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“Go bald-headed for the opposition” – rousing talk at inaugural GAA meeting

It is an oft-quoted truism that the first thing on the agenda of an organisation is the split. It seems to be a particularly Irish trend that no sooner have people congregated in pursuit of some laudable objective than differences are fostered and splits manufactured. Remarkably then there was no split at the inaugural meeting of Naas GAA club 125 years ago this month but there were plenty of references to a person or persons unknown who were alleged to be stirring up opposition to the formation of a GAA club in the county town. 

A feeling that the new branch of the GAA was ready to take on all opposition was intimated at the inaugural meeting by the local curate, Fr. E. Walsh, who was in the chair. In his opening remarks – as reported in the Kildare Observer – to those assembled in the Town Hall he warned that the new club should be “very select” in recruiting members. He cautioned that the “taking in of any members who were not fitted was calculated to do more harm than good.” That there was a political tone to the clergyman’s remarks was indicated by his comment that “The GAA was the one really National association, and they wanted to have no one in it who was not National.” This presumably is a cut at those of the unionist persuasion in the town who might have seen the GAA as another outlet for Fenianism.

Steel was put into the back-bone of the new Naas club by Mr. Seery a representative from the Central Executive of the GAA who told the attendance that he had been informed that there was a spirit of opposition in the town to the formation of a club. His advice was for the members to “go bald-headed for the opposition.” He added that “if the manhood of the town wanted to have anything they would have it in spite of opposition.”  Such rousing talk might seem a long way removed from the business of organising a football team, arranging for training, and getting the basics of a pitch and kit togethefr. However the GAA had an unapologetically patriotic and political ethos and it saw itself as a prime mover of the wider nationalist drive for an independent Ireland.

The game of Gaelic football was not markedly different from any other kind of football and indeed there was some confusion in its early days about the playing rules of Gaelic football. At the inaugural meeting of the Naas club a Mr. Dowling who was described as being “a very distinguished athlete” said he believed that “Gaelic football was played something like association football (soccer).”  Such a comparison would have been regarded as heresy by dyed-in-the-wool GAA men but it pointed up the fact that – without all the political baggage -- Gaelic football in its own right was just another way of bringing a codified set of rules to the age-old sport of kicking a ball around a field.

The inaugural meeting of the Naas club in October 1887 was not the first time that the GAA clarion call  had been heard in the town. Three years earlier the then editor of the Leinster Leader, John Wyse-Power attended the now celebrated foundation meeting of the GAA in Hayes Hotel, Thurles, on 1st November 1884. Wyse-Power’s tenure at the Leader was short-lived and he had left Naas well before the 16th October 1887 when the local branch of the Association was inaugurated.  But here was no shortage of men representative of the upper echelons of Naas society present at the October 1887 meeting with the clergy, doctors, solicitors and high street merchants all prominent. Among those attending the inaugural meeting were Dr. Smith, Messrs. S. J. Browne (solicitor), W. Staples (merchant), James O’Hanlon, P.J. Duncan, J. Nanetti (printer), W. Masterson, J. Donnellan, J. Clarke, M. Gogarty (merchant), Rev. E. Walsh and J.M. Ginnane. The most exotic name is that of Nanetti, a printer in the Kildare Observer newspaper offices in the market square. In later years Nanetti became involved in metropolitan politics in Dublin, was elected the capital’s Lord Mayor, and is immortalised among the menagerie of characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The proceedings at the first Naas club meeting were monitored by two representatives from the central executive of the GAA – the aforementioned Mr Seery and a Mr Donleavy – showing how the GAA at national level had already established a tight organisational hierarchy. The formation of a branch was proposed by James O’Hanlon and seconded by William Staples and the meeting proceeded to elect the first club officers namely: President;  Fr. E. Walsh CC; Vice- President; S.J.Browne, Secretary: J. M. Ginnane and Treasurer, J O’Hanlon.

The early games were played in fields near the Naas branch of the canal while gymnastic equipment was installed in the Town Hall and, indicating the political character of the early GAA, the club held debates in the Hall on Sunday nights.

The centenary of the Naas club was marked in October 1987 with the unveiling of a plaque which can be seen on the façade of  Naas Town Hall; the 125th anniversary is being marked this week with a meeting in the Town Hall, scene of that rousing inaugural meeting on October 1887. And always to the fore of modern trends Naas GAA, headed by club historian Liam McManus. has embarked on the laudable project of making the texts of its early minute books available on-line for Gaels at home and abroad to see and enjoy. Series no: 301.

The inaugural meeting of Naas GAA from Liam Kenny's Looking Back series in the Leinster Leader

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