How Dublin Saved Hurling

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The following is a transcript of a talk by Dr Paul Rouse on the history of hurling and the vital role Dublin played in developing hurling as we know it. The talk was part of the Sport and the City Seminar held in Dublin City Library and Archive on 11th September, 2010.

There have been few propagandists for hurling as committed as the Limerick GAA official, journalist and historian, Séamus Ó Ceallaigh. Year after year, he waxed lyrical in honour of a game with which he was besotted. In 1937, for example, he wrote:

‘Hurling is indeed a game for the Gods. Hurling, which can claim to be the parent of every game played with a stick and ball, stands still unapproached as the greatest game ever devised for the diversion of men. Like the race that begot it, it is old, yet young, virile and fascinating, and though its origin dates away back in prehistoric eras, could Oisín come back again today from Tír na nÓg, he would find in an all-too-changed world, by Lee and Suir and Nore and Shannon, at least one familiar sight to gladden his heart.’

Today, I would like to focus on a river which he doesn’t mention. Because more than what happened on the banks of the Lee or the Suir, the Nore or the Shannon, it was what happened on the banks of the River Liffey which most influenced the invention of the modern game of hurling. The heartlands of hurling are always portrayed as rural, not urban, but it is arguable that without Dublin there would be no modern game of hurling at all. To make that argument, I would like to look at three distinct moments in hurling history. The first relates to what happened in Trinity College Dublin in the 1870s and early 1880s; the second relates to Michael Cusack and his promotion of hurling before the GAA was founded; and the third relates to hurling in Dublin immediately after the founding of the GAA.

From Hurley to Hurling

Hurling, famously, is not a modern game, or, at least not entirely a modern game. Its antiquity in Ireland stretches back centuries, into history and on still further into myth and legend. By the second half of the nineteenth century the game was under immense pressure. It never disappeared, but the frequency with which it was played was greatly diminished. This was the consequence of famine, emigration and cultural change. Amidst that cultural change was the emergence in Ireland of a new approach to playing sport. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the social and cultural life of towns across Britain and Ireland was transformed by the establishment of clubs to cater for men and women who wished to play sport. It proved an enduring social phenomenon which redefined how people passed the hours between work and sleep. This phenomenon gathered extraordinary momentum in the 1880s and 1890s, when many thousands of sports clubs were established. Some clubs catered for long-established sports such as cricket and golf; others catered for newly-codified versions of old games, such as rugby and soccer; and still more catered for newly-invented sports such as badminton and lawn tennis. These clubs were usually associated with a centralised governing body which regulated the manner in which a particular sport should be played.

As with so much else in modern Irish sport, Trinity College was involved in changing the way in which hurling was organised in Ireland. It was at Trinity that the first rugby club in Ireland was established in 1854; at Trinity too that the first modern athletics meeting was staged in 1857. In general, there was a culture of organised sporting clubs for cricket, rowing, swimming, gymnastics and much more besides.

Part of this sporting world was a game called ‘hurley’. It had been played by a club at the college at least since the late 1860s. Officially called the Dublin University Hurley Club, it published its first rules in the Handbook of Cricket in Ireland in 1870. The influence of those boys who had passed through English public schools on their way to Trinity College is evident. Initially, as the only club in Ireland, the Trinity boys resorted to such internal matches as ‘Smokers v Non-smokers’, and ‘The First Team v The Philosophical Society’.

Amongst the players to have played the game was Edward Carson, the father of modern unionism. Carson’s involvement in the hurley club has led to several generations of myth. At their apparent peak these myths imagined that Carson had played Fitzgibbon Cup hurling for Trinity. Not to be outdone, Gerry Adams recently claimed that his hurling in Trinity meant that Edward Carson ‘was a Gael’.

