Michael Cusack was born on 20 September, 1847 in the parish of Carron on the eastern fringe of the Burren in north Clare. He lived in a small cottage with his parents, four brothers and one sister. The Cusack homestead is now the Michael Cusack Centre. Little is known of his childhood. On Sundays after Mass, Cusack and the other boys in the parish hurled and took part in athletics. He grew up in a home and in an area where Irish was still the language of daily life. He was probably eleven years old before he first used English. He attended Carron National School when it opened in 1858 and he went on to become a teacher. Cusack himself was a fine athlete and shot-putt champion.
Cusack taught in Blackrock and Kilkenny Colleges before founding his own highly successful academy but as sporting journalism and politics eventually absorbed him, his teaching career receded into the background. In 1881 he criticised the administration of rugby and athletics in Ireland, suggesting that the organisers allow for a ‘strip of green across their colours’. Jumping and weight throwing he regarded as traditional Irish events; racing and cycling were dismissed as English importations. On 1st November, 1884 Cusack with seven founding members established the “Gaelic Association for the cultivation and preservation of national pastimes” – Ireland’s most successful amateur sporting organization was born. The other founding members were Maurice Davin (who presided), John Wyse Power, John McKay, J. K. Bracken, Joseph O’Ryan and Thomas St. George McCarthy. It is now recognized that Cusack’s inspiration in founding the GAA in 1884 was a sublime stroke of genius inspired by his nationalistic ideals and his desire to wrestle back control over native Irish sports. No man did more to establish this organization. The organization became known in the shortened version as the “Gaelic Athletic Association”.
The foundation day, 1st November, 1884 was chosen for its mythological significance, according to legend, Samhain (1 November) was the day when the Fianna’s (mythological warriors) power died. Cusack meant this choice of day to symbolise the rebirth of the Irish heroes. Within a few weeks of the organisation’s foundation, Thomas Croke, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cashel, gave it his approval and became its first patron. Certainly within the first few months of the organisation Cusack proved to be an excellent organiser. He did not however, continue to run the association for long after its foundation. Within eighteen months he was obliged to resign as a result of his failure to submit accounts for auditing. Over the next few years the GAA evolved even more. In 1886, county committees were established, new rules for Gaelic football and hurling were drawn up by the Association and were published in the United Irishman newspaper. The year 1887 saw the first All-Ireland Championships being held. Cusack was also involved in a move to restore the Irish language and he was editor of the weekly newspaper United Ireland. He also founded and co-edited ‘The Celtic Times’, a weekly newspaper dedicated to ‘native games’ and athletics and to Irish culture in general.
Michael Cusack was a colourful character and his manner, dress and general deportment made him impossible to ignore. He was the model for ‘the Citizen’ in James Joyce’s Ulysses. He died on the 27th November 1906 . He has left an outstanding legacy and symbol to the Irish people – the movement founded in 1884 has grown in strength and numbers. Visit any GAA venue in Ireland or abroad and you’ll find the Irish flag flying in the corner of the ground. In recent years as our emigrants have established GAA clubs from Sydney to New York, and from London to Canada the vision of this great man has reached international recognition. From a remote, rural homestead in Carron to cities and countries across the globe, the GAA is now recognized as an international symbol of Ireland and its sporting traditions.
An extract from Our Boys by Michael Cusack
Hurling – The game is an exceedingly simple one. It matters not how large the field is, nor does it make much difference how many players there are. We ourselves hurled in a room, and we hurled when the “goals” were even a mile apart. Stone walls, and roads, and drilling obstructions of the kind made very little difference. We have played with a sorry little bit of a kippeen, and we have played with a camain which might have served Diarmuid O’Duibhne. We have played with only one single opponent, and we have played when upwards three score men and boys took part in the game. We have played in the depth of winter when the snow lay deep on the ground, and we have played it under broiling July sun. Nay we have even played it by moonlight, and at one time we verily believe we would have played it without any light at all rather than forego the pleasure! It can be played in all seasons, and by boys of all ages from five to a hundred, health and strength permitting.