On 25 September, 1888, a delegation of Irish athletes arrived in New York City for an “American Invasion Tour” intended to raise money and promote awareness for the sports of the four-year-old Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The New York Times reported that “50 stalwart young lads with remarkably well developed limbs sprang down the gangplank of the steamer Wisconsin … (carrying) blackthorn sticks and ‘hurling’ clubs in their hands … Their sticks commanded universal respect, and a big policeman eyed them with special interest …”
The visiting athletes were greeted by “many friends … and representatives from several Irish societies,” the Times reported. “Almost all trades and professions are represented among the young men.”
Their arrival coincided with a period of increased Irish immigration to America due to ongoing domestic agrarian unrest and political turmoil. These issues were now receiving extra scrutiny from a special commission that opened in London a few weeks earlier. American journalist William Henry Hurlbert also published a book about the “Irish problem” based on his travels in the country earlier that year. (See my “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” blog serial.)
“One of the main ideas considered by the founders of the GAA was the revival of the ancient Tailteann Games, An Aonach Tailteann,” the organization says in its online history. “However, terrible weather and infighting between the two athletic organisations in America resulted in low attendances and gate receipts.”
The GAA tour was to have included exhibitions in New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Trenton, Newark, and Patterson, New Jersey; Providence, Rhode Island; and Lowell, Massachusetts. But dates were cancelled and the tour ended in just five weeks. The GAA had to borrow money from agrarian activist Michael Davitt help the athletes return to Ireland. About half the young men decided to stay in America.
Two years ago, the diary kept team member Pat Davin, brother of GAA co-founder Maurice Davin, emerged in public and was put under auction, as reported by The Irish Times. In one passage the diarist complained about “very plain-looking” American women at a New York dance; in another, about the lack of strong drink at a Massachusetts banquet.
Davin’s dairy went unsold at the 2016 auction and remains in the hands of the private owner, said County Kilkenny-based Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers. A commemorative medal from the 1888 tour sold in May for about $2,200, slightly less than was paid for a similar medal eight years ago.
“Although the tour was deemed a failure in some regards, its overall cultural impact was noticeable and lasting,” according to Haverford College. “The tour was well received by Irish American communities in general and eventually resulted in the formation of several GAA branches.”
During his travels in Ireland, Hurlbert obtained a copy of the newly published Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland, which included “Marching Song of the Gaelic Athletes.” The poem by Irish nationalist Douglas Hyde later became the GAA anthem. It begins:
We, the numerous men of Eire,
Born beneath her pleasant skies,
To our gatherings on our mountains.
In our thousands we arise.
See the weapons on our shoulders,
Neither gun nor pike we bear,
But should Ireland call upon us
Ireland soon should find them there.