The untold story of the forgotten Ulsterman who helped found the GAA

Events in Downpatrick and London will this weekend mark 100 years since the death of John McKay, a co-founder of the GAA and a key figure in its early years – but whose contribution was largely forgotten as the association grew to its central place in Irish society today. Historian Dónal McAnallen has conducted painstaking research into the fascinating life of the one-time Irish News reporter and tells his story here

Co Down-born John McKay was one of the founders of the GAA
Co Down-born John McKay was one of the founders of the GAA Co Down-born John McKay was one of the founders of the GAA

Saturday December 2 2023 marks the centenary of the death of a major but largely forgotten figure in the GAA’s history – John McKay, Downpatrick native, founder member, joint secretary of the association, and later Irish News reporter.

McKay was the only Ulsterman involved in the establishment of the GAA. He came to the billiard room of Hayes’ Hotel, Thurles, on November 1 1884 as a representative of Cork Amateur Athletic Club and a reporter for the Cork Examiner. He left as one of three secretaries of the new organisation.

Despite his central role in the development of the GAA until his resignation in August 1886, over the next century McKay faded so far out of the narrative of Ireland’s largest sporting body that even his very place of origin became clouded in doubt. He was referred to either as ‘a Cork man’ or ‘a Belfast man’, but nobody really seemed to know.

In 2009, Kieran McConville and I, both working for the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library and Archive, launched into researching the story of the mysterious McKay. After a hunt through newly digitised genealogical records, a public appeal through this newspaper, and the emergence of an old letter held by McKay relatives in Belfast, we identified Cargagh, outside Downpatrick, as the area where he grew up.

Moreover, we discovered that McKay died in London in December 1923, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Kensal Green.

The GAA’s 125 Years Committee then organised, through the auspices of John Arnold (Cork), the installation of a gravestone memorial for him, his wife Ellen, son Patrick Joseph, and grandson Patrick Joseph Jr. The gravestone was formally unveiled at a ceremony in November 2009.

Dónal McAnallen and Kieran McConville with Philip Byrne of Bray, a great-grandnephew of John McKay, at his gravestone unveiled in 2009 in London
Dónal McAnallen and Kieran McConville with Philip Byrne of Bray, a great-grandnephew of John McKay, at his gravestone unveiled in 2009 in London Dónal McAnallen and Kieran McConville with Philip Byrne of Bray, a great-grandnephew of John McKay, at his gravestone unveiled in 2009 in London

Three months later, a blue plaque was erected on the old Irish News offices on Donegall Street, to announce that McKay once worked there.

The unveiling of the blue plaque to John McKay by Philomena McConvey and Doreen Corcoran from the Ulster History Circle with Irish News Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick
The unveiling of the blue plaque to John McKay by Philomena McConvey and Doreen Corcoran from the Ulster History Circle with Irish News Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick The unveiling of the blue plaque to John McKay by Philomena McConvey and Doreen Corcoran from the Ulster History Circle with Irish News Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick

This week’s centennial anniversary provides an opportunity to unlock again the story of Ulster’s GAA founder, with a raft of newly researched details about his extraordinary life and legacy.

From Down roots to bustling Belfast

John McKay was born in early October 1852, the second of five children of Joseph and Ann Jane (née Doran). This much is confirmed by Downpatrick baptismal records, though like almost every step of this story, it is not entirely straightforward – the surname was often spelt as ‘McKee’ in those days.

The family lived on a plot at the corner where the Buckshead Road branches off the Ballydugan Road, between Downpatrick and Clough, 3.5 miles southwest of the town. (The late John Smith, half-back on Down’s successful team of 1961, lived next to the field.)

These immediate post-Famine years were tough times for such families. Joseph was an agricultural labourer, and his early death, apparently before 1860 and his fortieth birthday, left Ann Jane to rear five children under the age of 10.

Fortunately for John, he received a good education, most likely at adjacent Bonecastle National School, which received glowing reports from inspectors in the early 1860s.

At a time of increasing literacy and the growth of the print media, John decided to become a journalist. He joined the staff of the Belfast Morning News at Crown Entry during the 1870s, presumably close to the time that this became a daily newspaper in August 1872. He learned Pitman’s shorthand, and practised as a proof-reader too.

The rapid expansion and opportunity of Belfast attracted most of the rest of the family to follow John’s path. By the late 1870s, the McKay home-place at Cargagh was abandoned, and just one sister was living near Downpatrick – Susanna, with her husband George Hanna and family, in the parish of Bright.

