Hurling with history

It’s that time of year again when the allure of a good book acts as a pleasing counterpoint to the cold and the dark and, from a GAA perspective, to the absence of much in the way of on-field action as well. If you’re on the hunt for some dark evening reading and, like me, your interests span the GAA and history then I’ve got an early Christmas cracker for you.

Paul Rouse is a man of many talents. UCD history lecturer, sports columnist with the Irish Examiner, author and, this summer, interim manager of the Offaly senior football team where he steadied the ship following the disarray which had led to the departure of his predecessor Stephen Wallace.

Sports history is a growing academic pursuit. It’s an area into which Paul Rouse, along with Mike Cronin and Mark Duncan, have devoted considerable energies, in the process delving deeply into the early years of the GAA and chronicling personal stories of involvement in the association through the GAA Oral History Project. The two handsome coffee tables books published by the trio – The GAA: A People’s History and The GAA: County by County – have been, for some time, treasured titles on my bookshelf.

Paul Rouse has now gone solo with another project that focuses on those tumultuous early years of the GAA, the central theme of which is the very first All-Ireland hurling final. The result of these labours is The Hurlers: The first All-Ireland Championship and the Making of Modern Hurling. It’s a belter of a book.

In it, you’ll be transported back to the late nineteenth century, a time of considerable flux in Irish society.  Only a few short decades after the Famine, an Irish cultural renaissance was starting to happen while, at the same time, a very real battle for control of the country’s land was in full spate. At so many levels, the future of the country was at that time up for grabs.

In the Victorian era, the British Empire exerted a potent mix of hard and soft power. It was against the latter that a number of figures, chief amongst them the larger-than-life character that was Michael Cusack, made it their aim to strike back.

Horrified at the rapid spread within Ireland from the 1860s onwards of first cricket and then rugby – even though, like Maurice Davin, he played both – Cusack realised that the development of an indigenous sporting culture was key to pushing back against an imperial takeover in the area of games and pastimes.

Cusack also saw that the promotion of national sports could help to stir the beaten-down populace from its post-Famine torpor. In his own words, he vowed “to strike one smashing blow on behalf of Ireland.” And what a blow it proved to be.

A native sporting culture, however, needed a native sport. Gaelic football was, as the book explains, a code that Maurice Davin essentially dreamt up himself, with the rules he framed for the newly-founded GAA drawn from early variants of soccer and rugby. I loved the bit where it says that Davin also “drew from the traditions of the Irish countryside” in formulating the rules of football, so that they “permitted wrestling off the ball.” To a large extent, they still do.

In contrast, hurling – with its links all the way back into ancient Irish mythology – had existed in one form or another back into the distant past so while Maurice Davin needed to come up with a set of rules for the GAA version of the game it wasn’t a sport he invented himself. It was, though, a game in urgent need of resuscitation, as it had by then been all but wiped out by the advance of imperial sporting pursuits.

The book charts this battle, one that begins a few years before the foundation of the GAA and which culminates with the first ever All-Ireland hurling final, contested between Thurles of Tipperary and Galway’s Meelick, a match played in a rented field outside Birr on 1st April 1888. It’s a story that encompasses sport, culture and politics,  in which the often chaotic events of the early years of the GAA’s existence are documented in stirring and vivid detail.

In short, it’s a great read for a winter’s evening. I’d highly recommend it.

The Hurlers: The first All-Ireland Championship and the Making of Modern Hurling by Paul Rouse is published by Penguin Ireland and is available from all good bookshops as well as online, including from Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Hurling with history

  1. I recently finished reading The GAA: A People’s History and if his new book is half as interesting it is a good one.
    The one issue which he did not answer, nor did anybody else that I know of was why the early GAA opted to base itself on a county basis at a time when counties meant, as far as I know, very little. Local government, such as it was, was based on Poor Law Unions. County Councils were not introduced until 1898, 14 years after the foundation of the GAA and 11 after the first All Irelands. Clubs were based very firmly on a parish basis so logic might dictate that the next tier should have been based on the diocese. Which would have avoided the numerous rows in past years about parishes/clubs which cross county boundaries. Answers please, whether on the back of a matchbox or an A4.

  2. There isn’t much discussion in the book on that point, AndyD. Chapter 6 starts as follows: “The establishment of the GAA’s All-Ireland championships unleashed a flurry of activity through December 1886 and January 1887. Clubs began to organise County Committees to run their local championships. The county structure was one that had served football, cricket and rugby as those sports spread across England, and now it served the GAA as it sought to develop a framework for its games.”

    Of course, in the GAA’s early years teams competing in the championship were all club teams, which only gradually – over several decades – morphed into county teams. Up until close to Independence the inter-county championships as we know them were more akin to the current All-Ireland club championships.

    At the outset, it was clubs, affiliated to the GAA, who entered the football and hurling championships and their route to the All-Ireland was first to take part in a club championship within their own county, with the winning clubs from the different counties playing each other on a knockout basis. In time, as more clubs and counties became organised, the provincial layer was added in. Also, the practice gradually began whereby county champions augmented their ranks with strong players from other clubs within the county, which, over time, gave rise to county teams. It took decades for this to happen, though – the 1916 final, which Mayo contested for the first time, featured Ballina Stephenites and the now defunct Blues and Whites from Wexford.

    An interesting point in the book about the drive to establish All-Ireland championships was how the GAA was following closely the example of the Football Association in England. The GAA needed to get clubs to affiliate (and so pay their subs – plus ca change!) and they saw that it was only with the establishment of the FA Cup that affiliation of clubs to the FA had exploded in England, so the GAA saw the establishment of All-Ireland championships in hurling and football as an obvious way of replicating this success.

    This also, by the way, partly helps to explain why the GAA ended up with knockout tournaments for hurling and football as its main competitions. In England, soccer went professional at the top level in the 1880s and league football began in 1888, quickly becoming the primary competition, even if the FA Cup retained a special allure up until, I suppose, the dawn of the Premier League in the 1990s. In the GAA, though, the championships were the only show in town until the late 1920s. They were so well established by the time the National Leagues were started that, unlike soccer and the FA Cup, the knockout competition never lost its primary status in the GAA.

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