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The Gaelic Athletic Association. - a unique Irish Organisation

It is a boast of the Gaelic Athletic Association that it is the largest amateur sports organisation in the world. Proof of that claim can be found in travels through villages, towns and cities in the country where the GAA ground is very often the focal point for the community.

From humble beginnings almost 120 years ago, the GAA has become a major influence on Irish life. Its major sports of Gaelic Football and Hurling are by far the most popular in Ireland, while the organisation also promotes the Irish language and Irish culture.

It was through a friendship between prominent Irish nationalist P.W. Nally from Mayo and Michael Cusack at the beginning of the 1880s that the idea for the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed. The two men regularly discussed the formation of a body to control Irish athletics and to revive the national games of Gaelic Football and Hurling.

Cusack, a native of Clare who ran his own school in Dublin, had been heavily involved in attempts to organise athletics on a formal basis. As Cusack himself put it later, there was a need to form a body such as the GAA "for the preservation and cultivation of the national pastimes of Ireland." His vision for a new organisation was not just as a parent body for hurling and football but athletics as well.

Foundation and history
The first official meeting took place in Hayes' Hotel in Thurles on November 1st, 1884. The history books are not exactly clear on the size of the attendance but it is confirmed that seven people attended. They were Maurice Davin, Cusack, John Wyse Power, John McKay, James Bracken, Joseph O'Ryan and Tomas St George McCarthy.Wyse Power was editor of the Leinster Leader newspaper and would play a big role in the fledgling organisation. McKay was also a journalist, while Bracken was a building contractor who was heavily involved in politics.

O'Ryan and St George McCarthy took no active part in the GAA following the first meeting. Davin, Ireland's best known athlete of the time, with his high profile and popularity was appointed president and Cusack, Wyse Power and McKay were appointed joint secretaries.

On the playing fields the real strength of the new association could be found. Playing rules were adopted in 1885 and the first known game played under the auspices of the GAA was at Feagh, near Tynagh in Galway when Killimor beat Ballinakill.

In 1887 the first entries for the All-Ireland football and hurling championship were sought. It was agreed that the winner of the local championship in each county would represent the county in the All-Ireland
championships. Twelve counties entered although only five actually contested the hurling championship. The administrative squabbling meant that the finals were delayed until 1888, the hurling final taking place on April 1st in Birr between Meelick (Galway) and Thurles (Tipperary). In the official record it is shown that Thurles won by 1-1 to 0-0. The football final was played in Clonskeagh in Dublin between Commercials of Limerick and Dundalk Young Irelands of Louth. Commercials won by 1-4 to 0-3. Gate receipts for the final were £200.

By the 1920s the GAA had become firmly established in every county in Ireland and the games were being played in the United States and in Britain too.

In Ireland the GAA embarked on a policy of providing proper facilities, especially in the major towns. Gradually the GAA became the central organisation in each community.

State support
The fledgling State was grateful for the existence of the GAA. While the organisation ensured that the games were played, they also provided a focus for the people. Significantly too the GAA built community halls through voluntary effort that the state could not afford to provide. While the GAA organised Gaelic Football and Hurling, it was also responsible for other games such as Handball, Camogie (Hurling played by women), and Rounders, the latter being an Irish version of baseball or softball. In modern times Ladies Football has also been promoted by the GAA.

While it has remained a strictly amateur organisation, with just a small number of paid officials, the GAA has grown enormously and is enjoying more popularity than ever. The attendance figures for the major fixtures are greater than ever before and despite intense competition from other sports, Gaelic Football and Hurling remain the two most popular pastimes in Ireland.

Major stadiums have been built throughout the country and the (largely Government funded) re-construction of the GAA headquarters at Croke Park in Dublin is a monument to the status of the GAA in Ireland. Croke Park is the spiritual home of Gaelic Games and has hosted the All-Ireland finals almost unbroken since the 1920s. Every youngster dreams of one day playing for his county in Croke Park. The new stadium, at a cost in the region of £150 million, is nearing completion and will have a capacity of almost 80,000. It is one of the most modern stadiums in Europe, with a three-tiered stand covering three sides of the ground.

Wide appeal
Although uniquely Irish, Gaelic Games are played all over the world. Both New York and London compete in the major competitions as well as running their own events. The North American Board of the GAA is very strong, while Gaelic Games are played in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Dubai and in various parts of Europe.

A new international dimension to the games has been developed over the last two decades. There is now an annual hurling fixture between Ireland and a Scotland team chosen from Shinty players, Shinty being a form of hurling played extensively in the Scottish Highlands. And the annual football test series under International Rules between Ireland and Australia has become immensely popular, attracting sell-out crowds in Melbourne, Adelaide and Croke Park in the last two series. Ireland visits Australia later this year for the 2001 series seeking to avenge defeat in 2000.

Entering a new century, the GAA is now an ultra-modern organisation ready to fulfil its role in society and prepared for the challenges of the future.

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