GAA: The Athletics connection (Irish Runner)

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A very interesting article in the September/October 2009 issue of Irish Runner, by Ronnie Bellew, on the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association’s successful takeover of Irish athletics in the 1880s (transcript below, as Athletics Ireland doesn’t provide any archives).

I’ve always been intrigued about whatever happened to the second “A” in the GAA.

Bellew argues that as the primary focus of the GAA in its first two years of existence (GAA established in 1884), then it would have been unlikely that it “would have survived long enough to see hurling and football sweep the nation like a ‘prairie fire’.”

That’s debatable, as some could counter-argue that athletics was dropped by the GAA in 1922 out of more pragmatic reasons. As Eamon Sweeney describes it in O’Brien Pocket History of Gaelic Sport:

“[It] soon became apparent that hurling and football out-stripped athletics in popularity, and the GAA eventually farmed out its athletics events to a separate organisation, the National Athletics and Cycling Association (NACA), which dwindled in influence before being subsumed by the more powerful Bord Lúthchleas na hÉireann (BLE) in the 1990s.”

Yet GAA fans were reminded of the Association’s origins during the All-Ireland football semi-final this past August at Croke Park, with the halftime performance of the Athletics’ Ireland Provincial Super Sprint Relay (photo above).

Bellew moots whether this could be the start of renewed links between the GAA and athletics.

A driving force behind such an initiative is Jarlath Burns, chair of the GAA’s 125 Committee:

“I have been very conscious of the need for the GAA to recognise its athletics heritage since I had a conversation with (the athletics coach) Maeve Kyle at a rugby match in Croke Park a few years ago … We would like to think that this initial contact with Athletics Ireland would sustain stronger links in future.”

There is also support from Croke Park Stadium Director, Peter McKenna, who would like to install an athletics track in Croke Park and make a bid for the stadium to host a Grand Prix event and/or major international championships.

I would be very interested to learn others’ opinions on this.

What intrigues me is the relationship between Southern and Northern athletics. My comparator is my rowing experience, where there is an all-Ireland governing body: the Irish Amateur Rowing Union (IARU), which was formed in 1889.

Difficult to find IARU history online. It was a successor of the Irish Amateur Rowing Association (IARA) that was established in the same decade, by eight individual clubs (IARA included Cappoquin Rowing Club and Commercial Rowing Club).

In contrast to being part of an Irish nationalist revival (like the GAA was), in rowing the motivation appears to be more simply administrative, to have an all-Ireland governing body. You see, one of the complaints in athletics of the same time was that its meetings were held under the rules of the Amateur Athletic Association of England (AAAE); Michael Cusack sought to nationalise and democratise this, to put the control of athletics in the hands of the Irish themselves.

Indeed, this came to a head as an “establishment-controlled” Irish Amateur Athletics Association (IAAA) was formed simultaneously. There was a showdown via the hosting of two athletics events on the same day, 17 June 1885. The GAA’s attracted 10,000 spectators; the IAAA’s a few hundred.

But what about the Irish Amateur Rowing Union, formed just a few years later? Was it deemed a preserve of the English (dominated by elites attending Trinity College Dublin)? As there was no pretence of rowing having Gaelic ancestry, was is simply ignored as part of the nationalist revival?

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In any case, in rowing the result was a singular association for the whole island, with a federal structure based on the four provinces. The IARU is responsible for the Irish National Championships, which are held every July at Inniscarra Lake, Co. Cork.

In contrast, the history of the governing bodies for Irish athletics reads like typical Irish history — complete with North-South splits and internal divisions. Essentially, after the GAA won its institutional contest with the IAAA, in 1923 both were amalgamated into the National Athletic & Cycling Association (NACA), which Northern clubs defected from in 1924. Then, in 1937, the Irish Amateur Athletic Union (IAAU) was founded by clubs seceding from NACA (because of NACA’s refusal to accept an IAAF ruling in regards to defining members as political entities; that refusal led to NACA’s suspension from the IAAF and no Ireland representation at the 1936 Berlin Olympics). There was North-South rapprochement in 1945, for all-Ireland Championships. But then another internal split (this time within the North), in 1967 when the Amateur Athletic Union of Eire (AAUE, name change from IAAU) and its Northern equivalent (NACAI) dissolved to form a combined Bord Luthchleas na hEireann (BLE); a section of NACAI refused until 1999, when a more complete dissolution created the Athletics Association of Ireland (“Athletics Ireland”), with a provision of Northern Ireland Association membership on its Council.

