GAA founder Michael Cusack’s love affair with rugby

Back in May 2009, the rugby analyst Liam Toland wrote a brilliant column on what it was like to be in Croke Park when the ground was full for a Leinster against Munster Heineken Cup semi-final.

GAA founder Michael Cusack’s love affair with rugby

Back in May 2009, the rugby analyst Liam Toland wrote a brilliant column on what it was like to be in Croke Park when the ground was full for a Leinster against Munster Heineken Cup semi-final.

He wrote about the shock of Leinster beating Munster, about the atmosphere in the stadium, and about what it all meant to be present at a magnificent sporting occasion.

In the middle of the column, Toland asked a great question: “What would Michael Cusack have made of it? The colour, the flags, the noise and the singing were immense.”

Cusack, famous as the founder of the GAA, was dead before the GAA even purchased Croke Park but he would surely have marveled at the fact that his organisation should have developed such a ground and, from a position of immense strength, lent it back to two rugby union teams (who had turned professional).

There is another aspect to Cusack’s relationship with rugby, however, that is worth considering as the Rugby World Cup begins: Michael Cusack loved playing rugby.

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 Ulster — 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.

Cusack had trained to be a school-teacher and subsequently taught during the 1870s at St Colman’s College in Newry, at Kilkenny College (which was for educating Protestant boys), and at the French College at Blackrock and Clongowes Wood in Kildare.

Throughout the 1870s, Cusack revelled in the sporting life of the various schools in which he taught, not least because this was an era where teachers took to the fields and played games with their students, rather than merely organising them.

For all that he was well-regarded in the schools in which he taught, his restlessness did not allow him to settle in any one of them.

In October 1877, in imitation of the section of The French College (later known simply as Blackrock College) in which he had worked, he set up his own academy — the Cusack’s Academy — in Dublin to prepare students taking civil service and other public examinations.

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 RM 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 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. 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.

By the way, Cusack was also a keen cricketer.

By the time he had reached his mid-30s, Cusack was also able to recall his involvement in “many a hard-fought match”.

His passion for the game was obvious.

He wrote once that it would help cricketers to pass away the dark days of winter, by dreaming of the wonderful six that they had hit in mid-summer, and of feeling pride at having walked to the crease, the forlorn hope of their parish, before saving the day with a memorable performance.

Indeed, he wrote in 1882 of the advisability of setting up cricket clubs in every parish in Ireland.

That Michael Cusack turned away from both cricket and rugby in 1883 and then founded the GAA in 1884 was largely a product of the changing politics of Ireland and the gathering swell of the Gaelic revival.

How that happened is a story for another day.

For now it is enough to reflect that were it not for Cusack’s turning, Ireland’s prospects at the Rugby World Cup would most likely have been strengthened by having many more rugby players at its disposal.

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

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