Pioneer magazine

Maurice Davin - First President of the GAA

The art of Gaelic football would not exist, as we know it today, were it not that a native of Carrick-on-Suir instituted new rules for the game some 124 years ago. That Maurice Davin must be acclaimed as the father of modern Gaelic football cannot be refuted, writes SEAN UA CEARNAIGH

Maurice Davin was, by any standards, an exceptional man. He was one of a quartet of brothers (Maurice, Tom, Denis and Pat), all of them brilliant athletes. Maurice and Pat, in particular, achieved worldwide fame. Pat, who died in 1949 at the age of ninety-two, could be regarded as the greatest all-round athlete Ireland has ever produced, beating the entire world's best during his illustrious career.

Maurice Davin, in the course of his athletic career, excelled in hammer-throwing and in feats of weight casting generally. Having won several Irish titles he crossed to England and beat the pick of the country. In a career extending from 1872 to 1881, he also gained honours in high-jumping, not to mention hop, skip and jump.

Prior to his entry into the field of athletics he had been an accomplished boxer and a splendid boatman with fine victories at a number of fiercely contested regattas. All these feats would have won him fame even had he never been among the founders of the GAA. But it is for his part in helping to revive and preserve the native games and pastimes that he will be best remembered.

He was born at Deerpark, a mile west of Carrick-on-Suir, on 29th June, 1842 to a well-off farming family, long established in the area. His remote ancestors had hailed from County Fermanagh and one of them, it is believed, had been a member of the Hugh Dubh O’Neill’s Ulster army, the same army which so valiantly defended Clonmel against Cromwell's forces in 1650. The Davins remained true to Ireland in the ensuing years, and Maurice's grand-uncle, Billy, was done to death in Carrick-on-Suir in 1798 by British Crown forces.

The Davin family, in addition to owning a fine farm, also ran a highly successful boat business on the stretch of the river Suir between Carrick and Clonmel. It is scarcely to be wondered at that the young Davins were all expert boatmen or that Maurice gained many victories at regattas.

Maurice Davin was always a convinced Irish nationalist. In common with his brothers, he was keenly interested in the Irish language. His biographer and fellow Tipperary man, the late Seamus O Riain, one time President of the GAA wrote:

‘At harvest time a dozen or so seasonal workers came every year from the foothills of the Comeragh Mountains to reap the corn crops... These reapers were all native Irish speakers and some of them spoke no English. They had comfortable sleeping quarters in the big loft over the stables and when the day’s labour was over the young Davins liked to join them in the loft, listening to their conversation, story-telling and singing and picking up the Irish language.’

Those happy times listening to Déise Irish speakers were recalled with loving nostalgia many years later by Pat Davin in his fine book, Recollections of a Veteran Irish Athlete.

Maurice Davin was a fine exponent of Irish dancing and a very accomplished traditional violinist. He loved to play the old Irish airs, such as An Cúilfhionn or Fáinne Geal on Lae, and the gems of his own county, Sliabh na mBan and Cill Chais.

Maurice Davin became acquainted with Michael Cusack in the 1870s, due to the active participation of both men at athletic meetings in Dublin. Athletics in Ireland were then in the hands of an elite anglicised few, and working men and tradesmen were not allowed to compete at sports meetings. Traditional sports such as weight-throwing, tug-of-war and general feats of strength were not encouraged. Indeed, they were often frowned upon. These were matters of great dissatisfaction to Davin, Cusack and many other like¬ minded people. Indeed, one of the prime reasons for the founding of the GAA was to put athletics in the hands of the plain people of Ireland.

Cusack, a one-time exponent of cricket and rugby, was converted to the cause of Gaelic pastimes through his love of the Irish language, of which he was a native speaker. Davin, a lover of hurling and Gaelic football from his earliest days, was an avid patron of all Irish pastimes. He had a particular love of football. Gaelic football in those days, however, was a rough-and-tumble game, usually played along roads from parish to parish, and participants were even allowed to wrestle their opponents. Davin and those who thought like him knew that if Gaelic football was to survive new radical rules would have to be instituted.

The meeting in Hayes’ Hotel, Thurles on 1st November, 1884, which was the birth of the GAA, attracted just seven people. Maurice Davin, Joseph K. Bracken, Joseph O’Ryan, and Thomas St. George McCarthy were all Tipperary men; Michael Cusack was a native of Carron, County Clare; John Wyse Power hailed from Waterford City and John McKay, born in Belfast, was a sports reporter with the Cork Examiner. Joseph Bracken and John Wyse were active Fenians, while Thomas McCarthy, an RIC inspector, was probably at the other end of the political spectrum. He subsequently severed his connection with the GAA but continued to attend hurling matches.

At this historic meeting in Thurles, Maurice Davin was chosen as the first President of the GAA, a tribute to his outstanding sporting prowess and to the esteem and affection in which he was held by the Irish people. During his all-too-brief four years reign, he proved himself a most capable administrator and innovator. Before his term of office had ended, he had the great joy of seeing his beloved Tipperary winning the first ever All-Ireland hurling final.

The new rules for Gaelic football, as devised by Davin, were adopted at a meeting in Thurles on 5 January 1885. Ten in all, perhaps the most interesting was rule 6, which stated:

'Pushing or tripping from behind, holding from behind, or butting with the head shell be deemed foul, and the player so offending shall be ordered to stand aside and may not afterwards take
part in the match, nor can his side substitute another man.’

Rules for hurling, also devised by Davin, again with the emphasis on sportsmanship, were adopted on 17th January 1885. To the end of his days, Davin retained his deep love of Gaelic pastimes, attending countless hurling and football games in his own county and beyond. He frequently gave the use of his own lands for the playing of Gaelic games. He also retained his love of all things Irish. He was present at the first meeting of the Carrick-on-Suir branch of the Gaelic League and continued to support the Irish language revival to the end of his life.

He never married. He died on 27th January, 1927, a few months short of his eighty-fifth birthday. His brother, Pat, fifteen years his junior survived him by all of twenty-two years. One of Carrick-on-Suir’s two hurling teams, Carrick Davins, proudly bears his name as does the fine GAA park in the town.