Hurley, through, was not hurling. The rules of the game, which include provisions for off-side, hitting off one side of the stick only, might be considered a forerunner to modern hockey, rather than to modern hurling. Through the 1870s the game was spread out of the university and into the city by Trinity graduates. Hurley never exploded onto the Dublin sporting scene rather its story is one of steady progress. It became an important part in the life of various schools in Dublin, including those of High School, Rathmines School, and King’s Hospital, where students and teachers played regular matches. Rugby clubs such as Lansdowne took on the game and clubs were also formed from workplaces such as the Royal Bank. The growth in the number of clubs led to the establishment of the Irish Hurley Union at Trinity College on 24 January 1879.

In the early 1880s, the Hurley Union sought to draw its own rules closer to the game of hockey as played in England. The impact of these changes was to make the game of hurley progressively less physical and this seems to have led to a disaffection amongst certain players. Several of these players were instrumental in founding a new club: the Dublin Hurling Club. The plan was to develop a game that was more robust than hurley was considered to be.

The first meeting of the club took place in the College of Surgeons on York Street on 30 December 1882 in the lecture room of Dr. Hugh Alexander Auchinleck. The meeting, it was recorded in the minutes, was ‘for the purpose of taking steps to re-establish the national game of hurling.’ A provisional committee of eight – included Auchinleck and, crucially, a certain Michael Cusack – was established to draw up the rules for the proposed club. At a meeting in Auchinleck’s room, five days later on 4 January 1883, the Dublin Hurling Club was formally established and a set of rules adopted. Auchinleck was elected president, and Cusack was chosen as his vice-president.

With a few exceptions, the rules were largely the same as those which governed hurley. The great difference was to be in the equipment used. The Dublin Hurling Club resolved to replace the long, narrow sticks of hurley, with broader, shorter sticks. It was here that the first problems for the club arose. It proved impossible to get sticks suitable for hurling in Dublin, because, as Cusack wrote, ‘no hurling has been played in Dublin … within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.’ Eventually, it was necessary to order sticks from Fitzsimons’ Factory in the city but they had not arrived in time for the first planned practices which had to be postponed.

The first practice finally took place on Thursday, 25 January 1883 and then, on three Saturdays during February 1883, the Dublin Hurling Club played matches amongst themselves in the Phoenix Park. Around twenty players turned up, most of whom were part of the established hurley clubs of the city. For the internal matches, Michael Cusack and Lloyd Christian picked two teams which played against each other. The games were well-contested and considered to be very enjoyable. Despite the apparent promise of the club, it disintegrated as suddenly as it had formed. Following the third internal match on Saturday 24 February 1883, the Dublin Hurling Club never played again. The club committee met once more, in mid-April, but the club was then wound-up, never to re-appear.

The reason for the sudden demise of the Dublin Hurling Club was clear-cut. Following its establishment, hurley clubs had immediately sensed the threat of a rival organisation which would poach its players. They immediately launched a counter-attack through the press. The Irish Sportsman noted how those who played hurley had changed ‘the swiping game of the savage to a scientific recreation which may be indulged in by anyone without being in constant dread of having one’s brains dashed out by an adversary’s hurl.’ Michael Cusack responded by accusing hurley clubs of trying to smother hurling before it had arrived beyond a chrysalis state. The ensuing bitterness destroyed the prospects of the Dublin Hurling Club developing. In founding the Dublin Hurling Club, several members had spoken of the necessity to cultivate good relations with hurley clubs and had been at pains to stress they wished to avoid any hostility. Indeed, initially, several players had taken part in both hurling and hurley matches on the same weekend, hoping to combine the two games. Facing with confrontation between rival bodies, those players drifted away and the Dublin Hurling Club collapsed.

