Paul Rouse wonders what if Michael Cusack had stuck with his first love, rugby.
Brian O’Driscoll got it absolutely right when he assessed why the Irish rugby team will always struggle to be the very best in the world: “We are a nation of five or six million and it’s our fourth-choice sport.”
He continued: “Are we ever going to be the consistent level of New Zealand? No, we’re not. I don’t think we have the depth of players or the player numbers to be able to facilitate that level of competition, to drive the standards that high.
"Unless we decide to give up other sports, particularly Gaelic football, and pool all those resources into rugby, I don’t think we can get to that point. We love it but we’re not obsessed by rugby.”
This was an eminently sensible analysis of where Irish rugby stands. The great loss to the ranks of Irish rugby are the GAA players whose love of their own form of football ensures that wearing green was never really an option. The most obvious example is the Donegal captain Michael Murphy, but there are many more besides him.
A delicious irony sits deep in the heart of all this: the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, was actually a rugby man. By the time Cusack began playing rugby in the 1870s, the game had finally begun to establish itself on a solid footing in Ireland. In 1875 13 clubs — nine from Leinster, three from Ulster and one from Munster joined to form an Irish Football Union, ostensibly to pick a team to play an international match against England.
Later, in 1879, the union was reorganised. Provincial branches were established in Leinster, Munster, and Ulster and an enduring framework was established to manage the growth of rugby football in Ireland.
Within that framework, Michael Cusack worked to further the growth of rugby in Ireland. He did this in tandem with the school he had founded in Dublin in 1877 to prepare students taking civil service and other public examinations.
— Andy Sheridan (@jnrbaker) February 14, 2017
It was an immediate success. In the late 1870s and 1880s, nobody in Dublin was thought to be more successful than Michael Cusack in preparing Irish boys for examinations to join the civil service which ran the British Empire.
Sport was an essential part of the activities at his school. For the 1879-80 season, he founded the Cusack’s Academy Football Club and affiliated it to the Irish Rugby Football Union. The team played out of the Phoenix Park. Cusack was club secretary, trainer, as well as playing in the forwards, where he built a reputation as a powerful operator.
Indeed, Cusack seems to have acquired something of a reputation for the black arts in his play, leading one journalist later to observe darkly: “Everybody knows what Cusack is in a scrummage.” Some of Cusack’s students had a limited experience of playing the game, but others were country boys whose raw strength was harnessed through a season’s coaching.
By the end of the season, Cusack’s team had won more matches than it had lost and in an article printed in R.M. Peter’s Irish Football Annual, Cusack couldn’t resist the temptation to note that two of the matches “were both lost through the bad play of a certain back, who threw the ball wildly behind him into his own goal, possibly under the idea that he was passing it back”.
Cusack concluded his review of the first season played by his Academy team by predicting for it a bright future and by referring to himself as “a sterling lover of the game”.
The bright future was soon behind them. The success of his students in securing jobs in the civil service exams brought a continuous struggle to field competitive teams. By the summer of 1881, Cusack had tired of the struggle and the club folded, even though the school continued to thrive.
Cusack still loved playing rugby, however, and threw in his lot with the Phoenix Rugby Club. He was a member of the Phoenix team that played Dublin University at Lansdowne Road on 10 December 1881 in the first-ever match in the Leinster Senior Cup competition.
One of his opponents that day was Thomas St George McCarthy — a past-pupil of Cusack’s Academy and a man who would later attend the founding meeting of the GAA, even though he was by 1884 a policeman.
Phoenix lost that cup match, but Cusack played out the 1881-2 season with his new club and a picture of him posing with his team-mates is one of the few of him which survive. He did not return for the following season. Having turned 35 years of age, he retired from the game.
It is worth noting that Cusack also loved cricket and played that game in Dublin and elsewhere. And yet, soon after he retired from rugby, Michael Cusack abandoned both it and cricket and by 1884 he was dedicated to making a success of the Gaelic Athletic Association which he founded with Maurice Davin.
This was a shift in sporting tastes which transformed Cusack’s life — and the life of modern Ireland. But why did this transformation happen?
The political and social climate were obviously influential. The backdrop of land war and home rule cannot be ignored, but more specifically Cusack was influenced by the first-ever exhibition of Irish-made industrial goods in August 1882. This took place little more than 100 yards from Cusack’s front door in Dublin.
Cusack was also changed by the gathering swell of the Gaelic revival in the 1880s, particularly by the establishment of the Gaelic Union, an organisation which promoted the Irish language. In the autumn of 1882 Cusack emerged as the key figure in both funding and writing that Union’s publication Irishleabhar na Gaeilge.
The following may be regarded as superficial rather than symbolic, but it is nonetheless the case that the full title of that organisation was the Gaelic Union for the Preservation and Cultivation of the Irish Language.
The GAA’s full title was the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of the National Pastimes. In 1882, the Gaelic Union asked Archbishop Thomas Croke to be its patron — something which Cusack repeated, of course, with the GAA in 1884.
A slow-burning commitment to promoting ideas of Irishness clearly changed Cusack’s thinking in the early 1880s.
We know from the journalism he was writing in Dublin’s newspapers at the time that he was influenced by the publication in popular editions of books such as P.W. Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances (1879), which included references to hurling amidst the stories of Fionn, Oisín, and Diarmuid.
He immediately identified Ireland’s heroic literature with hurling and ran it through his journalism. He began doing this in early 1883, when he began calling for hurling to be revived in a series of articles published in The Shamrock.
It would appear, however, that it was not Michael Cusack but instead his friend and fellow GAA founder Maurice Davin who pushed for the inclusion of an Irish form of football when the GAA was founded as a broad-based sporting organisation.
It was Davin who wrote the first rules of this new game which the GAA now called Gaelic football. It swept the country like a prairie fire — and the flames have never been quenched.
The great ‘What if’ is, of course — what if Michael Cusack had stuck with the rugby?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved