Rowing’s Links to the Founders of the GAA and Ireland’s Oldest Rowing Boat?

Antique Hurley Stick owned by Michael Cusack.

 6 April 2018

Greg Denieffe writes:

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is Ireland’s largest sporting organisation and rightly acknowledged as one of the great amateur sporting associations in the world.

It is part of Irish consciousness and plays an influential role in Irish society that extends far beyond the basic aim of promoting Gaelic games.

From the GAA website:

It was founded on 1 November 1884 at a meeting in Hayes’s Commercial Hotel, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, by a group of spirited Irishmen who had the foresight to realise the importance of establishing a national organisation to make athletics more accessible to the masses and to revive and nurture traditional, indigenous sports and pastimes.

Until then all that was Irish was being steadily eroded by emigration, intense poverty and outside influences. Within six months of that famous first meeting, GAA clubs began to spring up all over Ireland and people began to play the games of Hurling and Gaelic Football and take part in Athletic events with pride.

The Association continues to promote Gaelic games such as Hurling, Football, Handball and Rounders and works with sister organisations to promote Ladies Football and Camogie. The Association also promotes Irish music, song and dance and the Irish language as an integral part of its objectives. The GAA has remained an amateur association since its founding. Players, even at the highest level, do not receive payment for playing and the volunteer ethos remains one of the most important aspects of the GAA.

The organisation is based on the traditional parishes and counties of Ireland. As a community-based organisation, it is often stated that it is difficult to determine where the community ends and the GAA club starts as they generally overlap and are intertwined. The GAA has over 2,200 clubs in all 32 counties of Ireland.

Every summer the inter-county All-Ireland Championships in hurling and football capture the attention of the Irish public, and regional towns heave with the arrival of large numbers of supporters and the colour, noise and excitement that they bring.

At the inaugural meeting, Maurice Davin spoke about the motivation for establishing the ‘Gaelic Association for the cultivation and preservation of national pastimes’. He said that they were there because the rules that were now being used to govern Irish athletics were English ones and although those rules were good in their own way they were simply unsuitable to Irish pastimes. Further, Davin said that he and Michael Cusack (regarded as the founder of the GAA) were determined to provide amusement and recreation for the ordinary people of Ireland who, he said, now seem ‘born into no other inheritance other than an everlasting round of labour’. There were seven founding members of the association in attendance on that fateful All Saints’ Day in 1884: Davin was elected the first president, Cusack the first secretary; the other attendees being, John Wyse Power, John McKay, J. K. Bracken, Joseph O’Ryan and Thomas St. George McCarthy.

Michael Cusack – Photo: National Library of Ireland.

Cusack was born in 1847 in County Clare, became a school teacher, and in 1874, after teaching in various parts of Ireland, he moved to Dublin to work in Blackrock College, then known as the French College. ‘The nature of the Victorian sportsman was often that of the all-rounder. Cusack was the epitome of this. All the while he was playing rugby and cricket he was also engaged in other sports. Shortly after his arrival in Dublin in 1874 he competed in a handball competition which was run by the Dublin University Rowing Club (DURC). He then joined that club and rowed with them for two years. Given his sporting disposition, it was in evitable that he should turn his hands to the burgeoning athletics world in the city.’

I discovered this piece of information from chapter four of a wonderful book published in 2009 called The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009. It is the only reference I have seen to Cusack actually rowing and the author of that chapter, Paul Rouse, is a history lecturer at University College, Dublin, whose main research interest lies in the history of sport; he is certainly a credible source and quotes his reference as ‘De Búrca, Michael Cusack and the GAA, pp.44-5.’ Surprisingly, given the place occupied by Cusack in Irish sporting history, Raymond Blake makes no mention of his rowing for DURC in his 1991 book In Black and White: A history of rowing at Trinity College, Dublin. However, Cusack was a contrarian and was sacked as secretary of the GAA only a few years after he had inspired its establishment. He was as Rouse writes: ‘no easy man to work with – he was more properly born to serve on a one-man committee’. For those who are interested the Professional/Amateur debate in sport, the 2009 publication also has a chapter on this aspect of the GAA. From the publisher’s website (my emphasis):

This book brings together some of the leading writers in the area of Irish history to assess the importance of the GAA in Irish society since its founding in 1884 and is the first key book to centre on the GAA and Irish history. While there has been much written about the GAA, the bulk of work has concentrated on the sporting aspects of the Association – the great games and famous players – rather than the role that the GAA has played in wider Irish history. The chapters cover a large chronological span dating back to the origins of hurling, through the foundation of the GAA, its role in the political life of the nation and ending with an assessment of some of the main issues facing the GAA into the twenty-first century. Importantly the book also offers original and insightful work on areas including the class make-up of the GAA, the centrality of Amateurism in the Association, the role of the Irish language and the ways in which films have featured Gaelic games. 

