Michael Cusack was born in the parish of Carron on the eastern fringe of the Burren in north Clare. He lived in a small cottage with his parents, four brothers and one sister. The Cusack homestead still stands today. Little is know of his childhood. On Sundays after Mass, Cusack and the other boys in the parish hurled and took part in athletics. He grew up in a home and in an area where Irish was still the language of daily life. He was probably eleven years old before he first used English and he quickly mastered it and to the end of his life he remained bilingual.
He attended Carron National School when it opened in 1858 and he went on to become a teacher. Cusack himself was a fine athlete and shot-putt champion. Organised games in this era were controlled essentially by the sporting aficionados of Trinity College. They organised the first boat, rugby, hurling and athletic clubs in Ireland and quickly set about establishing national federations, such as the Irish Rugby Football Union, to control these games. This arrangement was unsatisfactory to Cusack. The Protestant establishment did not approve of play on Sunday – the traditional holiday of rural Catholic Ireland. Moreover, their definition of ‘amateur’, coinciding with that of ‘gentleman’, excluded mechanics, artisans and labourers, and sometimes the lower ranks of the police and army. Rules were being moulded on those drawn up in England. To nationalist athletes the arrangement smacked too strongly of an Anglo-Saxon take-over.
Cusack taught in Blackrock and Kilkenny Colleges before founding his own highly successful academy but as sporting journalism and politics eventually absorbed him, his teaching career receded into the background. In 1881 he criticised the administration of rugby and athletics in Ireland, suggesting that the organisers allow for a ‘strip of green across their colours’. Jumping and weight throwing he regarded as traditional Irish events; racing and cycling were dismissed as English importations.
Two forms of hurling had traditionally been played in Ireland – in the north and the west the game was played in the winter and resembled shinty; in the south and as it was a summer game with a broad-bossed stick as a T present. Trinity favoured the shinty game; so naturally Cusack sided for summer hurling. In this he was inspired, hurling with its aerial play is surely one of the greatest sporting contests. In this instance Cusack went out of his way to involve Trinity men in his hurling club, and shinty painlessly disappeared from the Irish sporting scene.
In 1884 he founded the GAA, aiming to revive hurling and football and to obtain control over athletics. Although for a time it appeared to be suspended by a slender thread, the decision to base clubs on the parish and representative teams on the county fitted in precisely with local patriotism and led to the association becoming a mass movement. Wresting control of a considerable sector of Irish sport from the hands of the establishment was a stunning feat. The ‘ban’, which came a year later prohibiting GAA members form playing or watching ‘foreign’ games (rugby, soccer, hockey or cricket), originated as a split in Irish athletics. This ‘ban’, which was revoked in 1971, long outlasted the conditions which gave rise to it. Cusack was also involved in a move to restore the Irish language and he was editor of the weekly newspaper United Ireland. He also founded and co-edited ‘The Celtic Times’, a weekly newspaper dedicated to ‘native games’ and athletics and to Irish culture in general.
Cusack was a colourful character and his manner, dress and general deportment made him impossible to ignore. He was the model for ‘the Citizen’ in James Joyce’s Ulysses. He died on the 27th November 1906.
Michael Cusack’s legacy can be seen in every village and town in the country in the form of GAA clubs which are still going strong. There are over 1,600 clubs in Ireland. There are also clubs in the UK, USA, Australia and many other countries across the world.
The Clare GAA pitch in Ennis is named ‘Cusack Park’ in his memory.
Photo: Michael Cusack Michael Sculpture outside the county grounds named in his honour in Ennis, Co Clare