Throughout its formative years Cusack often had to deny that the G.A.A. was established as a political body; he was adamant that it had been established solely for the dual purposes of opening up athletics to the ordinary citizen and reversing the decline of native pastimes.
However, with legislative independence the burning issue of the day, keeping politics out of a parish based, nationwide organisation such as the G.A.A. would have been impossible.
For most of the 19th century nationalist Ireland was split between two clearly defined groups-those in favour of peaceful political agitation (Home Rule) and those who favoured physical force (IRB).
Both groups had taken an early interest in the GAA. By 1887 a struggle for control of the GAA broke out between the two camps and split the GAA in a way never seen since.
Bewteen 1884 and 1887 several key events had taken place within the GAA; Cusack had been removed from the post of Secretary in 1886 and key positions within the Association had been filled by IRB members including the post of vice-president which was taken up by P.T. Hoctor; the level of influence the IRB held within the Association can be seen by the invitation to the Fenian John O’Leary to become a patron of the Association.
The exiled Cusack established a paper ‘The Celtic Times’ and used it as a vehicle to criticise the leadership and administration of the Association. So fierce were his criticisms that within four months of its publication the Association issued an official organ of its own ‘The Gael’, under the editorship of Hoctor.
Throughout 1887 the IRB faction continued to tighten its grip on the administration of the Association, culminating in the revision of the rules of the Association; such revisions normally required the approval of Convention but the IRB faction forced them through at a Dublin meeting.
In April 1887 Davin, sensing that he could do no good, resigned as President of the Association. This left the IRB faction in control of the Executive and with the added tactical advantage of ownership of the mouthpiece of the Association.
The IRB saw the upcoming 1887 Convention in Thurles as an opportune time to seize full control of the Association.
The 1887 Convention, held in Thurles on the 9th of November 1887, is without doubt the most dramatic Convention ever seen in the history of the GAA.
Within three years the ‘Seven men in Thurles’ had grown to over 1,000 delegates; the mood in the town was tense with police lining the streets expecting trouble. The IRB faction had arrived to the venue, the local courthouse, early and ensured they filled all available seats.
When the meeting commenced Fitzgerald (IRB) and Scanlon (Home Rule) both sought the Chair; leading to loud arguments and fist fights amongst the spectators. When the IRB candidate, Edward Bennett, defeated Maurice Davin for the Presidency, Scanlon left and announced his intention to form a rival athletic association; one which would pledge allegiance to the National League. Symbolically he led a march to Hayes Hotel where he chaired a meeting during which a call of support was issued to the imprisoned MP William O’Brien; requested the support of Croke and demanded made that Davin be re-instated as President of the G.A.A.
Scanlon’s secession seemed to draw matters to a head; over the coming weeks clubs throughout the country held their own conventions, those who may have only marginally supported the physical force faction, were now given a stark choice-the relatively unknown Bennett or Davin. Anti-Bennett clubs grew by the week.
Croke, who had publicly distanced himself from the Bennett administration, now set about bringing the two sides together. A provisionally committee, equally representing both sides, was formed and a new Convention was scheduled for the 4th of January 1888. In the run up to this convention clubs held their own conventions and the proceedings of these gave a good indication that the mood was swinging firmly in the favour of Davin.
At the 1888 Convention, orderly and dignified by all accounts, Maurice Davin was elected as President and Prendergast as Secretary. The only members of the Bennett administration to survive the cull were Frewen (elected Treasurer) and O’Riordan (elected central council secretary). A new constitution was drafted and symbolically the MP William O’Brien was invited to become a patron.
The six week split ended practically overnight, helped no doubt by the decisions of both the ‘Celtic Times’ and ‘The Gael’ to cease publication. Planning for the upcoming 1888 Invasion tour helped focus minds.