Michael Cusack and the Metropolitans

The failure of the Dublin Hurling Club brought liberation for Michael Cusack. Cusack was an extraordinary character. From an impoverished background in Clare, he had constructed a career for himself as a schoolteacher in prestigious secondary schools such as Clongowes Wood, Blackrock College, and Kilkenny College. Within these schools he had developed a passion for sport which had seen him emerge as a champion athlete and which had also seen him develop a passion for cricket and rugby. By the time he had reached his mid-30s, Cusack was able to recall his involvement in ‘many a hard-fought match’. His passion for the game was obvious. He wrote once that it would help cricketers to pass away the dark days of winter, by dreaming of the wonderful six that they had hit in mid-summer, and of feeling pride at having walked to the crease, the forlorn hope of their parish, before saving the day with a memorable performance. He wrote of the advisability of setting up cricket clubs in every parish in Ireland. For Cusack this was not simply a matter of boys getting exercise to enhance their health – it was also a matter of ideology. He wrote in July 1882: ‘You may be certain that the boy who can play cricket well, will not, in after years, lose his head and get flurried in the face of danger.’

If Cusack loved cricket in the summer, he also loved rugby in the winter. By the time Cusack began playing rugby in the 1870s, the game had finally begun to establish itself on a solid footing in Ireland. In October 1877, in imitation of the section of the school in which he had worked in Blackrock, he set up his own academy in Dublin to prepare students taking civil service and other public examinations. Sport was an essential part of the activities at his school. For the 1879-80 season, he founded the Cusack’s Academy Football Club and affiliated it to the Irish Rugby Football Union. The team played out of the Phoenix Park. Cusack was club secretary, trainer, as well as playing in the forwards, where he built a reputation as a powerful operator. Indeed, Cusack seems to have acquired something of a reputation for the black arts in his play, leading one journalist later to observe darkly: ‘Everybody knows what Cusack is in a scrummage.’ He also referred to himself as ‘a sterling lover of the game’.

Following his involvement with the Dublin Hurling Club, however, he left all other sporting engagement behind him and became consumed with the idea of reviving hurling and was now determined to do it his own way. In early September 1883 he arranged for a handful of enthusiasts to join him on a Saturday afternoon in the Phoenix Park on ground beside the Wellington monument. He brought with him the spare hurleys left over from the Dublin Hurling Club. In the beginning there were just four of them – Cusack, L.C. Slevin from Armagh, and Paddy and Tom Molohan from Clare – hitting the ball around. The hurlers came back every Saturday afternoon for the rest of the autumn of 1883. Slowly, their numbers grew. Interested spectators – generally country people living in Dublin – gathered to watch what was happening. ‘They were told to fall in and slash away,’ Cusack later recalled. He used the newspaper column in he was then writing in the Shamrock newspaper to advertise the fact that hurling was now being played for two hours every Saturday afternoon. Men who worked in the commercial and composing sections of that newspaper were cajoled to come to the park and take part in the hurling.

Cusack also persuaded (or worse) the students from his academy to join in the hurling. These students came from all across Ireland and were sufficient in number for Cusack to consider them as ‘the nucleus of a fairly good club’. By October 1883 he was sufficiently sure of them to establish the Cusack’s Academy Hurling Club. The hurlers continued to come to the Phoenix Park every Saturday, now with Cusack’s Academy lining up against whatever combination of others appeared for the 3pm start. Those others were an assorted bunch of countrymen and hurley players, men who came together, according to Cusack, ‘regardless of rank, or creed, or calling’. The logical step was for all the other hurlers to unite as a club. This they did at a meeting in Cusack’s Academy at 4 Gardiner Place on 5 December 1883 when the Metropolitan Hurling Club was formed. It was a momentous event. Michael Cusack was later in no doubt that this was the club ‘out of which the GAA sprang.’