The other three siblings moved into new houses on Albert Street and Cullingtree Road, and from then on the McKays were primarily a Belfast family.

St Peter’s Church on the west side was where two of his sisters were wed in the early 1880s. The youngest, Margaret, married Joseph Kelly, a Carrickfergus native, in 1880, and had four children. Alas, two of them died as infants, before she died at the young age of 27.

The eldest, Ann, married Thomas Mullen in 1882, but he died one year later, and their only daughter, Cassie, passed away at the age of two in 1885. She wed again in 1890, to widower Joseph Magill, and lived on Leopold Street and Chatham Street, Ardoyne, until her death in 1935.

Both of these McKay sisters’ graves have recently been located in Milltown Cemetery, buried with their in-laws in unmarked plots.

Their mother, Ann Jane, died in Albert Street in 1883, but is not buried there. She may be presumed to be buried in Downpatrick with her husband, though their grave has not been found.

The other sibling, James, ran a successful shoemaking business on Mill Street (now Castle Street) in the city centre. He and his wife Catherine (née Fitzpatrick) raised seven children there, before moving to Eliza Street in the Markets area in the 1900s. James was a prominent Hibernian, and was Vice-President of AOH branch 130 for a period. This family line still resides in Belfast, including James’ granddaughter, Philomena McConvey, who unveiled the Irish News blue plaque in 2010.

Cork, 1878-1894: Examiner reporters & GAA co-founder

While the others settled in Belfast, John had already moved on. He ventured south and started a new job as a reporter with the Cork Examiner in April 1878. These were exciting times, and the 1880s would be the defining decade of his life. He travelled all over Munster to cover political events, and reported on at least 200 meetings of the Parnellite Irish National League (of which he was a member) and the Land League (being ‘a strong sympathiser’).

This was also a formative period for sport, with new clubs springing up, setting rules, taking membership and running events. We do not know whether John McKay had the physique, desire or opportunity to compete in his own right, but he was 32 at the time of the first known report of him in a sporting context, as a committee member of Cork Amateur Athletic Club in July 1884. He stood in as timekeeper at the club’s athletic sports meeting at Cork Park a month later.

Little did McKay realise that simply by going to a meeting at Hayes’ Hotel, Thurles, on November 1, and helping to form the Gaelic Athletic Association, he would earn a special place in a nation’s sporting history.

His speech that evening was one of the most notable contributions to the meeting, as recorded in his own words: "… [T]he formation of the Gaelic Association should only form one step reaching the goal they were all anxious to arrive at – namely, the formation of a general athletic association for Ireland – composed of representatives from all the leading clubs – to regulate the management of all meetings, to frame rules of their own for the government of such meetings, and put an end once and for ever to their being bound by the rules of the English A. A. Association (hear, hear). He… objected to Irish affairs being managed by Englishmen (hear, hear), and in matters athletic he has had a decidedly strong feeling on the point."

Besides writing a detailed account of the meeting, he was appointed one of three joint secretaries of the GAA, alongside Michael Cusack and John Wyse Power.

McKay went on to play a crucial role in consolidating the nascent GAA. With Dublin and Belfast athletics networks being aligned primarily to London-based bodies, and coalescing in January 1885 to formal the Irish Amateur Athletic Association as a rival to the Gaelic body, Munster was the principal battleground where the GAA could forge early dominance.

To understand the scale of McKay’s personal task, we must bear in mind that the GAA was quite unique in its multi-sports remit. During his tenure, the association not only set down laws for Irish athletics, but also adopted its rules for hurling, and codified the game of Gaelic football anew. McKay was on the subcommittee to draw up these rules, alongside President Maurice Davin and the two other secretaries. If that was not enough, the early GAA also began to embrace cycling, and flirted with a range of other pursuits at local level, from wrestling to horse-racing.

Many of the men who were trying to take up these sports at a local level were coming from the agricultural labouring class, and had little or no administrative experience. Registration of entries, production of advertisements, enclosure of track and field, and booking entertainments and prizes, let alone the perennial problem of the tackle in football, were among the many new challenges facing novice volunteers around the county. All of these details, and diffusing knowledge of the new rules of play, were pivotal to the maintenance of order at GAA events and the overall reputation of the association, though unavoidably there were many disputes and violent exchanges as participants and indeed rookie referees got to grips with the rules.

Hence the immense secretarial work and many trackside timekeeping tasks carried out by McKay at sports meetings all over the province helped to raise the standard of the Gaelic association rapidly, while the publicity and constructive criticism of his reports for the Cork Examiner spurred on fledgling clubs to build and improve.

