Why a man who was never at a GAA game is immortalised at Croker

Why a man who was never at a GAA game is immortalised at Croker
Croke Park’s famous Nally Stand was re-erected in Páirc Colmcille in Tyrone in 2007. Pat Darcy, Tyrone County Board chairman, addressed the guests at the rededication and official opening of the stand. Nally helped organise the meeting at Irishtown in 1879 where the Land League was founded. Nally died in Mountjoy Jail on November 9, 1891. Picture: Michael Cullen/Sportsfile

In late July and on through August, on the biggest days of the GAA calendar — when all other space is filled — the Nally Terrace will be home to the GAA supporters who are unable to get tickets for anywhere else in Croke Park.

If you ignore the tinny blare of the public address system, it’s an interesting place from which to watch a match.

But who is ‘Nally’?

This story begins at a GAA Central Council meeting in Croke Park on November 28, 1959, in the wake of the opening of the new Hogan Stand, when consideration was given to what to name the ‘Corner Stand’ down beside Hill 16.

When Croke Park was redeveloped, that ‘corner stand’ (which was removed and superbly rebuilt at Páirc Colmcille, the home of Carrickmore GAA in Co Tyrone) was replaced by the Nally Terrace.

The passage of the name from stand to terrace evidenced the extent to which the name of ‘Nally’ had become embedded in the lore of the stadium.

When it came to the original naming of the corner stand back in 1959, the names of P.W. Nally, Maurice Davin, Daniel Fraher and Frank Dineen were all discussed.

It might be mentioned in passing that the latter trio – Davin, Dineen and Fraher – were actually pivotal to the early operation of the GAA and its development.

A general view of Croke Park from the Nally Terrace. Picture: Sportsfile
A general view of Croke Park from the Nally Terrace. Picture: Sportsfile

For his part, P.W. (Patrick William) Nally – often known as Pat – was never at any GAA match or GAA athletics meeting. Indeed, from the day that the GAA was founded until the day Nally died, he was in prison.

Nonetheless, the GAA Central Council decided to go with honouring P.W. Nally, because he ‘was a Fenian and one of the principal men to inspire and encourage Michael Cusack at the time of the founding of the GAA.’

To take the first part of that proposition, there is no doubt Nally was indeed a ‘Fenian’. Born at Balla in Mayo, his father was a prosperous farmer.

Unlike most of the sons of prosperous farmers who came of age in the 1870s, Nally was radicalised and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

He actually helped organise the meeting at Irishtown in 1879 where the Land League was founded. He was then 25 and his rise through the ranks was confirmed when, as Owen McGee has written, he became the leader of the IRB in Connacht.

Unlike many IRB members, who talked and drank and talked, Nally was committed to action. He went to Manchester in 1880, apparently to try and import 300 rifles and from that point on, he strove to instigate nationalist rebellion in Ireland.

These activities were essentially ended when Nally (and other IRB men) were arrested in May 1883 and charged with being the leaders of a secret society. The case was moved to Cork for trial and in March 1884, after a trial that lasted four months, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

In 1891 it was announced Nally would be granted early release at the end of November, due to good conduct in prison. A large nationalist outpouring of support saw a committee established to celebrate his freedom. It never came to pass.

P.W. Nally died in Mountjoy Jail on November 9, 1891. His inquest led to the Dublin City Coroner ruling he had died as a result of typhoid fever, contracted due the ‘excessive labour and punishment inflicted on him’ in prison.

The Nally Stand in Croke Park, 2001. Picture: Sportsfile
The Nally Stand in Croke Park, 2001. Picture: Sportsfile

His family believed that he had basically been murdered by the British authorities; he was buried in the ‘Fenian Plot’ at Glasnevin Cemetery, with his coffin having been draped in the green flag that had lain on Charles Stewart Parnell’s coffin when he, too, had been buried in Glasnevin the previous month.

That Nally was a Fenian was clear, but what of his influence on Michael Cusack in founding the GAA? The first thing to say is that before his political activism, P.W. Nally was renowned as an athlete across Mayo.

This fame was rooted in the numerous sports days organised in towns such as Headford, Castlebar, Swinford, Ballinrobe, and Claremorris, and in smaller Mayo villages also, during the 1870s.

