In Ancient Times.
The National Museum in Dublin holds many precious relics of the past. Amongst them is part of a hair hurling ball, which was found by Thomas Haugh while cutting turf in his bog in Knockmore, Kilmihil, and which was presented to the museum in 1971. In his book “Irish Life in the 17th Century”, Edward Mac Lysaght quotes from an account written in 1698, which describes this kind of ball; “when their cows are casting their hair, they pull it off their backs, and with their hands, work it into large balls which will grow very hard. This ball they use at the hurling, which they strike with a stick called a ‘commaan’.”
This account would suggest that hurling must have been a pastime in Kilmihil parish as far back as the 17th century, otherwise how could the ball have found its way to the depth of five feet, where it was found in Knockmore bog.
Historians tell us that the game went even further back. Raymond Smith in his book, “The Clash of the Ash”, quotes from the ancient tales about a battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha de Dannan in 1272 B.C. “The day of the battle came at last, the day of the 6th week of summer. The battle proceedings were opened by a sort of match or game of hurl, in which three times nine hurlers on the side of the Tuatha de Dannan were not only defeated, but also themselves slain by the Fir Bolg party.”
Then in the early Christian era, we read the story of Setanta. This happened in the time of Conor Mac Nessa, who reigned at the same time Our Lord was on earth, according to the historian Rev. Patrick Carey, B.A, in his book “The Graphic History of Ireland”. Conor was King of Ulster, and it was he who established The Red Branch Knights. These knights were men trained in military science, and in feats of arms. They lived in the king’s palace, and were always at hand to defend the kingdom from invaders. Besides the knights, there were young boys preparing to be knights. They also lived in the palace, studying, playing games, and practising all the skills that made them true and fearless knights. The greatest of all the Red Branch Knights was Setanta, who later became known as Cuchulain.
As a boy, he came to the palace of King Conor, who was his uncle. One day the king and his knights were invited to a feast in the house of Culan, the smith who made weapons for the warriors of Ulster. Setanta was also invited, but because he was playing a game of hurling, and wished to finish it, he was permitted to follow on his own.
Culan, thinking all his guests had arrived, released his great hound to keep guard on his castle. In the meantime, Setanta set out on his journey, taking his hurley and ball. He hit the ball, then ran and hit it again before it touched the ground, a tactic that resulted in a very speedy journey indeed. When he reached the castle the hound ran to attack him. To defend himself, Setanta hit the ball with his hurley, and with accurate aim, it hit and killed the very valuable watch dog. Culan was very angry when he heard his dog was dead, but Setanta promised he would find a hound as good as the one he had killed. In the meantime, he himself would guard the smith’s house. Thus he got the name Cuchulain, or “the hound of Culan”.
This story illustrates the fact that the game of hurling was recognized as a pastime in the early Christian era.
We are aware that hurling was played in Kilmihil long before football, but in the course of our history, it died as the major sport of the parish, and although it has been revived at different times, it never took hold as football did.
In the 18th century there was a type of football played, which was known as “Cross-country Cad”. It was played during the winter months. The object of the game was to take home the “Cad”, and it was usually played by two neighbouring parishes. There were no restrictions on the number of players- it was a case of mustering up as many men as possible. The “Cad”, which was made of horse-hide or ox-hide, stuffed with hay or straw, was thrown in on the parish boundary, and the game lasted all day until one of the teams brought it home to the “cad”. Wrestling and holding were permitted, and it was generally a case of the survival of the fittest. The expression which is often referred to today to describe a badly beaten team; “they were kicked home” can trace its origin to this game.
The early part of the 19th century saw Ireland in a state of National Despondency. The hunger ‘40’s’ were a sad period in our history. Whole families died of hunger. Evictions were commonplace. Those who were able emigrated often to die on the ‘coffin ships’. Those who stayed behind were dispirited, and had little to live for. As a result, the native games of football, hurling, and bowling became almost extinct. Athletes were confined to the aristocracy or so-called ‘gentry’.
In his book, “Our Native Games”, P.J Delvin wrote; “England was not content to dominate the material lives of our people. She had determined also to eradicate race-consciousness and national aspirations, and repress all manifestations that might preserve or influence such impulses. The national language was one vital link with Ireland’s past which had to go. Traditional customs and poplar gatherings, however innocent, were proscribed, and declared socially as a ‘taboo’. In short, England, while hoping to retain their manhood as bondsmen and mercenaries, planned to expatriate the soul and pride of our race forever. So the wayside sports and dances were banned. The festive and athletic gatherings of the ‘mere Irish’ were dispersed and the distinctive pastimes of the people, expressly prohibited by law.
Into this scene was born a man, with vision and courage, and an abundance of national pride. His name was Michael Cusack.
He was born in Coulaphuca, Carron, in the north of Clare in 1847. He was the son of Mathew and Bríd Cusack. In 1843, Mathew’s parents, brothers and sisters were evicted from their home in Rath, Corofin. After the eviction Mathew took up residence in a tumble down house in Carron. Here he eventually married Bríd Ní Fhlannra from Ennis, and they had five children- Sean (1844), Maire (1845), Michael (1847), Padraic (185), and Thomas (1853).