Some reports survive of the initial matches between the Cusack’s Academy hurlers and those of the Metropolitan Hurling Club. One report, written by Cusack, records a ‘gloriously enjoyable game’ played on 1 December 1883: ‘During the third and fourth quarters the hurling became so fast and furious, the goals were so threatened on the one hand and defended on the other, that spectators expected to be called on after each charge to help the disabled to Steeven’s Hospital.’ The Metropolitans continued to play with the students every Saturday without heed to the ‘blinding snow, or bruising hail, or the famishing sleet.’ By the spring of 1884 there were sometimes 50 hurlers on the field, the scene of which was captured by a cartoonist in the London-based, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in March 1884. Less than six months after he had begun hurling in the Phoenix Park, Cusack could now look to the fact that there were two clubs in existent and a genuine interest in hurling. It was enough to suggest to him that it was time to expand his horizons.

The opportunity for expansion came from Co. Galway. In the stretch of East Galway that bordered the River Shannon, hurling had never died. From Ballinasloe across to Loughrea and down to Portumna and Gort, hurling matches remained a regular feature of the social life of the people. Press reports of the revival of hurling in Dublin were noted in Galway and a leading hurler in the village of Killimor, Patrick Larkin, invited The Metropolitans down to play against his own team, which was considered to be the best in East Galway. Cusack accepted the challenge and the match was arranged for the Fair Green in the middle of Ballinasloe on Easter Monday, 13 April 1884. Two Ballinasloe businessmen commissioned a special silver trophy for presentation to the winners.

The list of Metropolitans players to travel to Galway was chosen and published in the Dublin press on the week before the game. The players were instructed to be at Broadstone Station for the 9am train. They arrived in Ballinasloe shortly after 1pm and were met by cheers from the many locals who had turned out at the station in anticipation of their arrival. The Metropolitans were brought to the local Agricultural Hall where they were given refreshments and a place to change into their hurling clothes. The Killimor team had arrived by jaunting cars and long horse-drawn coaches. The local press had noted that a mere look at them would ‘give an assurance that their opponents from the ‘Big Smoke’ would have a hard nut to crack to win the cup.’ Their captain, F.W. Lynch, met Michael Cusack and the pair agreed a set of rules for the game. No wrestling was to be allowed; the match was to played across four half-hours and the winner would be the team which scored the greater number of goals in that time. A number of men were also appointed to act as linesmen and goal-umpires.

A huge crowd had turned out for the match not least because advertisements in the Galway papers had heralded the arrival of ‘the Dublin champion club’. At 2.15pm the ball was thrown in to huge excitement and the 22 players on each team were soon bunched together attempting to drive the ball forwards. The play opened out after a while and the Killimor men quickly gained the upper-hand. They scored a goal as ‘cheer after cheer rent the air.’ Before they could score a second goal, Michael Cusack intervened. The play of the Galway men, he said, was ‘too rough’. His biggest complaint was that they ‘slashed in a reckless and savage manner.’

As if to emphasise his point, Cusack then asked that the field be cleared so that The Metropolitans could play an exhibition match in order to demonstrate the rules of the game to the Killimor men. When this exhibition was complete, the Killimor men came back onto the field and played an exhibition of their own. An admittedly biased Western News journalist claimed that ‘to the keenest judge no material difference could be detected in the style of either team.’ Despite the wishes of several of his players to play out the match, Cusack refused. The decision was scorned by those who believed that Cusack had withdrawn so as to avoid seeing his team badly beaten. The Killimor team were then declared victorious. It was, wrote the Western News, a thoroughly deserved success, ‘as the physique and bearing of our own men was vastly superior.’

As the day’s sport on the Fair Green continued with pony races and tug-of-war contests, the Killimor team set off for home. All along the way they were met by bonfires lit in celebration of their victory. By the time they had reached Killimor, the townspeople were out on the streets and bonfires blazed at every corner. A fife-and-drum band paraded the team through the town and speeches were made lauding the hurlers for the honour which they had brought to their home town. The Metropolitans returned to Dublin under something of a cloud, but the day was not without success for Michael Cusack. A letter to the Western News made a public plea for the nationwide revival of hurling, ‘a sport which we all love ... as a relic of a time that was the golden age of Ireland.’ Even before the trip to Ballinasloe at Easter 1884, it seems certain that Michael Cusack was planning the revival of hurling on a national scale. He continued to develop hurling in Dublin in the following months, helping to develop a third club in the city, the Dublin Workingmen’s hurling Club, based in Christchurch Place.