I don’t see much North-South harmonisation within Athletics Ireland. For example, its website has a Southern focus (which isn’t unexpected), but there’s scant coverage of Northern events or results. (To its credit, in the same September/October 2009 issue of Irish Runner, there’s a profile article on Ciara Mageean, from Newtownards, Co. Down, and a member of City of Lisburn Athletics Club. Mageean won a gold medal in the 1500m at the 2009 European Youth Olympics.)

Meanwhile, Athletics Northern Ireland is the is the governing body for the sport of athletics in Northern Ireland. It was founded in 1989 by the amalgamation of the NI Amateur Athletic Association (founded in 1932) and the NI Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (founded in 1951). I find no mention of any Southern events, nor any website link with Athletics Ireland (or even a description of ANI’s institutional link with Athletics Ireland).

While the Ulster branch of rowing’s IARU appears defunct (website “under construction” for over a year now, since August 2008), at least the IARU main website provides straightforward navigation to the provincial branches and events across the whole island (just found link to provincial clubs at Athletics Ireland, but covers a fraction of available running clubs in Northern Ireland).

I guess I’m calling for a more true representation of Athletics Ireland, acknowledging the toil of reconciling the administration of the sport on the island. For a start, those who are under the Athletics Northern Ireland jurisdiction should be able to discover this from the Athletics Ireland website (and vice versa)! Also, it would be beneficial to learn of stadium and road racing events taking place in Northern Ireland/the North, again from the Athletics Ireland site (and vice versa).

As for the GAA’s rediscovery of its athletics heritage, I would be pleased to see further acknowledgement by that Association and its supporters. Athletics may not have Gaelic origins (at least the Greeks were not English!), but considering athletics’ role in establishing the GAA (democratising what is a universal sport), it behoves leaders in this discipline and assorted organisations on this island to give it its rightful place.

GAA: The Athletics connectionRonnie Bellew (Irish Runner)September/October 2009 

The Gaelic Athletic Association’s success in taking control of Irish athletics in the 1880s was the rock on which it built its future as one of the largest amateur sporting organisations in the world, writes Ronnie Bellew. 

One of the most intriguing what ifs of Irish sport is whet if the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) had retained some control over athletics instead of severing all ties with the sport in 1922. 

Could athletics, under the GAA’s administration, have co-existed and flourished alongside hurling and football? Would Ireland today have a far larger network of athletic clubs and facilities? Could Ireland, relative to its size, have become a consistently competitive presence in international competition? 

They may appear fanciful imponderables, but they are questions worth considering at a time when the GAA — in its 125th anniversary year — is extending long overdue recognition to its athletics heritage and the vision that founding fathers like Michael Cusack, Maurice Davin and Frank Dinneen had for the Association. 

When Paul Hession, David Gillick, Derval O’Rourke and Anna Boyle led their provincial teams out at Croke Park for the Athletics’ Ireland Provincial Super Sprint Relay on August 23 at halftime in the Cork v Tyrone All-Ireland football semi-final, it was a symbolic reminder of where the GAA came from. 

And, judging by the noises coming from the GAA and Athletics Ireland, last month’s relay event at Croke Park could be the start of renewed links between the GAA and athletics, links that may see Croke Park host a major international athletics event in the next few years. 

If that happens, the wheel really will have started to turn full circle for the GAA and athletics. 

Wrestling control 

After all, the GAA, for the first two years of its existence, was primarily focused on athletics and if it hadn’t been for its success in wresting control of athletics away from an elitist minority, it’s unlikely that the GAA would have survived long enough to see hurling and football sweep the nation like a ‘prairie fire’. 

“If we are to go back to our roots, then we have to educate the GAA public about the role athletics played in the early years of the Association and why we have the word Athletics in our title,” says Jarlath Burns, the former Armagh footballer who is chairman of the GAA’s 125 Committee. 

“The GAA took control of athletics away from the elite classes and gave it back to the ordinary people. As chair of the GAA 125 Committee I have been very conscious of the need for the GAA to recognise its athletics heritage since I had a conversation with (the athletics coach) Maeve Kyle at a rugby match in Croke Park a few years ago. 

“The relay event in Croke Park on August 23rd was the first time in many years that athletes have run in Croke Park and we would like to think that this initial contact with Athletics Ireland would sustain stronger links in future,” says Burns. 

