It's not called the Athletic association for nothing

ATHLETICS : Without athletics as one of its root causes, the GAA wouldn’t exist as we know it, nor probably would any Gaelic…

ATHLETICS: Without athletics as one of its root causes, the GAA wouldn't exist as we know it, nor probably would any Gaelic games

I CALLED around to Con Houlihan earlier in the week. It was a business visit this time, but Con, being Con, soon fused it with pleasure and introduced me to his Bottle of the Month: Bear Crossing, a 2005 Cabernet Shiraz, from South Australia.

It was delicious. Con described it as “easily drinkable”. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the actual palate of the wine or the minimal effort involved in consuming entire bottles. Either way he was right – although in fairness we did break off for mugs of Barry’s tea and thimbles of Courvoisier.

Con had been asked to contribute a piece to the souvenir programme for this evening’s Dublin-Tyrone match in Croke Park. As he’s still perfecting his typing skills, he dictated to me (seemingly off the top of his head) what he wanted written. I don’t know how Con managed to condense 125 years of history into 800 words, but he did, brilliantly.

There were several themes to his piece: that the twin ambitions in founding the Gaelic Athletic Association were to revive hurling and to reorganise athletics, although neither ambition hardly succeeded; how controversy has always surrounded the GAA; why his beloved Irish Press played a noble part in the advance of all Gaelic games; plus many more – all in 800 words.

Con also got me thinking. Cycling home later that evening, I realised how little I knew about the early ties between the GAA and athletics. So I did some research, and soon discovered that without athletics as one of its root causes, the GAA wouldn’t exist as we know it, nor probably would any Gaelic games.

Most histories of the GAA like to skim over this fact, but not Pádraig Griffin’s colossal work The Politics of Irish Athletics, 1850-1990. Griffin was president of one of the old athletic associations, Bord Lúthchleas na hÉireann, and knows what he’s talking about. The opening third of his 350-page narrative takes in the early influence of the GAA, and rightly so.

The first recorded athletics meeting in Ireland took place in Trinity College on February 5th, 1857, but it wasn’t until 1873 that any sort of organising body was established, the Irish Champions Athletic Club (ICAC). That December, the ICAC purchased eight-and-a-quarter acres at Lansdowne Road from the Earl of Pembroke, and laid down a 578-yard cinder track – the first home of Irish athletics, before rugby took its grip.

Two years later, 1875, the ICAC championships at Lansdowne Road attracted some of the big names of the sport, including Maurice Davin from Carrick-on-Suir. At 33, Davin was regarded as among the world’s best all-round athletes, which he proved that day by winning a shot-hammer double.

Later that summer the Dublin Amateur Athletic Sports featured another weight-throwing double (the 16lb and 42lb) by Michael Cusack from Carron in Clare. Like Davin, Cusack was as much concerned with how athletics was run as with his performances, and soon they began to see eye to eye.

Davin and Cusack appear in practically all the ICAC championships up to 1881, as recorded in another colossal work, Irish Championship Athletics, 1873-1914. Meticulously researched by Tony O’Donoghue, of RTÉ fame, it also underlines the key role of athletics in the founding of the GAA.

I hope Tony won’t mind reading this, but he presented me with his book about three years ago, though I hardly ever opened it. Well, not only is it an essential record of early Irish athletics, it’s hugely entertaining too, such as this snippet detailing Davin’s hammer victory at the 1876 ICAC championships, from the Freeman’s Journal: “Three finer specimens of stalwart manhood it would be difficult to find than the three competitors in the closely-fitted tights that displayed their manly proportions to the fullest advantage”.

Perhaps it was their stalwart manhood, but Davin and Cusack began to dominate the mood of Irish athletics, or at least part of it. By 1877, Davin was advocating a more native affiliation, writing in the Irish Sportsman: “The laws under which athletic sports are held in Ireland were designed mainly for the guidance of Englishmen, and they do not deal at all with the characteristic sports and pastimes of the Irish race.”

When, in 1880, the ICAC fizzled out, leaving no central organising body for athletics, and only the rules of the English Amateur Athletic Association, Davin and Cusack saw their chance. After a couple of failed attempts to establish a new body, an anonymous article appeared in the republican newspaper The Irishman on October 11th, 1884, almost certainly written by Cusack: “We tell the Irish people to take the management of their games into their own hands, to encourage and promote in every way every form of athletics which is peculiarly Irish, and to remove with one sweep everything foreign and iniquitous in the present system . . . It is only by such an arrangement that pure Irish athletics will be revived, and that the incomparable strength and physique of our race will be preserved”.

Strong stuff indeed – and it was with that in mind that Cusack and Davin organised a meeting at the Commercial Hotel in Thurles for November 1st, 1884. The rest, of course, is GAA history. Davin was elected president, and Cusack secretary. But hurling and football weren’t their main motivations for that meeting, athletics was, not that you’d think it today.

The subsequent uprooting of athletics from the GAA is as interesting as the rooting of it, and was triggered almost straightaway. Cusack quickly earned a reputation for being biased towards “pure athletics”, as he put it himself, and at the GAA’s first rules meeting of January 17th, 1885, it was decided “any athlete competing at meetings under other laws than those of the Gaelic Athletic Association shall be ineligible to compete at meetings held under the GAA”.

This didn’t sit well with the remaining athletics establishment in Dublin, who on February 1st, 1885, formed the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA). In fact, the IAAA were first to stage an 1885 championship, in the RDS on July 11th, while the inaugural GAA championship didn’t take place until October 6th, at Tramore racecourse.

On the intervention of Dr Croke, Archbishop of Cashel and patron of the GAA, the ban on athletes who competed outside GAA rules was removed. This heralded a period of polite coexistence between the GAA and the IAAA which lasted on and off until 1923, although not without continuous tension.

There were political differences, but cultural differences too: the GAA was predominantly a rural organisation, the IAAA was predominately urban; the GAA favoured the traditional throwing and jumping events, the IAAA favoured the running events; the GAA had no problem staging championships on a Sunday, the IAAA proscribed this practice.

From 1895 to 1914 they staged their own edition of an Irish championship, but the landscape of the nation was changing. The inexorable rise in the popularity of football and hurling, and a decline in the popularity of athletics due to emigration, shifted the GAA’s emphasis. The 1913 GAA Congress established an Athletics Council, intended to refocus attention on the sport, but still interest faded.

Finally, prompted by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the GAA Athletics Council and the IAAA agreed to merge, forming the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (NACAI) – opening a whole other chapter of dissention in the history of Irish athletics.

It’s a pity the GAA isn’t making a bigger deal of its athletics roots at occasions like this evening’s match in Croke Park, because there’s a great miscellany of tales to treasure. But it leaves me with plenty more stories to tell over the coming months, so look out.