The College Races - 1888

The College Races - 1888

By Jackie Hyland

The first regular athletic meeting "The College Races" were inaugurated at Trinity College Dublin in 1857, the Civil Service Athletic Club held its first club sports in 1869. These meets followed by the sports in the Queens Colleges of Cork and Dublin were confined to gentleman athletes.

This definition of amateurism was very precise being 'any person who does not enter into competition or who has never competed for either a stake, public money or admission money...nor is a mechanic artisan or labourer'. Though confined to the select few these events aroused a fresh interest in athletics throughout Ireland. At one of the small meetings held in Gurteen on the Waterford - Tipperary border in the late 1860's Maurice Davin of Deerpark, Carrick on Suir, made his first appearance on the athletic field.

By 1872 the formation of the Irish Champion Athletic Club met a pressing need. The following year the first Irish athletic international between Ireland and England was held at Lansdowne Road. Maurice Davin set a world record in winning the hammer event, while his brothers Tom and Pat tied for first place in the high jump.

Another notable athlete of the day was Patrick William Nally of Balla, Co. Mayo. The situation remained unsatisfactory in that a considerable section of the population were outlawed under the existing rules. Several abortive attempts were made to found a truly national athletics body.

In 1880 the British Amateur Athletic Association was set up. A discussion between P.W.Nally and Michael Cusack of Clare then a weight-thrower of note as to the desirability of a national athletics body did not lead to any move by Cusack. Nally however, broke new ground when naming Charles S. Parnell among others as a patron for his meeting in Balla. Nally by the early 1880's was deeply involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood being the Connacht representative on the Supreme Council. Following a period in Liverpool and Manchester Nally was arrested in 1883 receiving a ten year jail sentence in 1884.

The Davin brothers, Maurice winner of both the hammer and shot and Pat winner of high and long jumps took English titles in 1881. By 1883 the English Amateur Athletic Association decreed that everybody with the exception of those who made money out of athletics could compete.

By 1884 native control of Irish Athletics had become crucial. The 'United Ireland', paper, organ of the Irish Parliamentary Party published an article suggesting the revival of the national sports of hurling, football, running, jumping, vaulting and throwing the stone. From 1883 the IRB had in being a four man subcommittee tasked with bringing into being a national athletics body. Michael Cusack was identified as a man to organise a new association. It is unlikely, however, because of his temperament he took dictation from any party.

During the Spring and Summer of 1884 meetings of interested parties took place. Cusack was central to the preparations and Davin was also involved. Michael Cusack recognised that a well known highly respected person as patron was necessary for the success of a new national body. Cusack led a deputation to Dr Patrick Duggan, Bishop of Clonfert on August 15, Dr Duggan declined because of age, but suggested Dr Croke, Archbishop of Cashel as a 'fine Gael, young, vigorous and energetic', as the first patron of the new association.

To further set the scene Cusack wrote a passionate letter to the United Ireland newspaper which received wide support. Maurice Davin wrote a letter of approval to the same organ supporting the revival of athletics hurling and football, stating 'I am anxious to see both games revived under regular rules'. Finally Cusack announced at the end of a public letter praising Davin as a leader ' spotless in the midst of the speckled' a meeting for Thurles on 1st November. This was to take steps for the formation of a Gaelic Association for 'the preservation and cultivation of our national pastimes'.

Circulars were sent to leading practitioners for the native games and the particulars were announced in the Freeman's Journal, United Ireland and the Irish Sportsman.


The meeting at Hayes's Hotel which had several apologies for inability to attend was reported to the press by Cusack who supplied only seven names besides himself and Davin were P. J. Ryan (Callan), John McKay (Cork), James K. Bracken (Templemore), John Wyse-Power (Naas), Thomas McCarthy, District Inspector R.I.C. (Templemore). However, Cusack added 'etc etc' to his list which implied additional attendees at the meeting. Indeed subsequent newspaper reports listed other names. Maurice Davin was appointed President with Cusack, Wyse-Power and McKay as secretaries.

