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Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Larry McCarthy was joined with (left) Dónal Ó hAiniféin, Chair of the Board of Michael Cusack Centre; Brother Seán McNamara; Leas Cathaoirleach of Clare County Council Ann Norton; and Tim Madden, Michael Cusack Centre; for the first in a series of Cusack 175 commemorative events.

Clare’s First Citizen of the GAA stands tallest

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“It’s safe to say that no Clareman in modern history has made the same impact on the country as Michael Cusack did.”Brendan Vaughan, 1984

THE great Clare GAA man that was Brendan Vaughan was chairman of the Munster Council when he uttered those words in Centenary Year as the GAA — locally in Clare, provincially and nationally celebrated 100 years since Michael Cusack had his famous meeting in Thurles that started the association that has now wrapped itself around the world.

If he were still alive this week as the GAA marks the 175th anniversary of Michael Cusack’s birth, he’d repeat those words to anyone who was listening, or wasn’t listening for that matter, just because the GAA founder’s impact was that great, far-reaching and beyond any of the wildest dreams he could have had that November 1 day in Hayes’ Hotel that started it all.

In the words of An Bráthair Liam Ó Caithnia, the author of the monumental ode to hurling ‘Scéal na hIomána’, who said that Michael Cusack ‘became the architect of modern Ireland’.

He may have been lampooned and characterised unfairly as The Citizen in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but Joyce was right in one respect.

He was The Citizen — the GAA’s First Citizen, Clare’s First Citizen and by dint of what the organization he founded became, you can call him a First Citizen of Ireland too.

It was all thanks to that gathering in Hayes’ Hotel on All Saints Day in 1884 when he became one of the honorary secretaries of the organisation that he had set up and when co-founder Maurice Davin became the first GAA president.

The road to Thurles started in Dublin when on October 27 that year a letter signed by Cusack and Davin called people to a meeting where steps would be taken to form the Gaelic Athletic Association for “the preservation of our national pastimes and for providing national amusements for the Irish people during their leisure hours”.

It was a frosty Saturday evening when the meeting took place, when officially there were only seven present for the GAA’s historic maiden voyage.

Along with Cusack and Davin, there were John Wyse Power [a sports columnist with the Leinster Leader], John McKay [a Belfast journalist], JK Bracken [a stonemason], Joseph Ryan [a local solicitor] and Thomas St George McCarthy [a RIC officer] were present.

Cusack’s term as honorary secretary may have only lasted 20 months before he was ousted by 47 votes to 13 at another meeting in Hayes Hotel, with fellow honorary secretaries John McKay and John Wyse Power leading the charge against him, but this humiliating exit it from the top table of the GAA that he described as “night had set in without moon or stars” never took from his special place in the pantheon.

All because of what was achieved in the organisation he set up, and what continues to be achieved.

This revolution that kicked in because of Cusack can be traced back to his almost overnight metamorphosis from being a rugby and cricket fanatic to becoming the saviour of hurling and the man who drafted the first codified rules of the new game of football.

“Michael Cusack had no appreciation of the wisdom or necessity of developing national games up to the end of 1882,” noted An Bráthair Ó Caithnia. “He had seen the light at last and saw it in a sudden vision, not a slowly emerging conviction but in a blinding revelation.”

Suddenly, everything had changed for Cusack, charged utterly and a fearless furious fighter was born, causing him to rush forth like the mighty wind of the Pentecost and declare: ‘I will bring the hurling back to Éire’,” he added.

The revival of the ancient game began on 30 December 1882 when an informal meeting took place in the College of Surgeons and the Dublin Hurling Club was born.

This club may have failed, but Cusack came again with Metropolitan Hurling Club, imbued with a new-found fervour for the game of his youth in Clare, recalling that “with the goalposts a mile apart more than 60 of us locked in deadly combat”.

The goalposts were closer together in the Phoenix Park where the Metropolitan Hurling Club clashed ash and with that, his dream for a GAA began to become a reality.

Writing in The Shamrock in 1883, Cusack appealed to young readers to “play hurling from dawn until dusk” — his organisation to work towards that vision was established the following year and by the time he was ejected from the association at a meeting on 4 July, 1886, you could say his work was done.

His GAA experiment had “spread like a prairie fire throughout the country”.

Athletics meetings under the auspices of the GAA were taking place around the country, clubs were established in every county in Ireland, hurling was saved and the new game of football that derived from the old game of ‘Caid’ had also caught the imagination of Gaels everywhere.

Cusack was a prophet — yes he was argumentative, difficult to get on with, impossible to get on with at times, but he was still the prophet when he died in 1906.

It was something that prompted his biographer Marcus de Búrca to quote old Fenian John O’Leary, who said ‘The Rebel can reckon upon nothing in life, but let him once go out of life he is sure of a fine funeral’.

That was the case with Cusack. It’s why he’s still a prophet, because without him there would be no GAA.

The pivotal role played by the ‘Man from Carron’ was celebrated last Saturday when the President of the GAA, Larry McCarthy, visited the Cusack Homestead, where he spoke about the earliest days of the GAA as the new organization that was given its wings by Cusack spread and took a firm hold of people’s imaginations.

“There were 200 clubs around the country after a few years,” said Mr McCarthy, “but now there are 3,000 clubs around the world and the GAA is in every corner of the world,” he added.

The GAA president’s visit to Carron was the centre-point of Clare’s 175th anniversary celebrations for Michael Cusack — he planted an ash tree adjacent to the Cusack Cottage, while he also unveiled a plaque commemorating his own presence at Cusack Centre and the anniversary of the GAA founder’s birth that took place on 20 September 1847.

“This is a very special year for us,” said Tim Madden, manager of the Michael Cusack Centre. “We are treating the whole year, the next 12 months, as Cusack 175. So it is going to run until September 2023.

“We are inviting anybody, of every GAA persuasion, to come to visit. It is a bit like connecting ‘where we all belong’ to ‘where it all began’. This is where it all began.”

“It follows a theme that we have been doing for the last three years,” he explains.

“We have celebrated Cusack Day since 2020, to celebrate Michael’s life, and this is the third year of it,” he added.

On Tuesday, the GAA history committee organised a wreath-laying ceremony at Cusack’s grave in Glasnevin to mark the 175th anniversary that was attended by Larry McCarthy and Ard Stiúrthóir, Tom Ryan.

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