GAA story really started in the Dergvale Hotel


ON GAELIC GAMES:Michael Cusack’s home on Gardiner Place in Dublin can claim to be the true birthplace of the association

LAST WEEK Brother Seán MacNamara was at it again. For a man in his ninth decade he retains a sprightly presence and a lively wit. The task this time was to unveil a framed memorial to GAA founder Michael Cusack, to the preservation of whose memory MacNamara diligently attends.

His indefatigable output includes the monograph The Man from Carron, containing new material about Cusack’s life, and published to mark the centenary of the latter’s death in 1906 and a DVD on the same subject, which he wrote and presented, released for last year’s GAA 125 celebrations.

The twin pre-occupations of this work are to reinforce the central importance of Cusack to both the association he founded and the cause of Irish nationhood as well as to convert everyone to the view that the GAA’s birthplace was not Hayes’s in Thurles but another hotel, the Dergvale in Dublin’s Gardiner Place.

There, last Thursday, a few days short of the 104th anniversary of Cusack’s death, amidst a strong Clare presence, the memorial was unveiled, the DVD screened and speeches made.

It’s a neat coincidence the Dergvale, which was the site of Cusack’s academy and family home in the 1880s, is just minutes from Croke Park, the GAA’s most conspicuous modern monument. (In Brother MacNamara’s view the stadium, rather than one of its stands, should have been named after Cusack, but the GAA’s first patron is safe from any campaigning to have his memorial status downgraded.)

If Cusack’s ghost hovers around 4 Gardiner Place, he must derive great satisfaction from the large gatherings that throng his old premises to converse animatedly about the games he established 126 years ago.

Proprietor Gerry Nolan has combined a cheerful demeanour in the face of overwhelming numbers, the equivalent of Rorke’s Drift on big match days, with a genuine interest in the heritage of the site, which is marked by a wall plaque unveiled at the front of the hotel in the GAA’s centenary year as well as last week’s unveiling.

MacNamara argues persuasively the work of conceiving the GAA was done exclusively by Cusack during his days in Gardiner Place and points out the letters inviting people to attend the inaugural meeting in Thurles on November 1st, 1884, were sent from Dublin.

There was a poignant contrast between last week’s event and the book launch of 2006.

Four years ago the commemoration of Cusack involved much reference to the then zeitgeist of prosperity and soaring material wellbeing against which backdrop the passionate and largely unremunerated energies of the GAA founder appeared out of time and almost in need of explanation.

By last Thursday the IMF were in town, emphasising the precipitous fall from the hubristic heights of four years ago when our notional wealth and self-satisfaction convinced us that we’d reinvented economics, permitting us to bask in the admiring attentions of other countries, who now riffle their wallets to see what alms they can spare.

It has also created a far closer parallel with Cusack’s time. In the closing decades of the 19th century, Ireland’s morale was at a low ebb. The GAA became one of the great cultural revivalist organisations founded in that era, such as the Abbey Theatre and Conradh na Gaeilge, and the one that has thrived most since.

Improving that national morale and advocating economic revival were key themes for Cusack, as may be seen from copies of his short-lived newspaper, the Celtic Times.

Few could argue the success of the association in fostering a sturdy sense of identity and self-sufficiency and if that at times has bordered on insularity, it is also a strength of attitude that will be as necessary in the years to come as it was in the Ireland of the 1880s.

It’s an irony of history that the separatism Cusack wished to foster was one of independence and self-reliance, including the nature of recreational activity. Yet, he had catholic tastes in sport, playing rugby and cricket as well as hurling and athletics.

As the GAA evolved, that separatism became more and more an exclusionary instinct, extending to other games and not just politics. Even now, some followers of Gaelic games take pride in belittling achievement in other sports and regarding them as counterfeit and suspicious.

You wonder as well how Cusack would react to the tendency within Gaelic games to elevate success beyond the requirements of fairness and how the local and parish loyalties he created have unleashed a massive force in communities, one that at times blinds people to the need for rules and their observance.

Greed may not be good, but in capitalist societies the acquisitive instinct is often presented as having wider benefits such as entrepreneurism and the consequent jobs.

The willingness to turn a blind eye to the egregious excesses of that instinct and the cute hoor preparedness to ignore rules when there was perceived advantage have cost the country a savage price.

But, equally, the GAA has also demonstrated throughout its history an ability to draw the best from people, to provide the umbrella under which members are happy to make huge voluntary efforts in the service of their communities.

What other sports organisation would be so naturally questioned about what plans it has to create employment for its members and to ameliorate the generational curse of emigration? Cusack’s current successor, Páraic Duffy, the GAA director general, was asked what he thought the founding fathers would make of the modern association.

His answer was thoughtful and apt.

“They wanted to establish a national identity through the games and a sense of community. I think they would be very pleased that in a world of globalised interests we have maintained that. They might feel that more might have been done in relation to culture and language but overall they’d have to say given the challenges of the modern world that we’ve done a decent job.”

The work begun by Michael Cusack in what is now the Dergvale Hotel doesn’t get any easier, but it still continues.