By Christmas when the meeting reconvened in the Victoria Hotel Cork, on December 27, Charles S. Parnell, Michael Davitt and Dr Croke had accepted with honour the position of patrons. Dr T. W. Croke's long letter of acceptance published in the Freeman's Journal on Christmas Eve delighted the leadership of the new body and was destined to be the charter of the association. The early months of 1885 were spent in formulating the rules and in successive issues of United Ireland the GAA rules for hurling football (see appendix) weight -throwing and athletics were published. Clubs flocked to the new association, athletics taking pride of place in the early years.

An early ban on athletes competing under rules other than those of the GAA rendered them ineligible to compete at meetings held under the GAA . The Irish Amateur Athletic Union published their proposed rules about the same time, controversy ensued with rival bans. Dr Croke intervened and as a result athletes were free to compete under both rules. The benefit of the increased competition was evident with the setting of the new Irish Records. However, at a specially convened meeting 4 July at Thurles one of the principal architects of the association Michael Cusack departed the national scene. This followed a motion asking him to resign being carried following dissatisfaction expressed by fellow secretary John Wyse-Power about the carrying out of his duties.

During the months leading up to the second annual convention IRB activists were busy organising support for the forthcoming general meeting. Clubs and their representatives were targeted. The 1886 convention held on 15 November marked the end of an era, many of the features that presently exist came into being as a result of the adoption of a draft constitution for the GAA laid before convention by President Davin. The power and status of what was to become the Central Council was clearly defined, county boards were to be set up, a decision to run All Ireland hurling and football championships was taken.

Affiliation fees for clubs and the allocation of gate receipts at championship matches was decided. However, the political balance of the executive changed greatly at the convention with an almost complete departure of the moderate element. Davin was absent from the first quarterly meeting of the IRB dominated executive held on 27 February in Wynn's Hotel. Acting as if they were a legislative body, the executive proceeded to act contrary to the constitution drawn up four months before by giving themselves additional powers in athletic events, membership and over county committees.

At their next meeting in Limerick on 11 April, Davin the President expressed his astonishment at the developments at the last meeting in adopting rules and regulations totally at variance with the constitution. He pointed out that the body had no power to make rules which was reserved to a general meeting. Withdrawing from the meeting after failing to get a change of attitude, Davin later submitted his resignation.

In county Laois Borris-in-Ossory and Rapla were directly affiliated to the Central Executive Comittee in 1886 and were represented at the Thurles Convention. The failure of the Home Rule Bill in 1886 gave renewed impetus to the IRB who were convinced that nothing could be achieved through parliament. During 1887, J. B. O'Reilly who had replaced Cusack as secretary, Frank Dineen, P. N. Fitzgerald and P. T. Hoctor were active in organising clubs within the county all according to Inspector Bourchier of the S. E. Divsion, RIC , were IRB men. Bourchier stating in a report that the organisers had a target of 21 clubs for the county. A club structure of sorts existed in the countywith Cricket clubs widespread. Among the Cricket clubs reported at being active at some stage during the 1880s and 1890s were Maryborough (Portlaoise), Abbeyleix, Rath and Fisherstown, the Heath, Durrow, Dunamaise, Ballyadams, Mountmellick, Ballylinan, Portarlington, Kellyville, Shanahoe, Vicarstown, Stradbally, Cappakeel and Emo.

Many of the men playing cricket became active in the fledgling association. Maryborough business man P.A.Meehan with interests in Abbeyleix and the Heath was the local prime mover in organising GAA clubs though assisted by Thomas Harrington of Johnstone, co. Kilkenny and P.T.Hoctor. Hoctor from Newport in Tiperary had a perfect cover for his revolutionary ideas being a Tea and Spirit salesman travelling the country. He had been appointed a Vice-President of the GAA at the 1886 convention.

The police information was that the new clubs were being canvassed to support the IRB bid to gain control of the organisation. Delegates from all over the country descended on Thurles in huge numbers for the annual convention on Wednesday 9 November 1887. Rival groups were in evidence from early in the proceedings. Mr Hoctor being very much in evidence on behalf of the IRB faction.

Fr Scanlon from Nenagh led the clerical faction in support of the National League. A proposal that P. N. Fitzgerald be chairman led to turmoil and a walkout by Fr Scanlon and an estimated two hundred others. Maurice Davin who had anticipated trouble did not attend was defeated for the Presidency by E.M.Bennett of Ennis on a vote 316 to 210. The  reaction to the proceedings was swift, Dr Croke wrote to the Freeman's journal the next day dissociating himself from the section of the GAA 'which exercised such a sinister influence over yesterday's proceedings'. Approaches were made to Davin who acted immediately stating 'I will rejoin and give whatever assistance I can in its reconstruction'.

