accused of using his paper to promote landlord games in deference to nationalist attempts to support traditional Irish sports. At the meeting Horgan, president of Tralee GAA, stated that Harrington had come to Tralee as an unknown stranger and the people of the town had lifted him on their shoulders, but by his writings in the paper 'he had kicked the ladder by which he had ascended'. In this it is easy to detect a streak of jealousy of the popularity of Harrington, especially among the older Nationalists and IRB element which made up the GAA opposition to the CKAACC sports. In the Freemans Journal Harrington defended his actions stating he:
declines to [associate with]...those men who, he alleges, have organised this malicious conspiracy against him and the interests of his paper, merely because he tried to keep the League free from the introduction of irrelevant matter into it.
In response Cusack sent a letter to Freemans's editor declaring that on 20 October 1884 he canvassed Harrington to use both his personal and his paper's influence to support the revival of Irish games which Harington had duly sworn to do. The following April Cusack again wrote to him and sent a copy of the new rules of the GAA but stated Harrington now 'took no notice whatever of me or the rules'.
The squabbles of local Nationalists had quickly snowballed into a national debate, played out among the pages of Ireland's Nationalist press. This was probably an inevitable consequence seeing as Edward's brother, Timothy Harrington, was a sitting MP and one of the most influential members of the Irish Party, being secretary of the Central Committee of the National League. Timothy wrote to the press to officially disclaim any link between the organising committee of the National League and the GAA. He stated they had never identified themselves with any athletic association and those who have used the name of the National League in connection with the GAA 'have done so without authorisation and, as I believe, for personal purposes'. JF O'Crowley, the official handicapper of the GAA and member of the National League responded by saying that it took Harrington a long time to repudiate the connection between the two bodies. It was not until his brother 'had opposed the popular feeling had any attempt been made to do so.' The Sentinel next printed a letter from Archbishop Croke to Edward stating 'When I recommended the revival of our national sports, I had no idea of extending or even discouraging all other sports whatever, or any of them'. The next day the Weekly Reporter published a letter Cusack sent to Michael Power the prominent local National League and GAA organiser. In it, Cusack stated he had discussed with Timothy Harrington the upcoming GAA event in Tralee. Cusack claimed Harrington described the crowd setting up the GAA event as no better than 'corner boys'. He also warned Cusack to 'beware of those getting up the Gaelic Sports in Tralee' and that if he knew really who the parties were he 'would have nothing to do with them'. In addition to political differences, it is possible to detect an element of class bias in these dismissive remarks. Harrington an affluent businessman and politician may have regarded the local GAA as little more than the playground for the baser elements of the county's lower class.
On 5 July matters came to a head at a National League meeting in Abbeydorney. Both Timothy and Edward attended and addressed the crowd. The Weekly Reporter described the attendance as split between hostile, friendly and neutral. When Edward rose to speak he could not be well heard owing to constant booing of a section of the crowd. He was then stopped by the arrival of Power and other members of the Tralee National League. Power confronted Timothy Harrington about his comments in Cusack's letter. Harrington responded that the letter was 'a tissue of falsehood'. He enquired why members of the Tralee League had stripped his brother of its presidency using the pretext of the GAA sports, when Cusack had said his association belonged to no political organisation. When Stack interrupted that 'he does', Harrington pointed to the example of a speech Cusack gave in Kingstown lately where he commenced by saying he belonged to no political organisation. With this the Harrington's left.
As Curtin, in his study, has argued it seems that Harrington's leadership was resented by some Tralee nationalists. Some like Stack and Power were perturbed that their particular brand of physical force nationalism was being usurped by ''blow-ins'' from outside the county, taking control of popular national sentiment in Kerry. A general election was expected and with the recent extension of the electorate, nationalist candidates could be fully confident of significant success. If his position as president of the Tralee branch was maintained, Edward would undoubtedly be one such candidate, as he enjoyed much popular support within the organisation in Kerry.