The weight of his contribution went beyond officiating and writing, however. With Cusack’s forceful personality exacerbating GAA-IAAA tensions and threatening to lose hearts and minds of sporting enthusiasts, McKay exercised a valuable diplomatic role, using more restrained language to assert the GAA’s right to govern as a national body for Irish athletics in the face of criticism from Dublin circles. His apparent level-headedness was similarly vital to preventing fractious divisions within the GAA’s national executive from causing its dissolution.

Some of the hottest topics were in his own base. The creation of a Munster National Football League, adopting playing rules that diverged from Gaelic football, led to the expulsion of GAA vice-president, JF Murphy, for his prominent part in this new offshoot. A groundswell of support from a range of Cork sportspeople led to a protest meeting being called in March 1886. Fearing the threat of a deeper split emerging between Cork and the rest of the Gaelic association, McKay went to the meeting along with Cusack and a couple of other national officials.

Being the most familiar GAA official to the Cork malcontents, McKay risked his local reputation by entering that meeting in the Foresters’ Hall. Cusack, ever ready for verbal combat, had just described the Cork assembly as ‘puny would-be sappers of the GAA’, and had written to Murphy, declaring: ‘Henceforth there can be nothing between us but open and unconcealed war.… Your everlasting foe, Michael Cusack.’

GAA founder Michael Cusack
GAA founder Michael Cusack GAA founder Michael Cusack

The meeting was reportedly ‘crowded to the doors by a very excitable crowd, and the proceedings from start to finish were of the most disorderly character… at times… something very little short of a bear garden.’ [sic]

Into this breach stepped McKay, with an appeal for unity in the association and around the nation: "At the present crisis in Irish affairs… there should be calm and temperate talk, and… all tensions should be banished from amongst Irishmen... The Gaelic Association had never intended that another association should be formed, for they might have five hundred associations all over the country… They were all Gaelic athletes, and why not all be Gaelic footballers. Some change was, perhaps, necessary in the Gaelic football rules, and would be considered by the association… [T]here seemed to be an idea that he [Cusack] was the Gaelic Athletic Association. That was not so. (Cheers.) Mr Cusack was not the Gaelic Athletic Association, and never would be as long as he [McKay] was secretary. Mr Cusack… sometimes wrote rather strongly, but… [he] was a strong and vigorous Irishman."

On the way out of the meeting, the small party of GAA officials was jostled and roundly insulted on the street. Crucially, though, no new resolutions emanated from the meeting. McKay’s bravery in attending, his solidarity with fellow officials, and his determination to steer a middle path through the brickbats were quite selfless. What if he had stayed away? The possibility of Cork secession would have been much stronger.

Even then, he could only do so much. Cusack took issue with the Freeman’s Journal report of the meeting, leading to a sequence of correspondence in which Archbishop Croke was mentioned, and after Croke responded with praise for the Freeman, Cusack wrote back an open letter that seemed confrontational to Croke. This was the last straw for several of the executive. McKay was prompted to write to the Examiner, repudiating Cusack’s letter and dissociating the GAA from it.

Top of the agenda now was Cusack’s removal from office. John Wyse Power compiled a letter of complaint about his fellow secretary’s administrative neglect and ‘insulting’ attitude to executive officers. The Central Council meeting at Thurles on July 4 1886 would decide Cusack’s fate. Wyse Power did not turn up though; Cusack alleged that his accuser had seen him in the town, took fright, and left on the next train. That left McKay, the third secretary, with the invidious duty of reading out a complaint by one secretary against another secretary.

No doubt McKay was unhappy to be stuck with this task. He could still hold in awe what Cusack had achieved in conceiving of the GAA, and sense that ejecting him from office was an unnatural act. He may even have suspected ulterior motives: Power and JK Bracken, the other key executive figure in the heave, were both members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who saw the maverick Clare man as a barrier to their quest for executive control – which they went on to achieve a year after. Nonetheless, McKay did his unwanted duty and read Power’s rap-sheet aloud. Cusack later depicted McKay as speaking ‘in the horizontal voice usually assumed by natives of the north-east of Ireland when they are away from home.’

By a majority vote, including McKay’s raised hand, Cusack was removed as secretary.