Appointing a committee he went over the heads of the Central Executive and county committees in a statement to the press calling a general convention for 3 January 1888. Within a week more than two hundred clubs had come out publicly in favour of Mr Davin and Dr Croke.

Laois had delegates at the November 1887 convention representing Knockaroo, J. J. McEvoy and T. Berry; Clough, P. J. Maher and J. J. Walsh; Durrow, D. O'Rourke and J. Conroy; Abbeyleix, J. Kelly and M.Hayden; and Rathdowney, D. Carroll and P. Ryan. All were considered by the police to be in the IRB camp. Abbeyleix club were requested by a majority of the newly constituted clubs of the county to convene a meeting which was duly held in December at Abbeyleix. However, within a few days a letter appeared in the Freemans Journal from P. T. Hoctor questioning the legality of the convention and the right of clubs to participate not being affiliated in time. Maurice

Davin was consulted his advice was to 'satisfy all ratify what you have done'. A further meeting was convened forSunday 1 January 1888 at the Town Hall Maryborough at which 13 clubs were represented: Abbeyliex J. McMahon and G. Harte; Barna, P. Cashan and J. Maher; Ballinakill, J. Maher and P. Comerford; Cullohill, A. O'Rourke and R. Roberts; Durrow, D. O'Rourke and M. Holohan; Derrykeran, P. Phelan and W. Phelan; Gurteen, J. Loughran and P. O'Brien; Knock, J. Walsh and P.J.Maher; Knockaroo, J. McEvoy and S. Loughman; Maryborough, R. P. Fennell and C. McDermot; Rathdowney, J.Fitzgerald and P. Ryan; Wolfhill, T. Breene and J. Fleming.

Questions were raised about the right of Maryborough to participate, after an explanation by Mr R. P. Fennell they were unanimously admitted. Mr P. A. Meehan was elected President in his absence on a vote of 16 to 10 for Mr J. McMahon, Mr D. O'Rourke, Durrow secretary and Mr J. Walsh Knock, treasurer were unanimously elected. The first county committee appointed was Messers J.Fitzgerald, T.Breene, J. McMahon, P. Comerford, J. McEvoy, W. Phelan, A. O'Rourke and M. Loughman. The only other item of note was a letter from Fr Scanlon advising on the make up of the Central Council.


The underlying tensions were evident in some of the remarks, Mr J. Maher, Ballinakill was appointed as delegate to the Thurles convention. The meeting terminated with a note of sympathy with William O'Brien and T. D. Sullivan incarcerated in Tullamore jail under the coercion Act.

The Reconstruction Convention as it was termed took place in Thurles on 4 January 1888 with eighty -three delegates from nineteen counties attending. In what was seen as a politically expedient move Maurice Davin was proposed by the IRB group and was unanimously elected after the President since November E. Bennett was withdrawn. A new draft constitution was debated and adopted and maximum and minimum dimensions for playing fields were fixed. W. Prendergast was elected general secretary after a vote. R. J. Frewen as treasurer and T. O'Riordan as secretary to the Central Council gave representation to the IRB side. However, a majority of the county representatives were considered to be National League supporters.

The inaugural Laois championship commenced in Abbeyleix on Sunday 18 February 1888. The day was bitterly cold with snow falling in a northerly gale. To Ballinakill goes the honour of winning a first football tie in beating Maryborough (Portlaoise) 1-5 to nil. Rathdowney beat Ballytersna in hurling 1-0 to nil to record the first hurling victory. Cullohill and Wolfhill in football completed the programme. Cullohill led 0-4 to 0-2 when the match was abandoned. A replay was ordered with Doran from Cullahill suspended for six months.