Maurice Davin – Photo: The Irish Athletic Record, Dublin (1906, p. 4).

Whilst Cusack’s connections to rowing were a complete surprise to me when I discovered them in 2009, Davin’s connections with the sport are well known and documented. His biographer, Séamus Ó Riain, author of Maurice Davin (1842 – 1927), First President of the GAA (1994) and writes:

At the time when Davin was becoming disillusioned with boxing, circumstances combined to change the direction of his athletic pursuits and brought him back to what was his first love, the river and its boats. Boat racing on the river was traditional in Carrick and in the early nineteenth century the regatta was a popular event and enjoyed the sponsorship of the local gentry. But it was almost twenty years since the last successful regatta was held in July 1848, a casualty of the general depression following the great famine.

The upward trend in the economy in the 1860s brought benefits to farmers in improved prices for their produce and as a consequence more business for traders in the town. In this more prosperous climate the Waterford regatta was revived with some success in 1863 and in the following years it became firmly established with a wider range of events and a greater number of entries, including some from Carrick. The example given by Waterford prompted the move in Carrick to revive its traditional regatta in 1865. Some enthusiasts, impatient for the delay, organised informal challenge races usually for £1 a side and in the class of four-oared gigs, Davin’s Robin proved to be the best. Robin was again a winner in the Waterford regatta in 1866. Davin, now fully committed to rowing, decided to build his own boat for four oarsmen. Taking extreme care with the design and the selection of timber, he used rivets for the joinings, and his nine-year-old brother Pat assisted him. When completed, the family and workforce had a hand in carrying the boat down to the river and amid great excitement it was launched, Mrs Davin naming it Cruiskeen Lawn. However, its performance on the water was not up to expectations; it was not responding as it should to the efforts of the crew. To correct what appeared to be an imbalance, the boat was returned to the shed and Davin fitted an extra four feet to the bow. The change brought a remarkable improvement in its performance. At the Waterford regatta in August 1871 the silver cup event was won by Cruiskeen, stroked by Davin with T. Quinlan, Tom Davin and  J. Walsh as crew and Pat Davin as the cox. On the same day Davin’s Gypsy won the race for two-oared wherries. Cruiskeen scored a long list of successes at subsequent regattas at Clonmel, Waterford and Carrick and even when Davin retired from active rowing his boat continued to lead the way with the new crew including Jack and Mick Carroll, Tom Torpey and Mick Roach, grand-uncle of Mick Roach of Tipperary hurling fame.

Carrick regatta was firmly established by August 1868 and Davin stroked the Robin to win the main event with J. R. O’Donnell, J. Quinlan, W. Foley and J. Foley as cox. Two years later he scored a remarkable treble at the home regatta, winning the canoe race in Banshee, the wherry race of one and a half miles in Gypsy and the gig event in Robin; the three Foleys rowed with him and P. Foran was cox.

Ó Riain then lists some of Maurice Davin’s rowing successes by date from 1868 to 1871.

Three of my small collection of GAA books.

From Maurice Davin, A Man and his Boat:

Maurice Davin was born in Carrick-On-Suir, County Tipperary, in 1842 and died in 1927. He was the eldest of five children born to John Davin and his wife, Bridget Walsh. The Davin family were originally boatmen in Carrick-On-Suir, but early in the 19th century they began farming at Deerpark, west of the town, from which they later conducted a prosperous river-transport business.

Maurice and his two brothers, Tom and Pat, dominated Irish athletics for over a decade. In the 1870s, it was said that they had half the world’s records for running, jumping, hurdling and weight-throwing. Maurice excelled in weight-throwing and through a series of major victories over leading British athletes, he achieved international fame.

Davin was elected the first president of the Gaelic Athletic Association and it was his wise counsel, his gentle personality and his deep commitment to guide the organization through its uncertain years. Davin was opposed to the ban on foreign games and when it was decided that members of the Royal Irish Constabulary should also be banned, he resigned.