The Carron district was steeped in a tradition of learning and culture, and the Cusack parents impressed on their children the importance of education as their whole future depended on it. Irish was the spoken language in the Carron district at that time, and as of course, the language of the Cusack home. Michael was a fluent Irish speaker before he left county Clare, on his road to fame. His greatest love was for the Irish language, and it was the Irish language that eventually led him to the preservation and fostering of Gaelic games, and to the founding of the G.A.A.
In 1862, Michael was chosen as the first ever monitor in Carron school, and here he remained until 1864, when he got a call to the Model school at Enniscorthy, to begin training as a teacher. In the summer of 1865, he was called to the Central Model schools in Dublin to finish his course, and from here he graduated with distinction in 1865. He then became principal of Lough Cutra national school near Gort.
In the meantime, his brother Sean had gone to Australia, and after his mother died in 1864, Maire also went to Australia. In 1868, Michael’s father died, and this meant the break up of the Cusack family home. His younger brother’s Padraic (16), and Thomas (15) were now left as orphans, and it was left to Michael to look after them. He took Padraic as a monitor of Lough Cutra, and he eventually became a teacher in Glamorgan, in Wales. Thomas went to America, and so the Carron home was abandoned. But Michael never forgot Carron.
It was here his interest in sport was cultivated, when he watched the local men play bowls on Sunday afternoons, or vie with one another in the weight throwing competitions. He went to hurling matches, and joined in the cheers for his native parishioners, when they played friendly matches with the neighbouring parishes. So too, Carron must be given credit for planting the seed, which grew and grew, until it eventually became the great Gaelic Athletic Association.
In 1871, Michael took up a teaching post in S.T. Colmans College in Newry, Co. Down, and here he met and married his wife, Margaret Woods, from Dromore, Co. Down. He said about her; “she largely helped to establish the Gaelic Athletic Association”. They had five children; Michael Dominic (1878), Bridget (1879), john Aloysius (1880), Francis Xavier (1883) and Clare. He moved to Dublin in 1874, and joined the staff of Blackrock College. Three years afterwards he founded the Civil Service Academy, which became known as Cusack’s Academy. Here he prepared students for the British and Irish Civil Service. He became one of the founders of the Society for the Preservation or the Irish Language, and when a breakaway group of that society founded the Gaelic Union, in 1879, he supported both movements simultaneously. He was elected the treasurer of the Gaelic Union, and became Assistant Editor of its magazine, “The Gaelic Journal”, “with another Clare man, Daithi O Coimin or David Comyn, from Tullabrack. This was the first ever Irish journal in the country. In 1883, he spoke Irish in the Mansion House in Dublin, and the following is an extract from that speech;
“ Is naofa an curam é, curam teanga na tire. Cad é an rud a rinne an Gaeilge duinn, An mba ceart duinn í a choimead? Is í an gaeilge a thug duinn an misneach is mo do a bhí ag aon duine riamh ar an domhain. Deirtear go gcruthionn daoine a dteanga, agus go ndeannan an teanga na daoine. Mas fior é seo, ba mor na daoine ar n-aithreacha, a cruthaigh an ghaeilge, agus is mor an comaoin atá an ghaeilge sin a choimead agus choinneal.”
It is an interesting fact that, at one stage in his life, he had a high regard for cricket and rugby, and frequently played both. However he realised that only upper and middle classes were allowed to ‘play the game’. With this knowledge, and his own keen interest sport as a hurler, footballer, handballer, as a leading athlete in throwing the shot, and also very capable at rowing, it was no wonder that he decided to open up sport for everyone, and to take it out of the hands of the Englishmen. With this in mind, on the 27th October 1884, he issued a circular from his school at 4 Gardiner Place, requesting attendance at a “meeting which will be held at Thurles, on November 1st, to take steps for the formation of a Gaelic Association, for the providing and cultivating of our national pastimes, and for providing national amusements for the Irish people, during their leisure hours.” It was signed by Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin.
The meeting took place in the Billiard room of Hayes’ Hotel, Thurles. Maurice Davin presided. Maurice was elected first president. Michael Cusack, John Wyse Power, and John McKay were elected secretaries. Dr.Croke, Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell became patrons. The name of the association was the Gaelic Athletic Association. Its aims were to preserve and promote Irish Nationalism in every aspect-games, the language, culture and traditions.
Michael Cusack died of cardiac failure on the 28th November 1906, outside the Whitworth Hospital in Dublin. He was living then with his son, John, who was with him when he collapsed. He was then only 59 years of age, but he had seen much that delighted and heartened him before he died. He saw the national language regaining its esteem in the minds of the young, and the old virile games flourish and spread throughout the land.
He was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery, and on that final journey he was surrounded by a bodyguard, which he himself would have chosen from all manhood of the world- the All Ireland champions of Tipperary.