On the ball – Brian Maye on GAA president James Nowlan

Nowlan was prominent among a group of militant reformers who sought to revive the GAA

James Nowlan: the longest-serving president of the GAA

James Nowlan, after whom Nowlan Park in Kilkenny is named, was the longest-serving president of the GAA. He was also very active in nationalist politics and in the Gaelic League and made a significant contribution to Irish public life. He died 100 years ago on June 30th.

His date, and even place, of birth seem uncertain but Lawrence White, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, believes he was probably the James Nowlan baptised on July 14th, 1854, in St Canice’s church, son of Michael Nowlan and Catherine Tully, of Green’s Hill, Kilkenny. He became a cooper by trade, like his father, worked in Sullivan’s Brewing Company and lived for many years at Bishop’s Hill in the city.

In politics, he supported Parnell, and became involved in the Gaelic League from its inception in 1893. According to Lawrence White, he supported working-class interests and he was elected alderman for St John’s Ward on Kilkenny Corporation in 1899 on a labour-nationalist ticket, a position he held for 20 years, with just one brief break.

Through the Kilkenny city Confederation hurling club, he became active in the GAA and was the county’s representative on GAA Central Council 1896-99, before becoming the organisation’s vice-president for the next two years.


The Parnell split and poor internal management had weakened the association and Nowlan was prominent among a group of militant reformers (many of whom, like Nowlan himself, belonged to the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood) who sought to revive it. As a result, the annual congress in 1900 approved a major reorganisation establishing four provincial councils to run their own football and hurling championships. The Leinster council was first to be set up that year and Nowlan was its first chairman until 1905.

At the September 1901 annual congress, which saw many of the top offices taken over by IRB activists, he was elected president of the GAA, a position he held until 1921, making him the longest-serving president of the association. Together with Luke O’Toole of Wicklow, who’d been elected the new secretary, “Nowlan implemented reforms, both administrative and ideological, effectively establishing the GAA in its modern aspect,” according to Lawrence White.

They reorganised finances, in particular, on a sounder business footing, and their work led to a substantial growth in membership and the creation of many new local clubs in every county. They closely identified the GAA with the “Irish-Ireland” movement (promoting the Irish language, culture and manufactures) and reintroduced and strengthened the ban on taking part in foreign games.

Although Nowlan himself was moving toward Sinn Féin politically, he was careful to foster a neutral stance on the central council because it included many Irish Parliamentary Party supporters. When the Irish Volunteers were set up in 1913, he advised GAA members to join it. He was arrested after the Easter Rising and interned for more than three months in Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire.

During the early stages of the War of Independence, he was jailed again for five weeks in Cork. By now, his health was deteriorating and he retired from work and moved to James’s Street, Dublin, to be nearer the GAA national offices.

He was among the top GAA officials who took the decision on Bloody Sunday (November 21st, 1920) that the scheduled Dublin-Tipperary match should go ahead in Croke Park, despite knowing of the assassinations that morning of 14 British intelligence officers. In reprisal, Black and Tans attacked the crowd in Croke Park that afternoon, killing 12 people.

In his final years as GAA president, he faced growing discontent from younger members who felt its ageing leadership lacked energy and ideas. At the 1920 congress, which introduced a maximum three-year term for future GAA presidents, he managed to hold on to his presidency by a single vote. He retired voluntarily the following year, was made a permanent ex-officio member of central council and was its honorary president until his death.

Remaining unmarried, he died in Jervis Street hospital and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. Kilkenny’s principal GAA ground was named in his honour in 1927 and a new trophy called the James Nowlan Cup, to be presented to the under-21 All-Ireland hurling champions, was introduced by the GAA in September 2016. “Widely popular for his genial, unaffected and straightforward manner, Nowlan was an efficient but unimaginative administrator, unbending in his principled commitments,” was Lawrence White’s overall verdict.

“It is incredible to think that he was involved in such an important organisation at such a pivotal time in Irish history when it was needed most,” says the Historic Kilkenny website, and it has no doubt that “he very much shaped the GAA into what we know it as today”.