Prior to the GAA’s emergence, athletics in Ireland was mainly the preserve of the privileged urban classes and was governed by the rules of the English Amateur Athletics Association whose definition of an amateur excluded mechanics, artisans and labourers from competing. 

In the trauma of the post-Famine years, athletics, hurling and other traditional Irish sporting events, particularly weight throwing, had become almost extinct in large swathes of the country. But the flame for native athletics excellence was rekindled in the 1870s and early 1880s by the Davin clan — Maurice, Pat and Tom — from Carrick-on-Suir in Co. Tipperary. 

Maurice — the GAA’s first President — was considered one of the finest athletes in the world in the 18970s when he broke international records in running, hurling, jumping and throwing. The Davins won 29 national championship titles between 1873 and 1883, while Pat (high jump, long jump, hammer) and Maurice (16lb shot) won titles at the 1881 English Amateur Championships, then considered a world-class event. 

The Davins’ Irish Championship titles were won in competitions organised by the Irish Champion Athletic Club. Founded in 1873, it was an organisation that looked to England for direction and from the late 1870s onwards, Maurice had been agitating for an independent Irish athletics governing body. 

From a farming background (the 1904 All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Kilkenny was played on the Davin stronghold), Davin objected to the class discrimination inherent in Irish athletics and he wrote of the need to organise independent Irish athletics events ‘especially for the humble and hard-working who seem now to be born into no other inheritance than an everlasting round of toil and labour.’ 

While Davin was considering his ideas for an independent Irish athletics body, Michael Cusack, another accomplished athlete in his youth, was formulating his plans to nationalise and democratise Irish sport, publishing his famous manifesto for Irish sport — ‘A World About Irish Athletics’ — in the United Irishman paper in October, 1884. 

‘A few years (ago) a so-called revival of athletics was inaugurated in Ireland,’ stated Cusack, who had been greatly influenced in his thinking by Mayoman Pat Nally, an accomplished athlete and Fenian activist. 

Degrading laws 

‘The new movement did not originate with those who have ever had any sympathy with Ireland or the Irish people. Accordingly labourers, tradesmen, artisans and even policemen and soldiers were excluded from the few competitions which constituted the lame and halting programme of the promoters. 

‘Two years ago, every man who did not make his living wholly or partly from athletics was allowed to compete. But with this concession came a law, which is as intolerable as its existence in Ireland is degrading. The law is that all Athletic Meetings shall be under the rules of the Amateur Athletic Association of England, and that any person competing at any meeting should be ineligible to compete elsewhere. 

‘The management of nearly all the meetings held in Ireland since has been entrusted to persons hostile to all the dearest aspirations of the Irish people… 

‘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.’ 

Maurice Davin was quick to publicly support Cusack’s stark call to arms, and he suggested the drawing up of official rules for distinctively Irish games and sports. The rest is history. Three weeks after Cusack’s letter was published, the GAA was formed in Hayes’ Hotel, Thurles on November 1st when Davin was elected President. 

The GAA’s first athletics meeting was held 11 days later in the townland of Toames, near Macroom, Co. Cork, but the first big meeting and possibly the most important was held in Blarney on May 3, 1885. 

Thousands of spectators attended and the GAA scored a vital propaganda victory when Frank Dinneen, the country’s most famous sprinter, publicly rebuffed attempts by the new formed, establishment-controlled Irish Amateur Athletics Association (IAAA) to dissuade him from competing under the GAA’s banner. 

Dineen’s choreographed show of support for the GAA persuaded many more athletes to ‘defect’ to the new organisation and there was only ever going to be one winner in the battle for the athletic heart of nationalist Ireland after another humiliating loss of face for the IAAA in Tralee on June 17 that year. 

When the IAAA announced a meeting to be held at Tralee Athletic & Cricket Club, the GAA advertised a rival meeting, inviting Irish athletes to ‘choose between Irish and foreign laws’. An estimated 10,000 spectators attended the GAA monster meeting which attracted 450 athletes; just a few hundred spectators attended the IAAA meeting. The GAA held over 150 meetings in 1885 and grew rapidly, having more than 800 affiliated clubs by 1890. 

The initially bitter conflict between the GAA and the IAAA was resolved in the late 1880s when both bodies agreed to recognise each other’s rules and suspensions, and allow athletes to compete in each other’s competitions. 

