Then as now, local rivalry provided the secret of success
The Parish Rule was a masterstroke in the GAA's early growth, but trying to keep members out of the pubs was to prove a step too far
On a wild, wet night in the middle of the Second World War, a Meath GAA official cycled 13 miles from his rural home to a county board meeting in Navan.
Drenched on arrival, the flow of water from his clothes to the table caused the meeting to be suspended so that the delegate could be taken to a neighbouring bakery, placed in front of an open oven and turned until he was dry.
The meeting then resumed, but when its business was completed, the same delegate climbed back upon his bicycle and rode once more through the driving rain across the same 13 miles of country road to his home.
Through the generations, a fundamental strength of the GAA has been its ability to command the devotion of people who commit their time, energy and talents in the service of the games and the community. They have done so at all levels as players, coaches, administrators, family members and supporters.
The extraordinary influence the GAA has exerted on Irish social life is intimately bound up with the decisions taken in its formative years on the kind of structure it should adopt. The ambition from the start was to spread the Association into every corner of Ireland. It aimed to do this by building club organisations around parish units and local community networks.
During the summer of 1887 the GAA stressed that its basic unit of operation was one club per parish. The reality was more complex. In the first years, parish boundaries were important but they were not sacrosanct. Clubs also formed around informal alliances which evolved in farming communities or around a few small townlands.
What was clear from the beginning -- whatever about the precise nature of the boundaries -- was the association between club and place. This stress on the local proved a masterstroke. Residency rules were introduced which restricted the movement of players between teams and these, together with the establishment of a system of internal county-based competitions, helped in the creation of intense inter-community rivalries.
This was vital to the success of the early GAA and to the roots it set down. It meant that when clubs took to the field, players were playing for more than personal glory -- the reputation of their community was also at stake.
Inevitably, local pride was as often hurt as enhanced. In July 1887, for example, when the footballers of the Geraldines Club from Cabinteely in Dublin crossed into Wicklow to challenge the John Dillons Club of Monaglough, near Woodenbridge, the game was repeatedly interrupted by the former's complaints at the physicality of their opponents' play.
Finally, unimpressed by the protection afforded by the referee, the captain of the Geraldines led his players off the field and back to Dublin. In front of a large crowd of 3,000 people, the retreat of the Dubliners drew down upon them a wave of derision. The players were the butt of sneers and, as one reporter observed, 'they deserved it richly . . . Such absurd individuals I have never seen as the leaders of the Geraldines; their childishness excelled in everything.'
Matches created a sense of spectacle as entire parishes came out in support of their teams. The GAA became a focus of social activity in many communities; it afforded a break from the often humdrum realities and offered a space where people could come together and socialise.
Club activities centred on the games but were not limited to them. Away from the playing fields, many clubs also ran formal functions, holding annual balls and fund-raising dances and celebrations.
A social life developed around clubs and this enabled the GAA to extend its appeal to a wider, non-playing public. Michael Cusack, anxious that such activity would not revolve around drink, suggested every club should have a room, away from a public house, where members could go and read books and newspapers with a nationalist outlook. Cusack believed the affect on the social tastes of members would be such that they would lose all interest in the pub.
They did not. Calling for a revolution in Irish sport was one thing, but this was a crusade too far.
In the early years of the GAA, the social background of players was mainly rural and farming. This was as true for those who joined urban clubs as it was for those from clubs set in rural heartlands: as people migrated from the countryside to the towns and cities, they brought Gaelic games with them and it was not uncommon for entire urban-based teams to be comprised exclusively of country-born players.
In Dublin, where the 'Parish Rule' was never applied, non-natives helped to found and fill clubs where the connections among players owed more to the workplace than a shared place of origin or residence.
Nonetheless, at every level, the GAA defined itself in opposition to the elitism of rival sporting bodies. The Association embraced amateurism, for instance, but not the exclusive ethos of the 'gentleman amateur', espoused by elite Victorian sporting bodies in England. The difference between the two was crystallised in their different attitudes to money.
The Spartan puritanism of English amateurism was absent from the GAA. On the contrary, Gaelic games were awash with commercial activity. Admission fees, advertisements in programmes and sponsorships for trophies were common from the outset. This revenue was ploughed back into games, but was also used to cover the expenses of players.
As inter-county competition increased with the introduction of All-Ireland championships for football and hurling in 1887, expenses were routinely paid to players to cover the costs of their travel.
More than that, in the early 20th century, when county teams began to train seriously for one-off, major games like All-Ireland finals, funds were also raised to ensure that they were properly prepared and that players would not suffer financial loss from time off work. The connection between team and place was vital in gathering subscriptions as the burden of fund-raising fell on local clubs and members of their community.
Clubs were not always in a position to help out. When the Laois County Board went looking for a contribution from Monadrehid GAA Club prior to the county's involvement in the 1914 All-Ireland final, the latter declined on the grounds that its hard-earned money was being used locally to address a player-welfare issue of their own. With only 20 members, Monadrehid had the previous month paid one of its players 10s a week after he had been hurt in a match. The club came first.
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