The Harrington's had misjudged the popular sentiment the local IRB element had been able to galvanise behind the GAA event. They however knew well the dangerous potential of the IRB to monopolise nationalist movements and corrupt them into their own political aims. Yet Power, Stack and Horgan were guilty of even greater misjudgement. To dismiss the brother of the secretary of the Central Committee of the National League was naive, but to then disrupt a League rally in the secretary's presence was pure folly. On 13 July the Central Committee met in Dublin and dissolved the Tralee branch. Despite this, a resolution was passed by the branch unanimously stating its work should continue on as normal. At the meeting Thomas O'Rourke of Tralee Town Commissioners stated it was their duty to propose election candidates for an upcoming county convention and asked was it the job of the League to have 'candidates for Kerry manufactured by the League in Dublin?' In spite of this bullishness it was clear popular sentiment was against the local IRB controlled branch. A letter from 'A Nationalist' in Castleisland to the editor of the Evening Post complained of the disgraceful treatment of Edward Harrington by them. The lack of support in the county and isolation of the branch brought its members to their senses. On 30 August Stack announced the resignation of the entire executive of the Tralee League in order that new officers recognised by central committee, be elected. In early October the branch was allowed to resume its meetings as it was once again 'in unison with the wishes and obedient to the dictates of the authority of the Central League'. A further meeting was called for later in the month when new officers would be elected, none of which could be officers who had held office hitherto. Harrington was re-elected president while the old officers such as Power and Stack where absent from the attendance of the newly formed branch.
At the League's county convention Edward Harrington was proposed and selected as the Irish Party candidate to contest the West Kerry seat in parliament in the upcoming general election. In the subsequent election Kerry brought back a clean sweep of IPP candidates. In the West Kerry seat, Harrington won by an overwhelming majority. His popularity was such that when results confirmed all the houses in Tralee were brilliantly illuminated and the local Temperance and Boherbee Fife and Drum bands paraded the street till an early hour.
The Tralee sports had been on one level an attempt by some National League members to simply apply their perfected land-rent boycott system to a landlord run games, of which Harrington was a promoter. On the other hand an IRB/physical force nationalist element within the local League, frustrated by the support for constitutional nationalism under Harrington's leadership was determined to use the GAA sports as pretext to discredit him among the people of Kerry.
The events of that summer's day in Tralee played a major role in establishing the pre-eminence and popularity of the GAA. It was also the catalyst for its official split with the League. Cusack was probably glad to see off this political link, having used the structure of the League branches to initially promote his sports across the country. In the long run the Irish Party would rue the severing of this connection. In August 1887 Dublin Castle proclaimed and outlawed the National League. By May 1888 the organisation in Kerry was 'practically dead'. However worse lay ahead. On the 6 December 1890 the leader of the IPP, Charles Stewart Parnell, was stripped of the party's leadership following the discovery of his affair with a married woman. Having lost the opportunity to impose its control and influence on the GAA, the executive of the Irish Party looked on helplessly as the majority of the vast army of voters within the ranks of the Association, rallied to Parnell, their patron's, cause. The struggle between the new leadership of the Irish Party and Parnell would split Irish politics in two. Even after Parnell's death in 1891, the division would remain steadfast for the next decade. The GAA itself would never again re-establish any formal connection with the Parliamentary party. Indeed by the time the Irish Party, under John Redmond, was reunited in 1900, the leadership of the GAA was increasingly being brought under the influence of the resurgent IRB.
Note about the Author
Richard McElligott is a native of Stack's Mountain, Kilflynn. He holds B.A. and Masters Degrees from UCD. He is a current PHD student attached to the Department of History and Archives in UCD. His thesis is on 'The Establishment and Development of the GAA in Kerry, 1884-1934.'
- Weeshie's Week (325)
- Brendan O Sullivan (19)
- Championship (71)
- Clubs (8)
- County Championship (21)
- Dr Eamonn O Sullivan (6)
- Early GAA in Kerry (2)
- Famous Games (8)
- GAA (75)
- Kerry Captains (10)
- Kerry Colleges (3)
- Kerry Football Families (13)
- Kerry Footballers (31)
- Kerry Trainers (10)
- Memories (48)
- Miscellaneous (51)
- National League (27)
- On The Ball (15)
- On the Ball (2)
- Other Counties (7)
- Other Sports (40)
- Refereeing (2)
- Stats (1)
- Tributes (60)