With no delay the championship progressed in order to have the champions represent the county in the All Ireland series. To Rathdowney goes the honour of winning the first championship hurling title. At Ballybrophy on 13 May they beat Knockroo 2-2 to 0-1. Messers John Fitzgerald and J.Ryan received particular mention for the victors. The football title was decided at Maryborough (Portlaoise) on 20 May in a field given by Mr. George Vanston, Town Clerk. At half time Knock led 1 point to nil. Shortly after half-time a dispute arose over a ball played over the side line. The referee sided with Knock in the dispute and an hours negotiations was necessary before Ballinakill yielded. A suggestion wasmade to have the game played over again which resulted in an easy win for Ballinakill on score 0-7 to nil.

The inter-county championships were arranged on a provincial basis to replace the open draw of the previous year. Laois were drawn against Kilkenny. Both games were played at Maryborough(Portlaoise) in the same venue as the county football final. The contests on 10 June resulted in a double defeat for the Laois representatives, Mooncoin being the victors in hurling 1-2 to 0-2 for Rathdowney, while Kilmacow beat Ballinakill 1-3 to nil. Mr. G. F.Byrne Meath GAA refereed both games.

The running of the county chanpionships and the attendant publicity gave a major organisational boost to the GAA in the county. By years end in addition to the clubs which had attended the convention on 1 January among clubs recorded as being active during the year were Kellyville, Timahoe, Graiguenasmutton, Branra, Boley, Killasmeesia, Ballycarroll (Portarlington) and Courtwood. Indeed a report of a match between the two latter teams as being played under the old rules of trip and tumble brought a swift repost from Mr W. Higgins to the effect that Courtwood played strictly under the GAA rules. Also mentioned as being formed that year were Ballytesna, Brandra, Gurteen, Ballyroan, Ballacolla, Cannonswood, KIlcruise( PCahills), Carlow-Graigue, The Heath, Coolkerry, Ballintogher, Skirke while Ballyadams and Ballybrittas applied to affiliate at the December meeting.

Laois was represented on the American GAA 'Invasion' team which toured the States in the Autumn of 1888. The brainchild of the President Maurice Davin P. Ryan Rathdowney and J. McEvoy Knockaroo were among a party of fifty one which included players, officials, athletes and a chaplain. After a voyage of nine days the party arrived in New York on 25 September 1888. They were given tumultuous welcome by the Irish representatives of the Gaelic Clubs and societies. The party gave a series of exhibitions of hurling and engaged in athletic competition. The party departed from America on 31 October arriving in Cobh.

Seventeen remained permanently in America among them J. McEvoy. The tour was a failure financially and it needed the intervention of Michael Davitt to clear all the outstanding accounts. On Sunday 23 September 1888 under the auspices of the National League ( the constituency organisation of the Irish Parliamentary Party ) a " Great Meeting with an Imposing gathering " took place at Maryborough.

The gathering was to support the cause of the evicted tenantry of Luggacurren on the Lansdowne estate. P.A. Meehan President of the GAA in the county was the main organiser of the event as secretary ably assisted by Messers Doran, Walsh, Vanston and P Kelly. The gathering was before a platform party of five MP's twentyfive priests and a host of other dignatories and a huge concourse of assembled spectators.

Twenty nine out of thirty one branches of the National League in the county assembled on the Stradbally road. The procession was let by every available band in the county, Mountmellick, Kellyville, Cullenagh, Ballyroan, Arles plus Castlelmitchel and Athy from Kildare and Mahers from Kilkenny. The most imposing aspect of the procession was the march past of the several Gaelic clubs of the county in "vari-coloured uniforms". The clubs marched in the following order Maryborough Football Club. Maryborough Juvenile Club, Maryborough Hurling Club, Wolfhill mounted, "The Wolfhills were mounted on horses and in their picturesque costumes, and holding their camans on their shoulders presented a truly imposing spectacle", Ballyroan, Knock, Timahoe, Abbeyleix were especially remarked on, the full team in their orange and green jersies and caps.

They were headed by their captain Mr E. Dea, with Messers W O'Neill, J. Kelly, M. Shortall, W. Carroll, D. Kennedy and W. Irwin members of the committee. Knockaroe, Derrykearn, Courtwood, Branra, Ballytarsna, Kilcruise, Graignasmuttan and Boley also paraded. Ballinakill champions attended but were late for the procession. The march past was round the platform erected in the market square. Lengthy speeches from the M. P's and the singing of "God save Ireland" terminated proceedings.

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