The Early Years of the GAA in Dublin

After the GAA was founded in November 1884, it published its first rules for hurling in January 1885. Through February and early March 1885 clubs across the country experimented with the new hurling rules by playing matches amongst themselves. Clubs in areas where hurling had retained or regained a presence – Tipperary, Galway, Cork and Dublin – were the first into the field. Although it is impossible to be certain, it appears that the first hurling matches played under GAA rules between separate clubs took place on Sunday 22 March 1885. In Galway a team from the Meelick area (known as The Shannon District) played against a team from Lusmagh which was directly across the River Shannon in King’s County. On that same day, a match was played between Nenagh and Silvermines in Tipperary.

There was difficulty in spreading a game which had been lost to so many areas of Ireland, however. Cusack hit upon the idea staging a major match in Dublin to capture the imagination of the national press. In October 1885 Cusack wrote in United Ireland of his plan to bring two teams of seasoned hurlers to Dublin – one from Tipperary, the other from Galway. The Nenagh club, led by Frank Moloney, began preparations to bring a representative team from the clubs across north Tipperary by holding a tournament from which the best players from the area would be chosen. Reacting to this, Cusack called on the men of Galway to send up a team of first-class hurlers to Dublin to play a challenge against them. By the end of December, he had his answer. Twelve hurling clubs from south Galway came together to play a series of matches in the town of Gort and, afterwards, they sent word to Cusack that they were ready to meet the North Tipperary challenge in late January or early February 1886.

Cusack arranged for the game to be played in the Phoenix Park on Tuesday, 16 February 1886. It is not clear why the match was played on a Tuesday, but it was played in the Phoenix Park only because Cusack was unable to secure the use of Lansdowne Road or any other enclosed ground in the city. In advertising the game, he said its object was to show the citizens of Dublin what hurling was really like. It was a chance, he said, to see the most sublime game ever played, short of warfare. On the week of the match, the newspapers billed the game as the ‘Championship of Ireland’ and Michael Cusack afterwards declared it ‘the first great hurling match organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association.’

The North Tipperary team had arrived by train to Broadstone train station at 5pm on the evening before the game. They went first to their lodgings on Marlborough Street, and then went to Dan Lowery’s Star of Erin theatre [check name] on Dame Street. At 9.30pm Cusack called for them at the theatre and brought them back to Broadstone station to meet the Galway men who were arriving on the 10pm train. The two teams exchanged cordial greetings and mutual admiration, before something of a disagreement arose over the ball. The Galway men viewed the ball used by the Tipperary men as being too big and too soft. They retired to the Clarence Hotel where they were staying. On the morning of the match, they made a ball which was smaller and harder, and headed to the Phoenix Park.

The press reported that despite the damp, cold day, a very big crowd turned out, with ‘every class being represented’, and that ‘quite a large number of vehicles fringed the ground.’ The North Tipperary men wore green and orange striped jerseys, stockings and caps; the South Galway men wore white jerseys, corduroy knicks, grey stockings and green caps. The jerseys for the Galway team had been knitted for them by nuns in Gort at their knitting factory, while their knicks had been sewn by a local tailor, Packie Shaughnessy. It was decided that the Tipperary ball would be used for the first half and the Galway one for the second. When the two teams lined up in the middle of the field, they made an arch in the air with their hurleys and the hurlers let out a huge cheer. The ball was then thrown in by the referee. The clash of styles immediately became apparent. The Tipperary men sought to move the ball first-time by hitting it on the ground or in the air. The Galway preferred to dribble the ball forward on the ground in front of them. It was also clear that the Tipperary team was stronger and, for almost all the first half, they pinned the Galway men close to their own goal without managing to score. The highpoint of the match when one of the Tipperary hurlers doubled on a high ball which came his way through the air and drove it towards the Galway goal. No score resulted, but the spectators were lost in admiration. As it was, the only score of the game came when Martin Gleeson drove the ball into the Galway goal midway through the second half. It was considered by all that North Tipperary were the better team. In fact, it passed into folklore in North Tipperary that they were considerably superior to their rivals. Their goalkeeper on the day was Pat Gleeson from Gow and he was reported to have roared at his teammates: ‘For God’s sake, will ye let the ball come this way. I’m dying with the cowld.’