It was at times an uneasy truce with fissures existing along religious and political lines. In addition, the GAA, for athletics purposes, was mainly rural-based and its emphais was on weight-throwing and jumping; the IAAA was strongest in Dublin and Belfast and had a track bias. The IAAA also prohibited Sunday meetings although it didn’t penalise members who competed in the GAA’s Sunday meetings. 

But as Tony O’Donoghue notes in his book, Irish Championship Athletics 1873-1914, ‘the majority of athletes, whatever their affiliations, seemed to have no philosophical problems competing in the promotions of both bodies’. 

The rapproachement between the GAA and IAAA signalled what truly was the golden age of Irish athletics, an era stretching from the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War One. 

In those years, Irishmen — most of them who had been given their initial grounding in athletics by the GAA — broke dozen of world records and won dozens of Olympic medals representing other nations, especially the United States. 

Their names, though, have all but slipped through the cracks of GAA history: men like John Jesus Flanagan (Limerick), a three-time Olympic gold medallist in the hammer; Martin Sheridan (Mayo), a gifted all-rounder who won Olympic medals for the discus and standing long jump; Paddy Ryan (Limerick), who set a world record for the hammer in 1913 that lasted for 36 years. 

Golden era 

Then there was the great Tom Kiely, from Carrick-on-Suir, who won gold in the equivalent of the Modern Decathlon at the 1904 St Louis Olympics. Kiely had refused the overtures of both the British and American Olympic teams and insisted he would represent Ireland in St Louis. He partly financed his passage to St Louis by selling some of the prizes he had won in Irish competitions and duly triumphed in the decathlon. 

They were an extraordinary generation of Irish sportsmen, but the golden age of Irish athletics and the GAA’s involvement in the sport began to wane in the years before and after World War One. Hurling and football began to take a far greater grip on the popular imagination in the decade before World War One, and in the 1920s the GAA had to reinvent itself in post-Independence Ireland. 

Its then Athletics’ Council President, JJ Keane, decided the interests of the Association and athletics would be best served if athletics had a separate national governing body. At a Special Congress in 1922, the GAA’s Athletics’ Council ratified Keane’s proposals for a new athletics body independent of the GAA, paving the way for the formation of the National Athletics & Cycling Association (NACA). Politically isolated in the new Irish Free State, Cusack’s old nemesis, the IAAA, was dissolved and absorbed into the NACA in the 26 counties. 

The GAA maintained its links with athletics by hosting the Tailteann Games at Croke Park in 1924, ’28 and ’32 and the Jones Road venue also continued to be the main venue for Irish athletics until the mid 1930s, hosting national championships, international events and open events organised by clubs like Clonliffe Harriers. 

As late as the 1960s, Croke Park was also the venue for some of Cumann na mBunscoil (Dublin) athletics competitions. But for the next athletics signal on the GAA radar screen, you have to fast forward to 1998 when Sonia O’Sullivan was given a lap of honour in Croke Park before the All-Ireland football final to celebrate her double gold in the European Championships’ 5,000 and 10,000m. 

The Association’s 125th anniversary has prompted far more debate about the GAA’s early years and it can only be a good thing for athletics in Ireland that the GAA is making overtures about reclaiming its athletics heritage. 

Some sceptics in the athletics community believe the relay race in Croke Park last month was a token gesture by the GAA, but Croke Park’s Stadium Director Peter McKenna is on the record as saying he want to install an athletics track in Croke Park and make a bid for the stadium to host a Grand Prix event or major international championships. 

One hundred and twenty-five years on from the exchange of ideas between Nally, Cusack and Davin, it would be an appropriate irony if the GAA’s organisational and promotional expertise again helps to reawaken the broad Irish sporting public from its current apathy towards athletics.

About Allan Leonard

Working for a cohesive Northern Ireland society My special interest is Northern Ireland affairs, arriving from America at the time of the 1994 ceasefires. Currently serve as Director, Northern Ireland Foundation, an independent non-profit organisation based in Belfast. Previous posts include Policy Officer at the Northern Ireland Assembly, General Secretary of the Alliance Party, and Operations Manager at the Ulster Historical Foundation. Previously, I was responsible for the development and launch of the Troubled Images project at the Northern Ireland Political Collection, Linen Hall Library; this exhibit travelled worldwide. My professional background includes marketing, communications, exhibition and event management, policy development, and senior management. Received a MA degree in Irish Political Studies from University College Dublin, and a BA degree (with Distinction) in International Relations from Boston University. Views expressed here may not represent those of current or previous employers or associations.

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