It’s that time of year again when the allure of a good book acts as a pleasing counterpoint to the cold and the dark and, from a GAA perspective, to the absence of much in the way of on-field action as well. If you’re on the hunt for some dark evening reading and, like me, your interests span the GAA and history then I’ve got an early Christmas cracker for you.
Paul Rouse is a man of many talents. UCD history lecturer, sports columnist with the Irish Examiner, author and, this summer, interim manager of the Offaly senior football team where he steadied the ship following the disarray which had led to the departure of his predecessor Stephen Wallace.
Sports history is a growing academic pursuit. It’s an area into which Paul Rouse, along with Mike Cronin and Mark Duncan, have devoted considerable energies, in the process delving deeply into the early years of the GAA and chronicling personal stories of involvement in the association through the GAA Oral History Project. The two handsome coffee tables books published by the trio – The GAA: A People’s History and The GAA: County by County – have been, for some time, treasured titles on my bookshelf.
Paul Rouse has now gone solo with another project that focuses on those tumultuous early years of the GAA, the central theme of which is the very first All-Ireland hurling final. The result of these labours is The Hurlers: The first All-Ireland Championship and the Making of Modern Hurling. It’s a belter of a book.
In it, you’ll be transported back to the late nineteenth century, a time of considerable flux in Irish society. Only a few short decades after the Famine, an Irish cultural renaissance was starting to happen while, at the same time, a very real battle for control of the country’s land was in full spate. At so many levels, the future of the country was at that time up for grabs.
In the Victorian era, the British Empire exerted a potent mix of hard and soft power. It was against the latter that a number of figures, chief amongst them the larger-than-life character that was Michael Cusack, made it their aim to strike back.
Horrified at the rapid spread within Ireland from the 1860s onwards of first cricket and then rugby – even though, like Maurice Davin, he played both – Cusack realised that the development of an indigenous sporting culture was key to pushing back against an imperial takeover in the area of games and pastimes.
Cusack also saw that the promotion of national sports could help to stir the beaten-down populace from its post-Famine torpor. In his own words, he vowed “to strike one smashing blow on behalf of Ireland.” And what a blow it proved to be.
A native sporting culture, however, needed a native sport. Gaelic football was, as the book explains, a code that Maurice Davin essentially dreamt up himself, with the rules he framed for the newly-founded GAA drawn from early variants of soccer and rugby. I loved the bit where it says that Davin also “drew from the traditions of the Irish countryside” in formulating the rules of football, so that they “permitted wrestling off the ball.” To a large extent, they still do.
In contrast, hurling – with its links all the way back into ancient Irish mythology – had existed in one form or another back into the distant past so while Maurice Davin needed to come up with a set of rules for the GAA version of the game it wasn’t a sport he invented himself. It was, though, a game in urgent need of resuscitation, as it had by then been all but wiped out by the advance of imperial sporting pursuits.
The book charts this battle, one that begins a few years before the foundation of the GAA and which culminates with the first ever All-Ireland hurling final, contested between Thurles of Tipperary and Galway’s Meelick, a match played in a rented field outside Birr on 1st April 1888. It’s a story that encompasses sport, culture and politics, in which the often chaotic events of the early years of the GAA’s existence are documented in stirring and vivid detail.
In short, it’s a great read for a winter’s evening. I’d highly recommend it.
The Hurlers: The first All-Ireland Championship and the Making of Modern Hurling by Paul Rouse is published by Penguin Ireland and is available from all good bookshops as well as online, including from Amazon.