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Founding patron of the GAA, Michael Davitt. 
Founding patron of the GAA, Michael Davitt. 

Michael Davitt remembered

By John Harrington

Today, March 25, is the birth-date of one of the founding patrons of the GAA, Michael Davitt.

Born in 1846 in Straide, Mayo, Davitt was a hugely significant figure in Irish history.

He was one of the founders and chief organisers of the Land League, a very successful mass-movement which paved the way for tenant-farmers to become owner-occupiers of their own land.

He was also a Fenian, Member of Parliament, labour leader, author, international humanitarian, and advocator for the reform of the penal system.

He probably would never have become any of those things were it not for accident he suffered as a nine-year-old boy.

A few years after his family were forced to emigrate to England, he had to have an arm amputated after getting it caught in a cogwheel while working in a cotton mill.

After recovering from his operation, a local philanthropist, John Dean, funded his enrolment in a Wesleyan school which ultimately steered him down a very different path than the one he was most likely otherwise destined for.

Davitt was one of three founding patrons of the GAA along with Dr. Thomas William Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, and Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, but the only one consulted in advance of the establisment of the Association by its founder, Michael Cusack.

In his letter of acceptance to Michael Cusack, Davitt wrote:

“I accept with great pleasure the position of patron which has been assigned to me by the Gaelic Athletic Association, though I am painfully conscious of how little assistance I can render you in your praiseworthy undertaking.

“Anything, however, it is in my power to do to further the objects of the Association, I will most willingly perform, as I cannot but recognise the urgent necessity which exists for a movement like that which you are organising with such zeal.

“I have already explained to you my views of Gaelic sports and hinted at plans by which a nationalist taste for them might be cultivated.

“I have, therefore, only to express my obligations to yourself and friends for the honour conferred upon me and to repeat the assurance of my entire sympathy with the objects of the Gaelic Athletic Association.”

An aerial view of Davitt Park in Belfast, home of Michael Davitts GAC. 
An aerial view of Davitt Park in Belfast, home of Michael Davitts GAC. 

From the very beginning, Davitt was an enthusiastic supporter of the newly founded GAA and gave far more than the 'little assistance' he feared he could.

When a group of fifty Irish GAA players toured America in 1888 in what became known as ‘The American Invasion’, Davitt provided what was initially meant to be a loan of £450 to cover the losses incurred by the tour and never sought repayment.

At the time the GAA’s finances were in a very parlous state, and Davitt’s generosity helped keep the Association afloat at a critical period in its development.

He also wrote the preface for the GAA rule book in 1888 and publicised GAA activities in a weekly newspaper he edited in London called the Labour World.

Perhaps most crucially of all, he worked hard to ensure that the GAA remained an apolitical organisation at a time when others were trying to take it in a different direction.

The name Michael Davitt will always be synonymous with the GAA and not just because he was a founding member - his name is kept alive by a number of GAA clubs around the country who have taken it as their own.

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