Cusack was clearly relieved that the match had passed without a fight or a serious injury. He wrote that the rules of the GAA had been ‘observed with a scrupulousness which was almost religious’ and that the GAA had ‘passed triumphantly through the most critical ordeal of its existence.’ The journalist for the Dublin weekly sports newspaper called Sport, which up until that day had largely ignored the GAA, was not nearly as effusive. He praised the fine physique of both teams and overall deemed the match to be a ‘great success’. Nonetheless, he viewed the general standard of play as ‘crude and primitive’, and that there was ‘a regrettable absence of science’ in the match.

Cusack was not interested in such barbs from those whom he described in his match report as ‘the haters and traducers of our race.’ He was buoyant at the success of the match and wrote that the championship of Ireland now rested with the North Tipperary team and that any club which wished to wrest it from them should send a challenge to Frank Moloney, Castle Hotel, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. For the team from South Galway there was nothing but recriminations. There had been local dissatisfaction at the team selected to travel to Dublin and in the days before the match several key players had withdrawn. Local tradition in Gort has it that those hurlers who had travelled now preferred not to take the train home and face their public. Others offer a more mundane explanation. Many of the players had missed the train home because they had been taken by horse-and-car to the wrong station in Dublin.

On top of staging a match in Dublin, Cusack and the Metropolitan hurlers worked to foster the game outside the city. The Metropolitans (in tandem with the hurlers of other newly-formed Dublin clubs) also began to travel outside of Dublin to play exhibition matches. Along with hurlers from the Faughs and Dunleary clubs, they travelled by train to Dundalk and played matches there. The first time they travelled, the game was abandoned after ten minutes, with the crowd rushing onto the field in ignorance of the rules. Time and persistence brought better fortune. In early 1887 a hurling club was established in Dundalk and another team of hurlers from various Dublin clubs went up and played a match. They lauded the patriotism of the Dundalk men in their efforts for hurling and offered advice on how to progress. P.P. Sutton, from the Dublin Metropolitans, noted that their faults were the same as those of inexperienced hurlers everywhere: stopping the ball with their feet and then scraping it forward along the crowd, instead of hitting it a hard, quick blow. He offered a coaching lesson: ‘Get a few balls and puck them about indiscriminately. Strike both left and right as hard and as fast as possible, and let no-one stop the ball with his feet.’

In 1887, too, the Dublin county board was the first in the country to successfully stage a county championships for its clubs. Fittingly, it was won by the Metropolitans and first championship did much to promote the growth of hurling in Dublin through 1887. New clubs were formed in various parts of the city. These included Raparees hurling club from the Lower Bridge Street area, the Celtic hurling club from around Cork Street, Erin’s Hope from the Marlborough Street teacher training college and Brian Boru’s from Clontarf. Despite hurling invariably being overshadowed by Gaelic football, it gained a foothold in the city which it never again lost.

And all told, such was the importance of Dublin in taking the ancient game of hurling and squeezing it onto a modern playing field that it might be considered that Dublin was the crucible of the modern game of hurling. While Thurles was the formal birthplace of the GAA, the idea of the association was forged on the grass of the Phoenix Park in Dublin. It was there, after all, that Michael Cusack had fixed the revival of hurling even before he founded the GAA

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