Following the fitting commemoration of those killed at Croke Park in November 1920, it is apt to recall that the other main stand and the terrace adjacent to Hill 16 are also named in honour of two great Irishmen, Michael Cusack and P.W Nally, who also died in the month of November.
Michael Cusack, of an Irish speaking family from Carron in County Clare died on November 28, 1906. He is best known as one of the founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884, a seed apparently sown during a walk through the Phoenix Park with his close friend Patrick Nally of Balla, County Mayo who died in horrendous conditions on November 9, 1891.
Antique hurley owned by Michael Cusack. Photo Credit: HockeyGods
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While their desire, along with other cultural and militant nationalists, to encourage the rebirth of native sport is well known, what is less spoken of is their part in democratising sport in general. Indeed their first initiatives were to organise what were termed “artisan sports days” in Mayo and Dublin in 1879 and 1880.
That was significant as sports, mostly athletics but also the emerging field games such as rugby, soccer and hockey, were regarded as the pursuits of “gentlemen amateurs” who through various monetary and caste means sought to exclude working class and most rural folk from participation. Curiously, cricket which would be regarded as the epitome of English classism, was a much more open sport which was quite popular in places like Kilkenny and north county Dublin which are now GAA strongholds but where cricket still survives.
That only became an issue as urban and rural working people began to have a bit more leisure time in the late 19th century. While in countries with large urban populations and socialist movements, the issue was a pretty straight forward one of allowing mass participation, in Ireland there was the added fact that native sports in common with our language, music, religious practises and others had been deliberately suppressed or undermined as part of weakening the Irish peoples’ sense of itself as something other than an extension of Britain.
It was fashionable then, as it is now, for those seeking to replace Irish identity with some nebulous concept of Britishness, or EUism, or class to ridicule the pursuits of the peasantry. Hence the modern far-left fantasy of “football”, as in soccer, being a unifying factor between the cloth-capped and mufflered proletarians of Ireland and Britain. That concept is rather undermined by the reality of soccer rivalries replicating the atavistic sectarianism that is evident when Cliftonville play Linfield, or Celtic play Rangers or when the two association football teams of Ireland meet on the pitch.
Cusack despite his radical position on the land question in opposition to landlordism, his support for Irish independence and sovereignty, and his egalitarianism in sport, has sometimes been ridiculed as a caricature of “backward nationalism.” That was promoted in no small way by Joyce’s depiction of him as The Citizen in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses in which Cusack is portrayed as a drunken anti-Semitic bigot. That has been comprehensively rejected by several historians including Cusack’s biographer Liam Ó Caithnia and former Cork Lord Mayor Gerald Goldberg.
Ironically one of the most notorious Dublin anti Semites of that era was Oliver St. John Gogarty who played soccer ball for the Bow-iss, currently guardians of all that is PC and woke in Irish sport, and several of whose Antifa members have no time for “the gah.”
Dublin and Tipperary (as worn by Michael Hogan) jerseys from Bloody Sunday, 1920. Photo Credit: CrokePark
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Cusack’s antipathy to organised rugby, which he had played himself, and soccer was based on their bigotry not on his. Soccer was very much a sport of the British soldiery which became popular in Dublin and other towns with garrisons, while rugby was classist in the extreme; to the extent that private schools of all religious persuasions basically banned working class schools from participating in competitions, a practise that only ceased in Dublin in the 1980s. But of course none of our bien pensants go on endlessly about that.
Cusack’s own political opinions, apart from his nationalism, might also be divined from the fact that in 1887 he welcomed the success of the GAA in encouraging mass participation in hurling, football and athletics under the association’s rules (camogie was only systemised in 1903) as evidence of the growth of a “democratic Christian socialism.”
Patrick William Nally was more directly involved in the revolutionary movement. He was one of the founders of the Land League in Mayo in 1879 and became Joint Secretary and in 1880 was co-opted onto the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood as the Connacht representative. Nally was arrested in 1883 and convicted of an alleged plot to murder a landlord’s agent in Crossmolina. The only evidence was provided by two Special Branch informants at a time when British intelligence had deeply infiltrated the IRB. He was sentenced to ten years and thus missed the IRB meetings that were a prelude to its backing the foundation of the GAA in 1884.
Nally was first held in Downpatrick Gaol but was taken to Millbank prison in London to appear before the Parnell Commission in late 1888. That was part of the British attempt through the Times newspaper to implicate Parnell in revolutionary crime, but Nally refused to provide information to a ‘Thompson’ who visited them on behalf of the Times solicitor Soames. The Thompson in question was most likely Superintendent James Thomson who had been involved in secret operations against the Fenians under Sir Robert Anderson but who had retired in 1887.
Millbank was a dreadful place, built on marshes close to the Thames and regularly visited by outbreaks of dysentery, scurvy and other diseases. It had not had any prisoners since 1886 until Nally and other Fenians were held there to try and break them before the Commission. It was closed for good in 1890.
Monument to Patrick W Nally in Balla, Co Mayo. Photo Credit: NMI
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Nally’s refusal to become an informer meant that his severe treatment continued on his return to Downpatrick prison. He was transferred to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin when Downpatrick closed in April 1891. He was said to have contracted typhoid in Downpatrick or Millbank, and when transferred to Mountjoy he was made to clean the piggery. He died there on November 9, 1891.
The inquest in Dublin found that Nally had died due to “harsh and cruel treatment” due to his refusal to comply (Freeman’s Journal, November 17, 1891.) The family had been represented at the inquest by Parnellite MP John Redmond who elicited from the Deputy Governor of Mountjoy John Conden, on being asked about the conditions of political prisoners, the reply: “I would not consider Moonlighters political prisoners.” (Freeman’s Journal. November 12, 1891.)
Nally’s defiance and association with the fledgling GAA led to the founding of the P.W Nally club in Dublin among whose key members were James Boland, Chairman of the Dublin GAA and father of Harry who hurled for Faughs and Dublin and was killed during the Civil War. James Boland had known Nally through the Fenians in Manchester. Members of the Nally Club led the funeral procession from Clarendon Street to Glasnevin and Nally’s coffin was draped in the same flag that had covered Parnell’s a month previously.
Parnell of course, like Hogan, Nally and Cusack still holds a special place in the hearts of the GAA community as demonstrated by the number of clubs named in his honour, and of course Parnell Park in Dublin.
Michael Cusack, múinteoir Gaeilge and founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Credit: NUI Galway
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