GAA: beloved for generations across all ages
Part 1: Exiled Gaels and sporting rebels - Exotic stories of Gaelic and indigenous games

The intensely passionate addiction for Gaelic sports held by Irish ex-pats did not just form after the establishment of the GAA in 1884. There are accounts the world over which narrates the Irish grá for the clash of the ash and the big ball in the years and centuries prior to the clarion call for formal organization of these sports went out from the Dergvale Hotel of Dublin to Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles.

There are accounts on intrepid Gaels such as Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman and the Wild Geese of Paris. O’Gorman from Tullycrine, County Clare was born into a wealthy Catholic family in 1718.

An imposing figure of 6’6”, he immigrated to Paris in the mid eighteenth century to escape the repressive penal laws. He immediately set about organizing hurling matches among the large number of Irishmen in Paris. They played exhibition matches in one of the city’s parks, which attracted huge crowds of curious Parisians.

Word of his prowess on the hurling field reached the court of King Louis XV and O’Gorman became such a celebrity that the king decided to come and see him play. Fascinated by his hurling talent and impressive physique, the king arranged a commission for him in the Irish Brigade where his courage and skill on the battlefield earned him the title of Chevalier. He was afterward to go on to live a storied life, and become a renowned historian, donating many Irish manuscripts to Dublin libraries. He returned to his native Clare after the French Revolution where he was buried in 1813.

Old Wicklow Dark Blues GAA Team 1898
 Part 1: Exiled Gaels and sporting rebels - Exotic stories of Gaelic and indigenous games

It is worth noting that his fellow Clareman, Mr. Blackwell of Ennistymon may not have been held in such high esteem by the French monarch. He happened to have been a revolutionary leader during the storming of the Bastille in Paris, which sparked the new era of the French republic.

Another Irish man on cordial terms with foreign monarchs was Sir Caesar Colclough of Tintern, in south Wexford, a descendant of one of the old Norman settlers of 1169. He was said to have been on friendly terms with King William III (he of Orange fame) and often boasted of the hurling skill of his south Wexford tenants and neighbours. The bold Orange Billy eventually challenged him to bring over 21 Wexford men to play an equal number of Cornish men, whose hurling skill, documented back to the 1500s, and no doubt inherited because of their Celtic origin, made them foremost among the English as wielders of the camán.

Of course the Wexford boys, who had tied yellow kerchiefs around their middles so that they would easily recognize each other on the field, literally hurled their opponents off the field. They exhibited such a degree of skill and craft that William and his queen were heard to shout "Well done, yellow bellies", "Fine fellows, yellow bellies". The name stuck to this very day, and Wexfordians are proud of it.

Meath GAA, unknown date
Where you had Irish stick fights, faction fights and swordsmen, never too far away were hurling matches, because one often masqueraded as the other, which many files like the Crime Branch Special papers held at the National Archives in Dublin confirm. Following in the wake of the ruthless suppression of the United Irishmen, the Act of Union and the agrarian conflicts of the early nineteenth century, the pomp and ceremony of the gentry patronised eighteenth century hurling seemed well distant. During the penal days stick fighting with goose greased blackthorn or holly bataí was encouraged, as many went on to swell the ranks of the Wild Geese European armies as skilled swordsmen. A downtrodden peasantry took to faction fighting with gusto, and fair days were thought incomplete without a good donnybrook to conclude proceedings.

 Part 1: Exiled Gaels and sporting rebels - Exotic stories of Gaelic and indigenous games

Fair day murders were commonplace, and when authorities did intervene, the factions often united and turned against them. In some instances magistrates were even interested parties in the outcome of such riots. Faction fighting was a legacy of a distressed and subject society, and it could be argued that warring gangs such as the Caravats and Shanavests were to early nineteenth century Ireland what rival Afro-American gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods were and are to Los Angeles today. Irish stick fighting is promoted today as a martial art in Canada and America.

Then you have the  American Civil War Hero and the Hurler. The father of the Irish tricolour was the Waterford born Young Irelander, Thomas Francis Meagher, who was later to also win fame as a Union general of the Fighting Irish 69th Regiment at Gettysburg in the American Civil War. In the late 1840s, he exhorted his fellow Irishmen to bring back the ‘old game of hurling’, and later supported hurling exhibitions in the US. Michael Cusack was later to cite Meagher’s speeches to assert Irish racial superiority. The Citizen Cusack himself claimed that it was the training of the hurling field that ‘made the men and boys of the Irish brigade’ of the eighteenth century.

GAA played in Croke Park 1929
A perfect storm

The Kentucky Guards hurling club was founded in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1853. A concerted Irish American initiative to form an Irish sports body began in 1880, four years before the GAA was founded, in Worcester, New England, the later setting for the Hollywood classic, A Perfect Storm. Thousands participated in these Gaelic days, although the standard of the earlier hurling was savaged in the local press at the time. The Irish Athletic Club in Boston was the first American branch to affiliate to the GAA in 1886.

Elsewhere narrated in this parish in the townland of the Celtic Times, are the seismic happenings at Batman’s Hill, Melbourne, Australia, where the first and last battle for Irish cultural freedom in Australia was won, through the simple playing of Gaelic football and hurling matches, this a half century before the GAA was set up. It is also fitting to note that fifty odd years on from it, at the foundation meeting of the GAA in Thurles, Cusack read out a letter of support from a solicitor, Mr Lynch, on behalf of the Irish of Melbourne for the fledgling new movement.