By Scott Costello
Michael Cusack was born on 20 September, 1847 in the parish of Carron on the eastern of the Burren, in County Clare. He lived in a small cottage with his parents, four brothers and one sister. The Cusack home is still remains today. Little is know of his childhood but we know he had a love of Gaelic Games. On Sundays after Mass, for example Michael and his brothers hurled after mass. He grew up in an area where Irish was still the daily language. He was probably eleven years old before he first used English and he quickly got used to it and to the end of his life he remained bilingual.
He went to Carron National School when it opened in 1858 and later he would go on to become a teacher. At an early age it was clear Cusack was a fine athlete and would later be an all Ireland shot-putt champion.
The organised games of the time were controlled by sporting bodies such as Trinity College. They organised the first boat, rugby, hurling and athletic clubs in
Ireland and quickly set about establishing national federations, such as the Irish Rugby Football Union, to control these games.
This situation was unsatisfactory to Cusack. The Protestant establishment did not approve of play on Sunday and did not like the Gaelic Games. The traditional holiday of rural Catholic Ireland. At the time gentleman’, excluded mechanics, artisans and labourers, and sometimes the lower ranks of the police and army. Rules were being modelled on those drawn up in England.
He served for sometime as Tutor to the family of Lord Cough and he taught in Enniscorthy as a pupil of seventeen, and near home in Corofin. He qualified as a teacher in Dublin and was principal of Lough Cultra National School, near Gort in County Galway from 1866 to 1871. He was on the staff of St Colmans in Newry and later in Blackrock College in Dublin. Then he also taught in St. Johns College and finally at Clongowes wood.
In 1881 he again 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. He started his own Civil Service Academy, in 4 Gardiners Place. He set with this Academy to prepare young men for entrance examinations for Trinity College and the Civil Service.
Cusack was at this point interested in hurling. At this time two forms of hurling had traditionally been played in Ireland. In the north and the west the game was played in the winter and resembled shinty; in the south it was a summer game with a broad stick. Trinity favoured the shinty game; so naturally Cusack sided for summer hurling. In this he was inspired, for while both were good summer games, hurling with its aerial play is surely one of the greatest sporting contests. In this instance Cusack went out of his way to take Trinity men in into his hurling club, and as a result shinty painlessly disappeared from the Irish sporting scene.
In 1884 he was involved founding the GAA with six others, which include of Michael Davin, Edward Bennet and three others. Aiming to revive Hurling and Gaelic Football and to obtain control over athletics. He was a striking figure with extremely broad shoulders a beard, always carrying a stout blackthorn and preferring . Although for a time it appeared to be suspended by a slender thread, the decision to base clubs on the parish and representative teams on the county fitted in precisely with local patriotism and led to the association becoming a mass movement. Wresting control of a considerable sector of Irish sport from the hands of the establishment was an amazing feat. The ‘ban’, which came a year later prohibiting GAA members form playing or watching ‘foreign’ games (rugby, soccer, hockey or cricket), originated as a split in Irish athletics. This ‘ban’, which was also involved in a move to restore the Irish language revoked in 1971, long outlasted the conditions which gave rise to it. Cusack 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.
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 .The newly opened Michael Cusack Visitor Centre located on the original homestead in Carron, The Burren, Co. Clare is dedicated to recounting the fascinating story of Michael Cusack and the idealism which led to him founding the Gaelic Athletic Association. The bigoted character of “the citizen” in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is thought to have been at least in part based on what has been described as “a jaundiced portrait of Michael Cusack”. The Clare GAA pitch in Ennis, and the Westmeath GAA pitch in Mullingar, are both named “Cusack Park” in his honor, as is the “Cusack Stand” in Croke Park, Dublin. The primary school Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg in Ennis, Co.Clare, is also named after him. Michael Cusacks’s Sydney GAA Club was founded in 1988 by a group of Clare men and was named in honor of the man from Carron. Michael Cusack’s Sydney is now the largest GAA club in New South Wales.
Chicago Michael Cusack Hurling Club is a GAA club consisting entirely of American-born players founded in 2008.
A small collection of family papers was donated to the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway, by his grandniece, Patricia O’Connell. They include a letter in the form of a diary, written by Cusack on holidays in Lisdoonvarna in July 1902, photographs, a prayer book he gave his wife Margaret (née Woods), and a book of minutes of the Dublin Hurling Club of 1884.
When Michael Cusack moved to Dublin, in 1877, to open his academy preparing Irish students for the Civil Service examinations, sport throughout Ireland was the preserve of the middle and ascended classes.
Within Cusack’s academy sport was central with students who were encouraged to participate in rugby, cricket, rowing and weight-throwing.
In the early 1880’s Cusack turned his attentions to indigenous Irish sports. In 1882 he attended the first meeting of the Dublin Hurling Club, formed ‘for the purpose of taking steps to re-establish the national game of hurling’. Michael Cusack At one of his first club meet ups.
The weekly games of hurling, in the Phoenix Park, became so popular that, in 1883, Cusack had sufficient numbers to found ‘Cusack’s Academy Hurling Club’ which, in turn, led to the establishment of the Metropolitan Hurling Club. On Easter Monday 1884 the Metropolitans played Killiomor, in Galway. The game had to be stopped on numerous occasions as the two teams were playing to different rules.
It was this clash of styles that convinced Cusack that not only did the rules of the games need to be standardised but that a body must be established to govern Irish sports.
Cusack was also a journalist and he used the nationalist press of the day to further his cause for the creation of a body to organise and govern athletics in Ireland.
On October 11 1884 an article, written by Cusack, called ‘A word about Irish Athletics’ appeared in the United Ireland and The Irishman. These articles were supported a week later by a letter from Maurice Davin, one of three Tipperary brothers, who had dominated athletics for over a decade and who gave his full support to the October 11 articles.
A week later Cusack submitted a signed letter to both papers announcing that a meeting would take place in Hayes’s Commercial Hotel, Thurles on November 1884.On this historic date Cusack convened the first meeting of the ‘Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of national Pastimes’. Maurice Davin was elected President, Cusack, Wyse-Power and McKay was elected Secretaries and it was agreed that Archbishop Croke, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt would be asked to become Patrons.
From that initial, subdued first meeting grew the Association we know today.