This kindly giant was also an accomplished violinist, singer and dancer. A superb all-round athlete excelled at cricket, football and boxing. He was a champion oarsman, capable of building his own boats. In the 1860s, he built and designed a boat which his mother called the Crúiscín. Originally the boat did not perform as well as expected and was returned to the cow-shed on the family farm for modifications. The bow was extended to 38ft. and was returned to the river.

In an interview with the New York Daily News, given in 1906, Gavin said: “I built the boat over 40 years ago. Somehow or other she was not a success… it was not my fault that she did not win at a regatta in Waterford in the sixties. I held onto her, I had faith in her, for she was a sweet boat. Last year I lengthened her bow a bit and the boys took her to this year’s regatta in Waterford and won. Now what do you think of that for a boat?” Following Davin’s retirement from competitive rowing, the Crúiscín competed under a new crew of rowers. Subsequently, the boat was stored in the rafters of the cow-shed at Deerpark.

Over the next 100 years the boat became full enclosed in the cow-shed and was forgotten about by everyone except Davin’s great-nephew, Pat Walsh. In 2005, Walsh decided to donate the Crúiscín to the County Museum in Clonmel. With a build date of 1866, is the Crúiscín the oldest surviving rowing boat in Ireland that was built specifically for racing? 

In the River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames, you will find a four-oared Irish gig, Royal Oak, dating from c.1812. It is believed to be the oldest racing boat in Britain. It was built for the Bailie family whose Ringdufferin estate is on Strangford Lough in County Down. According to the RRM, Royal Oak was crewed by members of the de Ros family and their guests as well as the fishing community from nearby Ardmillan, including an all-women crew, and won many races.

The clinker-built “Crúiscín” is 11.5 metres long, 0.95 meters wide and weighs 160 kilograms. It is made from Eastern White Pine with the addition of a little Ash and Oak. Davin’s oars (left and right in the photo) are made from Western Red Cedar. Photo: Tipperary County Museum.

The Davin Boat – A short video of the ‘Crúiscín’ before its removal from the cow-shed.

Two of the oars built and used by Maurice Davin. Photo: ‘Maurice Davin (1842 – 1927) First President of the GAA’ published in 1994.

The story of the Crúiscín’s removal from the cow-shed in Carrick, it’s transport to a conservation centre in Letterfrack, County Galway, and the treatment it received there followed by its return to County Tipperary is told in the 2011 published booklet Maurice Davin, A Man and his Boat. It is also told in the following video:

The Cruiskeen, a river racer – a video by Reginald van Acker. 

Pat Davin (1851 – 1949), one of Maurice’s brothers and cox of the victorious 1851 crew. Photo: Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers.

In April 2016, Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers sold various documents and medals belonging to Maurice and Pat Davin. In the photographs above, both brothers wear their medals, most if not all of which were won on the athletics field. Two of the medals were included in the auction and described in the catalogue as follows:

Maurice Davin’s Medal: Irish Champion Athletic Club, a rare Celtic cross design bronze Medal, the obverse inscribed “Irish Champion Athletic Club,” and with further inscription “16lbs, 2nd place, M (Maurice) Davin, 34ft 10″ [c. 1880s]” with a suspension bar designed with harps and crown. Extremely Rare. (1) Provenance: By Direct Family Descent.

Pat Davin’s Medal: Irish Champion Athletic Club, a rare Celtic Cross design silver Medal, the obverse inscribed “Irish Champion Athletic Club,” the reverse inscribed “May 1880 – 100 yards Flat – time 10 1/5 sec., P (Pat) Davin. Extremely Rare. (1) Provenance: By Direct Family Descent.

The GAA may share something else with rowing; it is continually changing but at a pace that is hardly noticeable year-on-year. Fintan O’Toole, an Irish journalist, writing in 2011 at the time of The Queen’s visit to Ireland: ‘Not only is the GAA a classic Victorian organisation, it has been much more faithful to its origins in late-19th-century sporting culture than the English sports that influenced it. If you want to get some sense of the ethos of English sport before the rise of professionalism, without the snobbery that went with it, the best place to look is probably the GAA.”