A brilliant all-rounder, it was reported that he won every event at the Swinford sports day in September 1875; he was then aged 20 and had already earned the soubriquet ‘Hero of the West’.

In all these feats, he competed in events organised by the local gentry, by cricket clubs, and against policemen and other people associated with Empire.

All of this changed in 1879 with the onset of land agitation. The first battleground was a sports day that was being organised near Nally’s own home in Balla in the demesne of Robert L. Blosse, a local landlord.

These sports had been successfully held in 1878, but when the 1879 event was set for September, Nally led a campaign against it, including erecting placards in surrounding towns calling for the meeting to be boycotted.

During the days before the event, placards were erected around Mayo advising that the Balla Athletic Sports had been ‘postponed indefinitely’; they hadn’t been.

And the boycott campaign succeeded in dissuading many local athletes, but could not stop the sports entirely.

With the Blosse family at the centre of things and the North Mayo militia band playing music, the athletic events were dominated by athletes who had travelled west from Dublin.

The numbers competing were reduced, but the sports were considered a success and ended with a fireworks display in Balla’s Market Square.

Unable to stop the sports at Balla, P.W. Nally organised his own National Athletic Sports of Mayo on his father’s land outside Balla. These, too, were considered a success. So much so that they were held again in 1880 (unlike, it would appear, the sports associated with the Blosse family).

To emphasise the egalitarian premise on which Nally’s sports were based, there were events specifically for labourers. The Nally family dominated the athletics events: five were won by P.W. Nally; other family members won three others; and the prizes were presented by a Miss Nally.

A ‘very large’ crowd turned up on the day, the Claremorris band played popular airs, though no athletes from beyond the local area competed.

The sports in 1880 more or less marked the end of Nally’s athletic career. And, of course, he was in prison when the GAA was founded in November 1884. The idea that the staging of a nationalist sports day as a rival to one organised by the local elite served as an inspiration to the foundation of the GAA was one created by Michael Cusack, himself.

Croke Park’s famous Nally Stand was re-erected in Páirc Colmcille in Tyrone in 2007. Pat Darcy, Tyrone County Board chairman, addressed the guests at the rededication and official opening of the stand. Picture: Michael Cullen/Sportsfile
Croke Park’s famous Nally Stand was re-erected in Páirc Colmcille in Tyrone in 2007. Pat Darcy, Tyrone County Board chairman, addressed the guests at the rededication and official opening of the stand. Picture: Michael Cullen/Sportsfile

Cusack wrote that P.W. Nally was a major influence on him. He had met P.W. Nally, he said, when the two men went for a walk one Sunday afternoon in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1879.

Cusack continued: “Great thoughts develop slowly. The two men agreed that an effort should be made to preserve the physical strength of our race. The younger of the two (Nally) was more passionate and hurried in manner and methods than his more matured friend. The younger went to jail and died in Mountjoy convict prison in November 1891. The elder dreamt along and largely helped to found the Gaelic Athletic Association on the 1st of November, 1884.”

This is the problem with Cusack’s claim to have been influenced by P.W. Nally — it was made in a newspaper article he wrote in the United Ireland magazine many years later in 1899.

What is also clear is that in the years immediately after his claimed meeting with Nally, there was no radical change to Cusack’s approach to athletics.

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That same year that he met Nally in the Phoenix Park, Michael Cusack accepted a seat on the council of the Irish Champion Athletic Club (which was embedded in the existing athletics establishment).

The reasons why Cusack was asked to join the Irish Champion Athletic Club are unclear, but no doubt relate to the fact that the school he had established in Dublin had by then become known for its embrace of sport.

And, in that school, Cusack founded a rugby club and he, himself, played in the first ever Leinster Senior Cup match.

Indeed, it was to be more than three years later that Michael Cusack embarked on the sequence of actions that led to the founding of the GAA.

Does this mean that P.W. Nally had no influence on Michael Cusack or on the founding the GAA?

It is not possible to say that – the story is much too fragmented to make a claim in either direction.

What is clear is that in his political radicalism, his land agitation and his love of competing in organized athletics, P.W. Nally was very much a man of his time. 

His story is eloquently captured in Pádraig O Baoighill’s book, Nally as Maigh Eo, and in monuments erected in his honour in Balla and Crossmolina.

And his name is preserved, above all, in concrete and steel in Croke Park.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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