Who are the oldest surviving Gaelic Games clubs in Ireland?

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Prior to 1884, there were no GAA clubs because the GAA did not exist before that date.  However, this does not mean that Gaelic games were not played, or that some form of organisation did not exist.  Some for of organisation must have existed in order for teams to play against one another.  It also required some form of organisation to define the rules but these rules differed from place to place, and this is probably one of the reasons Gaelic games were struggling from the mid-19th C to the beginning of the 20th C.

In 1884, when the GAA was formed, it’s founders were more interested in athletics and other (similar) sports than in Gaelic football, hurling, camogie or handball.  Michael Cusack et al formed an ‘athletic association’ of healthy Irishmen (primarily working men) and their sporting interests – which centred on athletics.

This is graphically illustrated in 1888 when, as a fundraiser for the GAA’s Tailteann Games, they staged “the invasion” of the USA when they sent athletes over to America to compete in various events there – while the fledgling All-Ireland Championships in Gaelic football and hurling were cancelled.  To add insult to injury, due to a split within American athletics and bad weather amongst other reasons, the tour was not a success, losing money for the GAA – and 17 of the 51 who travelled to the USA, remained there.

The GAA rapidly evolved into a nationalist organisation that tried to define and control sports that were recommended as being appropriate for nationalists.  They quickly dropped their focus on athletics and began to organise Gaelic football and hurling.

Obviously, this caused problems. People resigned or were ousted. There was an IRB takeover and nationalist politics took over.  The GAA later tried to evolve into a non-political, non-sectarian organisation whose primary interest was sport.  Over the next 130 years it would truly achieve that but that is not the topic for today.  This blog is devoted to those Gaelic football and hurling clubs that existed before 1884 and still survive today.

So, what was happening before 1884 in the world of Gaelic games?

Yes, there must have been pre-existing clubs which affiliated to the GAA in late 1884 and throughout 1885.  However, some records show that these were pre-existing athletic and rugby clubs.  An example of this would be Laune Rangers in Killorglin (Co Kerry), which was a rugby club until late 1887 when its members decided to forgo rugby and instead affiliate as a Gaelic football club under the auspices of the recently formed Gaelic Athletic Association.

It is a matter of record that :-

  • Inter-village and, occasionally, inter-county hurling matches flourished throughout the 19th century.
  • In the early 1880’s Cusack turned his attentions to indigenous Irish sports.
  • In 1882 he attended the first meeting of the Dublin Hurling Club, formed ‘for the purpose of taking steps to re-establish the national game of hurling’.
  • The weekly games of hurling, in the Phoenix Park, became so popular that, in 1883, Cusack had sufficient numbers to found ‘Cusack’s Academy Hurling Club’ which, in turn, led to the establishment of the Metropolitan Hurling Club.
  • On Easter Monday 1884 the Metropolitans played Killiomor, in Galway. The game had to be stopped on numerous occasions as the two teams were playing to different rules.  It was this clash of styles that convinced Cusack that not only did the rules of the games need to be standardised but that a body must be established to govern Irish sports.

Back as far as the 17th C, hurling was a prominent sport, patronised by landlords and aristocracy.  This period became known as ‘the Golden Age of Hurling’ and lasted until the early years of the 19th C.  At this time, teams were organised from the tenants of landowners, with a valuable purse of money for the winners and large ‘side wagers’ placed on the result.  Teams were 21-a-side, the pitch was rectangular and had goalposts with crossbars.  There were field positions such as goalkeeper, backs and forwards and were subject to strict rules.

With the rise of the United Irishmen at the end of the 18th C, distrust developed between the landowners and the common people. In 1801, Ireland effectively became part of Britain with the Act of  Union and traditional culture was not encouraged.   The relationship that had helped hurling develop gradually eroded and the Great Famine in the 1840’s added to the decline of the game.  By 1860’s, hurling was in decline and in danger of fading away completely.


Pre-1884 Gaelic Games Time Line

1366 – The Statutes of Kilkenny “ordainc’d that the commons of the said land of lreland use not henceforth the game which men call hurling, with great clubs and ball upon the ground.” Despite this ban, the game seems to have survived in Kilkenny.

1527 – Another attempt at banning the game of hurling occurred in 1527, when a Statute of Galway proscribed “the Horlings  of the little Balle with hooky stickes.” It is thought that hooky is the origin of the word hockey but it must be remembered that ‘hooking’ is stil a much valued skill in modern day hurling.

1587 – Lord Chancellor William Gerrarde was forced to reprimand the English settlers of the Munster Plantation for playing the native game of hurling.

1753It is recorded that the first Tipperary v Cork hurling match took place at Glenagoul, Kildinan, in a field now owned by the Walsh family. The local Landlord, Barrymore, more or less sponsored his local team to play against one backed by another landlord from Tipperary.

1792 – ’a hurling match took place in the Phoenix Park’, Dublin in front of a vast ‘concourse of spectators’, with ‘much agility and athletic contention, until the spectators forced into the playing ground’. (King 2005, p. 18)

1806 – In the poem Iomán Innis Chaoin, there`s reference to a hurling match that took place between Inniskeen (Monaghan) and a team from Louth in 1806. The Inniskeen club was officially formed in 1883. Apparently the Louth team arrived with their hurls strapped to a donkey and the start had to be delayed because the Monagan lads threw the donkey in the river.

1810 – Trinity College Hurling Club played games in College Park, Dublin

1827 – Callan (Kilkenny) a game was reported as, ‘It was a good game. The sticks were being brandished like swords. Hurling is a war-like game. The west side won the first match and the east the second. You could hear the sticks striking the ball from one end of the Green to the other’ (diaries of Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin).

1839 – On 6th January, Bonniconlon (Mayo) played a hurling match against Attymass (Mayo) in Lag na Buachailli Baire in Carrareagh, a long low hollow off the Bofield road which now belongs to Michael Foy.  Both of these clubs affiliated with the GAA in 1889.

1860Beann Éadair (Dublin)

1863Ballygarvan (Cork)

1871 – Dublin University (Trinity College) Hurling Club

1879 – The first meeting of a Irish Hurling Union was held in House 17 of Botany Bay in Trinity College – a forerunner of Dublin University Hockey Club.  It was from this this club that the famous club colours of green and black were inherited.  The Hurling Club, incidentally, counted amongst its members one Edward Carson, later to make his name in an entirely different field.  The DU Hockey Club was not founded until 1893, so the idea that this club was really a hockey club is somewhat dubious.

1882 – Kanturk (Cork), Dublin Hurling Club (Dublin),

1883 – Athlone (Roscommon or Westmeath), Burt (Donegal), Inniskeen (Monaghan), Killiomor (Galway), Metropolitan Hurling Club (Dublin),


Time Line from 1884 onwards

1884Clara (Offaly), Croom (Cork), Meelick Eyrecourt (Galway), Round Towers, Clondalkin (Dublin), South Liberties (Limerick), Tullaroan (Kilkenny)



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