Perhaps it’s not the rejection of the snobbery that has sustained the GAA for over 130 years but the fact that it adopted amateurism and rejected the class distinctions that went with it in other sports. Moreover, the link between Irishness and amateurism, and with the GAA – from its formation when athletics and hurling were its focus right up to now when Gaelic football and hurling dominate its activities – is mirrored in rowing’s links with Englishness and amateurism. In chapter XII, CAMBRIDGE, of his c.1848 novel, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet, Charles Kingsley writes:

And yet, after a few moments, I ceased to wonder either at the Cambridge passion for boat-racing, or at the excitement of the spectators. “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” It was a noble sport—a sight such as could only be seen in England—some hundred of young men, who might, if they had chosen, been lounging effeminately about the streets, subjecting themselves voluntarily to that intense exertion, for the mere pleasure of toil. The true English stuff came out there; I felt that, in spite of all my prejudices—the stuff which has held Gibraltar and conquered at Waterloo—which has created a Birmingham and a Manchester, and colonized every quarter of the globe—that grim, earnest, stubborn energy, which, since the days of the old Romans, the English possess alone of all the nations of the earth. I was as proud of the gallant young fellows as if they had been my brothers—of their courage and endurance (for one could see that it was no child’s-play, from the pale faces, and panting lips), their strength and activity, so fierce and yet so cultivated, smooth, harmonious, as oar kept time with oar, and every back rose and fell in concert—and felt my soul stirred up to a sort of sweet madness, not merely by the shouts and cheers of the mob around me, but by the loud fierce pulse of the rowlocks, the swift whispering rush of the long snake-like eight oars, the swirl and gurgle of the water in their wake, the grim, breathless silence of the straining rowers. My blood boiled over, and fierce tears swelled into my eyes; for I, too, was a man, and an Englishman.

Here we have sport and amateur sport at that, tied to a powerful sense of national identity. As a piece of prose, it is a bit imperialistic for my liking, but today Gaelic games are still examples of sport for personal improvement, for a purely local representation (parish and county) and for amateur purpose.

Nowhere is this sense of local and national identity more visible than in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. For some it is the football final that makes their blood boil over and their chests swell with pride and for others, like me, it is the hurling final. If you want a taste of what that day is all about or what amazing sport an amateur game can produce you need look no further that the 2014 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final between Kilkenny and Tipperary. Notice that the fans are not segregated which adds to the occasion and the craic but beware, you may struggle with the accents and the flight of the sliothar (ball).

Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh) play Tipperary (Tiobraid Árann) in the 2014 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final.

2 comments

  1. A wonderful piece. Could you perhaps explain the emphasis on amateurism in Irish sport at the time? In England this was driven by class consciousness, and a desire to exclude “mechanics” from sports such as rowing. You hint there motivations were different in Ireland. I would be fascinated for a further explanation.

  2. I don’t think it is as simple as saying that it was just one thing that drove amateurism but if I had to put an emphasis on just one, it would be that it suited the vision of Irishness within the GAA both at its founding but more particularly as it grew in popularity.

    In fact, you could say it was the opposite of the class division that underpinned the promotion of the ‘gentleman amateur’ and a desire to exclude labourers from amateur sport in England.

    Dónal McAnallen addresses this in the 2009 book mentioned in the above article and writes:

    “Gaelic games were plebeian in nature, and their amateurism democratic and spartan, quite the opposite to the elitist, Corinthian ‘gentleman amateur’. The GAA championed the playing of its games as a moral duty to Irish nationality, parish and manly Christianity. This helps to explain why it gave priority to team games over individual codes. The idea of playing Sport for monetary reward was discountenanced because it was perceived as English, mercenary and debasing – both spiritually and physically – and on a practical level the GAA simply could not afford it. To pay players to play would undercut and cheapen the values of the GAA for the vast majority of its playing and administrative volunteers. Their belief in the amateur and voluntary ethos informed their sacrifices and work for the GAA, principally in the development and upkeep of club facilities since in the mid-twentieth century. As these club structures expanded into wider functions for local communities, so the centrality of voluntarism to the GAA and Irish community life was reinforced.”

    Other ball sports like soccer, rugby and cricket followed the same path in Ireland as taken in England. Rowing too, followed the English system of exclusion but it could not be said that it had any major impact on participation because the working man was already accommodated in a different type of rowing, either the traditional currach or fixed seat rowing. In fact, Killarney Regatta (a workingmen’s regatta) dates back to 1830. Most amateur Irish regattas were held during the working week and this of itself prevented ‘undesirables’ from joining clubs and finding time to train and race.

    I found a couple of articles that you may find of interest:

    Amateurism in an Age of Professionalism: An Empirical Examination of an Irish Sporting Culture: The GAA – https://www.thejournalofbusiness.org/index.php/site/article/view/25

    The Consequences of Professionalism on the GAA – http://trap.ncirl.ie/1817/1/seamuscorbett.pdf

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