'American Invasion' proved a costly adventure for the nascent GAA
GAELIC GAMES:BY NOW we probably know who’s going to occupy the White House for the next four years. This mightn’t seem of primary relevance to the GAA but paths have crossed with politics in the US right back to the association’s foundation in 1884.
That inaugural meeting in Hayes’s Hotel in November 128 years ago was held within three days of that year’s presidential election. Grover Cleveland was elected and to this day holds the distinction of being the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms, having lost the race for re-election and regained office in 1892.
Communications were so embryonic in the late 19th century that it took until the following Saturday – four days later – before The Irish Times was able to report with any conviction that Cleveland had defeated his Republican opponent James G Blaine – the story of who rather than why.
The reason for the inordinate delay is reported in the issue of November 8th 1884 as being the responsibility of the Western Union Telegraph company, whose owner Jay Gould was a Blaine supporter and which pumped out misleading details to the waiting world until the conflict with reality could no longer be credibly sustained.
The newspaper, clearly happy with the outcome, noted with grim-humoured satisfaction: “Blaine is in American fashion presented as being prostrate from chagrin and disappointment”.
If four days appears slow for the relay of news that we all learned early today as quickly as the Americans themselves, word of the GAA’s emergence took even longer and the association doesn’t appear in this newspaper’s pages until 5th June 1885 – seven months after the foundation in Thurles.
Although he had genuine Irish connections as the maternal grandchild of a merchant Abner Neal from Antrim (the county that has produced the greatest number of US presidential antecedents), Cleveland’s dealings with the GAA were not extensive.
They were however indirectly unhelpful to the most peculiar episode in the history of the GAA’s extensive transatlantic dealings, the alarmingly named ‘American Invasion’ of 1888, which was responsible for what to date remains the only blank entry in the annual list of All-Ireland finals.
Conceived as a fund-raiser to end all fund raisers (which is what nearly happened), the idea had originally been floated in 1885 and two years later on 21st May 1887 in The Celtic Times, the short-lived title published by Michael Cusack, it was again enthusiastically endorsed under the portentous headline: ‘An Invasion of America’.
The scheme was simple. Send a team of athletes and hurlers to the US so that the GAA could enhance relations with the large Irish-American community and raise substantial revenue from a series of exhibitions and fund-raising events.
The purpose was to under-write the revival of the Tailteann Games, the dream of the GAA’s first president Maurice Davin and a project that had also the backing of Land League leader Michael Davitt.
“If the preliminary expenses were forthcoming,” wrote Cusack, “the Irish-American gate money would clear all other expenses 10 times over.”
Except they didn’t.
The tour itself wasn’t a total failure. It arrived in New York to great acclaim and was fairly successful at the meetings organised.
One lasting impact was that the tour established the GAA on a firm footing in the US. The other major impact was less constructive. It lost a fortune.
Far from raising a fighting fund of £5,000 to bankroll the Tailteann Games, the invasion required a sum of £450 to pay for the return tickets.
The reasons behind this financial calamity were twofold. Bad weather didn’t help but by that stage Grover Cleveland was stuck in the middle of his re-election battle, which was seriously distracting the politicised Irish-American community.
Cleveland, incidentally, became the last candidate until Al Gore 12 years ago to win the popular vote but lose on Electoral College delegates.
Davitt steppe d in to cover the shortfall from a subscription fund “for national purposes”.
As coincidence would have it, the latest invasion from these shores sets off next week and the All Stars party travelling to New York will hope that the election is conclusively decided in the winner’s favour by then and that their return tickets are valid.