A history of Ireland in 100 objects: GAA medal, 1887
This gold medal was presented to a Limerick player, PJ Corbett, after the first all-Ireland Gaelic football championship, in 1887.
Three years earlier, on November 1st, 1884, at Hayes’ Commercial and Family Hotel, in Thurles, Michael Cusack convened the first meeting of the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes. Cusack had been an enthusiast for rugby and cricket.
Another of the prime movers, Maurice Davin, was an accomplished all-round athlete. But in the atmosphere of the 1880s they and others were now determined that Ireland should have its own distinctive sporting culture. The GAA thus set out to codify, organise and popularise three games it considered uniquely Irish: the ancient sport of hurling, a version of football halfway between rugby and soccer, and a kind of handball.
In one sense the GAA was a very “British” development, part of the great Victorian drive to codify all kinds of games and turn them into popular spectacles. Thus, although it found its greatest support among the growing class of “strong farmers”, the GAA was in many ways a typical product of 19th-century modernisation. All over Europe a new popular nationalism looked to culture as the basis for a collective identity that could bind together an increasingly literate and mobile population.
In Ireland these notions had a particular appeal. After the fall of Parnell the parliamentary Irish party was bitterly split and Home Rule was a more distant prospect. Energy was instead channelled into a remarkable ferment of civic activity: the agricultural co-operative movement (by 1914 the island had more than 800 co-ops), trade unions (the Irish Trade Union Congress was established in 1894) and campaigns for votes for women (the Irish Women’s Franchise League was founded in 1908). But much of it went into the cultural nationalism of the GAA, the Gaelic League (established in 1893 with the aim of reviving Irish as the vernacular language), pipe bands, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) and the Irish Literary Theatre.
These last two organisations fed into the creation, in 1904, of the Abbey Theatre. Its great early figures, William Butler Yeats, Augusta Gregory and John Millington Synge, gave international prestige to the idea of a distinctive Irish culture (albeit in English).
These attempts at “cultural revival” were remarkably successful. By 1915 Gaelic football was the most popular spectator sport on the island and the GAA was well on the way to becoming arguably the most remarkable amateur sporting body in the world. The Gaelic League never succeeded in making Irish the vernacular, but it did have an enormous influence on younger nationalists.
Yet hopes that culture would be a terrain on which political and religious differences could be left behind were disappointed. Politics could not be forgotten: both the GAA and the Gaelic League were heavily infiltrated by the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Many Protestants, Douglas Hyde, George Russell and the Abbey writers among them, were key figures in the cultural revival, but it was difficult to escape the identification of “Irish Ireland” with “Catholic Ireland”. Hyde’s insistence that the Gaelic League should avoid politics led to his resignation as its president in 1915. With nationalism becoming such a powerful force in modern Europe, and looking to culture to support its claims, avoiding politics was perhaps an impossible aspiration.
Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie