Turtle Bunbury

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A founder member of the GAA - airbrushed from history because of his membership of the Crown forces - was rehabilitated in 2009 as part of the "Re-dedication of Founder's Graves" programme to mark the 125th Anniversary of the founding of the GAA.

District Inspector MacCarthy of the Royal Irish Constabulary must have wondered what he had got himself into. It was a wet Sunday afternoon in November 1884 and the 22-year-old policeman and former Irish rugby international was seated in the billiards room of a hotel in Thurles listening to a dozen or so men engage in a passionate discussion about the future of Irish sport. MacCarthy did not know all these men, but he knew several were prominent members of the illegal Fenian Brotherhood.[i] It is believed that he came as a guest of the well-to-do developer, JK Bracken, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.[ii]

The most verbose speaker in the room was MacCarthy’s former teacher, Michael Cusack (1847-1906), clad as ever in a big black hat and knee-breeches, the blackthorn stick by his side. Before the meeting was concluded, the names of MacCarthy, Bracken, Cusack and four other men would be recorded for posterity as the founding fathers of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes. It was arguably the boldest step for Irish nationalism since the ill-fated Fenian Rising was crushed back in ’67. And it was most certainly not the sort of place where an RIC officer should have been warming his seat.[iii]

In 1879, five years before he helped found the GAA, Thomas St George MacCarthy arrived in Dublin from his home in Bansha, Co Tipperary. The 17-year-old came to the City to study at Michael Cusack’s Civil Service Academy, a cramming school in Gardiner’s Place which specialized in preparing young men for entry examinations into the RIC, as well as to medical and law schools, the army and navy, and Trinity College. Cusack and MacCarthy struck up a strong friendship, with MacCarthy playing rugby for the Academy team and Cusack coaching the young Tipperary man to take first place in the RIC cadetship examinations.

In January 1883, MacCarthy was promoted 3rd Class District Inspector and, the following June, he was allocated to Templemore, Co. Tipperary.[iv] Meanwhile, his rugby career was booming. He won his first (and only) rugby cap for Ireland when he played in the three quarters against Wales in 1882.[v] That same year, he played for Dublin University Rugby Club (Trinity College) when they won the Leinster Senior Cup. His parents must have been proud.

Thomas's grandfather owned the Lansdowne Hotel in Kenmare, Co. Kerry, and his father, George MacCarthy, was born in Spa Hill, Tralee, Co Kerry, in 1832. George joined the RIC at the age of 25.[vi] While serving in Rathmullen, Co Donegal, he met Thomas’s mother, Mary Doherty. In 1858, George was transferred to the village of Bansha in the Galtee Mountains where he remained for the next ten years, before being transferred 20 miles north to Ballynonty, near Thurles. Thomas St George MacCarthy was born in Bansha on 9 June 1862 and educated at the Tipperary Grammar School, known as the Abbey School, in nearby Tipperary Town.[vii] At the Abbey, he became an enthusiastic cricket and rugby player. As a young man, he also enjoyed watching the young men of Bansha – the forerunners of the Galtee Rivers GAA – hurling in the meadows around the village. However, there is no record of MacCarthy ever actually having played himself.

There is much about MacCarthy which makes one question what he was doing in Hayes Hotel that day. Some say he was there because, as a sporting fanatic, he simply wished to support anything that promoted sport amongst young people. Sport, he believed, would deter the youth from excessive drinking. Others inevitably hold that the rugby-playing policeman was a British spy, not least since his father was by now one of Co Tipperary’s four Residential Magistrates.[viii]

At any rate, he must have flinched when Cusack described rugby as ‘a denationalizing plague [carrying] on through winter the work of ruin that cricket was doing through the summer’.

MacCarthy had maintained his friendship with Cusack after he joined the RIC. However, the older man had since embarked upon a new and rather more perilous journey. A Fenian since childhood, Cusack was a nationalist of almost absurdly romantic proportions. His dreams were frequented by the likes of Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy, Speranza and Charles Kickham. In one such dream, he encountered the elderly rebel leader Thomas Meagher who ‘darted up from the Missouri on a ray of the morning star and fiercely asked what had become of Irish hurling’.[ix]

Feeling a tremendous sense of personal embarrassment that indigenous games had fallen by the wayside, Cusack swore to Mother Erin that he would make a new beginning for Irish sport. He soon secured the backing of Maurice Davin, a world champion runner and weight-thrower, then considered one of the best athletes in the world.[x] The duo decided to host a gathering of all persons interested in creating an organization for Irish sports at Miss Hayes Commercial Hotel in Thurles on 1st November 1884.[xi]

MacCarthy was the only founder excluded from honoured memory. The reasons for this are straightforward. In 1888, the GAA prohibited any of its members from serving with either the RIC or the British Army. MacCarthy was a policeman and thus he too was banned.[xii]

It is not known what MacCarthy thought about his being airbrushed from GAA history. He had probably already started to distance himself from the organization, particularly after March 1885 when Cusack declared that no athlete would be allowed to compete at GAA meetings if they competed elsewhere under other rules.

The former rugby star must have also baulked when Archbishop Croke, the foremost patron of the GAA, penned a magnificently vitriolic epistle slating British fashion, mannerisms, language and, above all, sport.

However, investigations into MacCarthy’s personal file at the RIC reveal that the officer may have had other things on his mind.[xiii] In 1885, for instance, he was rapped on the knuckles for tampering with an official document in Templemore. In November 1887, he married a solicitor’s daughter from Dublin and relocated to Limavady.[xiv] Four years later, he received a further black mark for ‘serious and continued neglect of duty’ while stationed in Limavady. Again, the exact nature of this misconduct is not recorded.

In 1894, he was transferred to Dundalk, where he played cricket for a local Catholic team. Yet another unfavourable comment in his personal fire refers to his being reprimanded for disobedience and a warning for his future career should he ‘again refuse to carry out his duties loyally or give cause for complaint to the Inspector General’.

Thereafter he served in a series of rural villages, before retiring in 1912, five months before his 50th birthday. A comment in his file from this time declares that he had been deemed unfit for further duty on account of his ‘general conduct’ and unspecified injuries received while serving in Dundalk in 1894.

No further details as to MacCarthy’s misdemeanours are yet known. In later life he lived on Oakley Road in Ranelagh where he frequented the local pub. He regularly attended matches at both Croke Park and Lansdowne Road until his death, aged 81, at Linden Convalescent Home, Blackrock, on 12 March 1943.

District Inspector MacCarthy, the last of the seven original GAA founders, was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Dublin’s Deans Grange Cemetery.[xv] Renowned RIC historian Jim Herlihy subsequently located the grave and set in motion the idea of rehabilitating MacCarthy’s memory. Jim McDonald, chairman of the George Cross Foundation, duly put the idea to Jarlath Burns, the former Armagh star who heads the GAA's 125th anniversary organizing committee. Burns took up the challenge and on the morning of 18th November, a granite commemorative stone will be unveiled by MacCarthy’s grave. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy have both been invited to the ceremony. The two police forces have already honoured the mysterious policeman by presenting The Thomas St. George MacCarthy Cup for an annual football competition between the two sides.

Thanks to Senan Moloney, Jim Herlihy, Peter McGoldrick, Denis Marnane, Richard St George, Marcus de Burca, Mike Smithson and Ros Dee.


The Curious Career of Sub-Inspector Thomas McCarthy, Marcus de Búrca, Tipperary Historical Journal 1988 (Editor: Marcus Bourke)
The IRB & the Beginnings of the GAA, William F Mandle, Irish Historical Studies 20 (80) 1977, quoted in Sport: The development of sport, by Eric Dunning, Dominic Malcolm.
The Complete Handbook of Gaelic Games (2005), Editor Des Donegan
The Royal Irish Constabulary - A complete alphabetical list of officers and men, 1816-1922, Jim Herlihy (Four Courts Press, 1999).

For more in the RIC, visit this excellent website by Peter McGoldrick.

Photo: Police Service of Northern Ireland Museum, Belfast).


[i] Although legend holds that there were just seven men in the room, there were in fact at least fourteen. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a great turn out. At least sixty men issued apologies that they could not make it. The original seven were 37-year-old Cusack, Marcus Davin (then Ireland’s best-known athlete), John Wyse Power (a Dublin journalist then working with the Leinster Leader in Naas and with the ‘extreme section of Irish nationalists’), John McKay (a Co Down journalist working with the Cork Examiner), J.K. Bracken (an IRB man and builder from Templemore), P.J. Ryan (a solicitor in Thurles and Callan, Co Kilkenny) and 22-year-old Thomas St. George MacCarthy, a young policeman, then stationed in Templemore. As several of the attendees were press, they ensured good coverage in the media. Wyse Power’s report began with a reference to this ‘well-attended meeting’ but McKay was more honest and admonished the Examiner’s readers for their failure to show up. McKay is credited with penning the infamous two words ‘etc. etc.’ after the seven names that he said attended that first meeting in Thurles. Local press reports indicate that at least six more men were present - William Foley of Carrick-on-Suir, and five locals from Thurles, namely Dwyer, Culhane, William Delehunty, John Butler and William Cantwell. Also present was Frank Moloney of Nenagh, who was left off the records as his particularly strong Fenian credentials would have drawn flak from the Authorities.

[ii] Others say MacCarthy just happened to run into some of the organizers on the street shortly before the event began and decided to take a seat. Bracken was born at Ardvullen House, Kilmallock, Co. Limerick and died in 1904). His son was Viscount Brendan Bracken (1901- 1958), the politician and publisher who became Winston Churchill's closest friend and his Minister of Information from 1941-45.

[iii] There is no record of MacCarthy having spoken at the meeting.

[iv] He was appointed on 3 January 1883.

[v] The rugby match was played on 28 January 1882. Ireland lost.

[vi] George Thomas MacCarthy (1832-1902) served as a County Inspector with the Royal Irish Constabulary. He was born on 21 May 1832 at Spa Hill, Tralee, Co Kerry. His father Thomas MacCarthy the owner of the Lansdowne Hotel in Kenmare, County Kerry. These MacCarthys were descendants of the MacCarthys of Kilfadamore and Kilgarvan in Kerry, an extensive and proud family; Mary ?Christabel? Downing (nee MacCarthy), ?the mountain poetess,? was another descendant. The hotel passed on to another son, William. Thomas MacCarthy Senior may have been the sponsor at Thomas St George?s baptism in 1862, although Thomas snr (who appears to have died c.1881) may also have had a son called Thomas.

In 1855, 25-year-old George joined the Irish Revenue Police as a lieutenant. Two years later he joined the RIC and was posted to Rathmullen, Co Donegal, where he met his wife Margaret Doherty. Lt MacCarthy and Miss Doherty were married circa 1857. The following year, he was transferred to Bansha. In September 1865, he received a reward of £15 for his efforts in ‘quelling a mini-riot by race-goers patronizing a mobile shebeen at the Cashel races’. (de Burca). In 1867, he received special payment for an unspecified good service. In April 1870, the 39-year-old was appointed Resident Magistrate and he remained one of County Tipperary’s four RMs for the next 20 years. It is not known precisely where he lived but it was probably in or around Tipperary Town. There has been some speculation that George was the inspiration behind Darby Ryan’s satirical poem, ‘The Peeler and the Goat’, aka ‘The Bansha Peeler’. However, George Thomas MacCarthy joined the RIC two years after Darby?s death. Thanks to Mike Smithson, great-great-grandson of Thomas MacCarthy Senior for this information.

The St George connection may have been something to Howard John St George of Kilrush House, Freshford, Co Kilkenny, whose youngest son – and eventual heir - John Edward St George was also in the RIC, rising to become Private Secretary to the Inspector General.

[vii] He was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Bansha on 11 June 1862. His sponsors were Thomas McCarthy and Clara Doherty, most probably his uncle and aunt. (Cork Examiner 14 June 1862). The Tipperary Grammar School was an Erasmus Smith foundation. The school had an extensive sporting ethos and was particularly strong at rugby. MacCarthy was one of nine Tipperary Grammar School pupils who played rugby for Ireland between 1882 and the schools’ closure in 1923.

MacCarthy’s sister Kathleen died at an early age and is buried in Bansha Cemetery.

[viii] That said, MacCarthy’s background need not have worked against him. Other prominent early supporters of the GAA included Douglas Hyde, son of a Protestant clergyman, and the Rev Maxwell Close, a respected geologist and son of an Ulster Unionist.

[ix] Joyce based the character of the Citizen in Ulysses on Cusack.

[x] Davin had a particularly noble motive to create sports specifically ‘for the humble and hard-working who seem now to be born into no other inheritance than an everlasting round of labour’.

[xi] At the meeting, Archbishop Croke, Parnell and Davitt were invited to become patrons – and accepted – and the spirit of the GAA spread like a prairie fire across the island.

[xii] The 'ban' was only lifted this century.

[xiii] Much of this information came from Marcus de Burca’s excellent study. In September 1894, MacCarthy was presented with a complimentary illuminated address accompanied by a purse of sovereigns from the magistrates, clergy and inhabitants generally of the county of Londonderry on the occasion of his transfer to Dundalk; expressive of regret at his removal from amongst them, bearing testimony to the ability, tact and firmness with which he invariably discharged his duties while stationed at Limavady and as a token of their esteem and regard. Resolutions were also passed by the presiding at Limavady and Claudy Petty Sessions on the 4th and 7th December 1894 respectively, expressing regret at his leaving. On 1 December 1894, he was transferred to Dundalk, Co. Louth. He was promoted to 1st Class District Inspector on 1 August 1896. On 15 December 1903, he was transferred to Robertstown, Co. Kildare. On 1 April 1905, he was transferred to Newpallas, Co. Limerick. On 25 July 1909, he was transferred to Newport, Co. Mayo. On 15 September 1911, he was transferred to Ballymahon, Co. Longford. He was awarded the King Edward VII Visit to Ireland Medal, 1903. He was pensioned on 23 January 1912.

[xiv] On 1 March 1885, he was transferred to Derrygonnelly, Co. Tipperary. He was promoted to 2nd Class District Inspector on 16 March 1887 and transferred to Limavaday on 15 November. However, on 18 November 1887, he married Dublin-born Lucie Josephine Lynch in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. Her father was born in Galway and practiced as a solicitor in Great Charles Street, off the North Circular Road, Dublin. They had a son, who practiced law at Edmonton, Canada, and a daughter, Kathleen (b. 1891, Derry) who, after acting in the Abbey Theatre, moved to Melbourne, Australia.

[xv] Registry No.55580; Grave No.53, Section L3.