After this rather brutal affair, McKay re-evaluated his own position. While he had tired of being a shield for Cusack, he may well have realised that life as GAA secretary was only going to get busier as the organisation spread ‘like prairie fire’, with many an unruly blaze still to be controlled. To keep up the burden of travel and trouble involved in managing this national network was ‘too severe a tax upon his time’, Sport newspaper commented apropos rumours that he was retiring. ‘Mr McKay was only prevented from resigning sooner by the urgent solicitations of his fellow-officers.’

His domestic duties had been increasing all the while. His wife Ellen – née Browne of Ballyclough, near Mallow – whom he married in 1883, was then well advanced in pregnancy for a third time. Their first child, Joseph James, born in August 1884, appears to have died in infancy. John had also lost his mother, a sister, his father-in-law, and at least four nephews and nieces inside the previous three years. Such human factors have often been forgotten in historical examination, but they were raw matters there and then.

In late August, McKay announced his resignation as a secretary of the GAA, citing pressure of business engagements. Friends and admirers called a meeting in Cork to raise a testimonial to McKay, and opened a subscription fund.

"The Hon Sec of an Affiliated Club’" wrote this letter of tribute to Sport: "No words of mine could fully portray the services rendered to the GAA by Mr McKay; no words are needed, as every athlete knows that the GAA has no more efficient officer – no better champion and guardian of its rights."

John McKay stayed on as an official of Cork AAC up to the early 1890s, both as a committee member and a timekeeper at annual sports. He did not return to any higher office in the GAA thereafter, but remained prominent in journalistic affairs. In May 1889, he gave evidence before the Parnell Commission at the Royal Courts of Justice, London.

His main other channel in the early 1890s was as a committee member of the Cork National Society. This body was formed in December 1891, in the aftermath of the Parnell split that rendered the Home Rule movement asunder. It pledged support to William O’Brien and John Dillon, anti-Parnellite party leaders, and enrolled over 300 members inside a fortnight. McKay became a regular attendee at the society’s historical lectures and social events, and was appointed vice-chairman for 1893. When the rota of hosting fell to him, he demonstrated his passion for history and literature by delivering readings and recitations such as Philip’s ‘Character of Bonaparte’, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’, The Burning of Chicago’, ‘The Grave’ and ‘Orange and Green’.

Back to Belfast (1894-1900)

It was in 1894 that McKay made the bold move to come back to Belfast. He was appointed chief reporter for the Irish News, and lived at Duncairn Street. The newspaper was just three years old then, and had merged with his old employer, the Belfast Morning News, in 1892.

The new job appears to have been a promotion for McKay. The anti-Parnellite leanings of the Irish News accorded with his own. One might also wonder whether the fact that the paper was set up by Bishop Patrick McAlister, a native of Bonecastle and a contemporary of his father Joseph McKay, attracted him as well.

The blue plaque recording that John McKay worked for The Irish News
The blue plaque recording that John McKay worked for The Irish News The blue plaque recording that John McKay worked for The Irish News

John was soon noted as joining in the social life of middle-class Catholic Belfast and the burgeoning nationalist political ranks of the city, to which The Irish News was closely bound. Belfast Young Ireland Society meetings became occasional haunts for him, and for his brother James. Here they encountered eminent MPs, pressmen, business and legal figures.

His wife Ellen (Nellie) also became a regular face at such events and lectures of the Central Catholic Club Literary and Debating Society. After a talk hosted by the Irish Women’s Association at Rosemary Street Lecture Hall in 1897, Mrs McKay spoke of her belief that ‘women should have a part in the care of the poor. By all means let men have the making of the stern laws, but in this matter women were the more capable.’

At least one son attended St Malachy’s College, and John was present for the annual sports day.

Notwithstanding their visible social life and proximity to close relatives in the city, it was a restless time for the McKays. Inside five years, they lived in at least four north Belfast addresses – they moved to Violet Terrace, Crumlin Road; then to Duncairn Gardens; and on to Glandore Gardens, Antrim Road – and John worked for four different newspapers.

He switched first to the rival Northern Star in 1897. This was Joe Devlin’s new paper, and it was edited by a Corkman, Timothy McCarthy. He wrote a weekly ‘Athletics & Cycling’ column, signed ‘J McK’, and provided an enlightening commentary on a north-south rift within Irish cycling. A small print-run did not augur well, and McKay uprooted again, joining the unionist Northern Whig about 1898. By 1899, he was shifting once more, being listed as a reporter for the Dublin Daily Nation while still living in Belfast.

Dublin (1900-10) and back to Cork (1910-c.1912)

The last-named organ pointed John’s compass southwards, and it was to the capital city that he and the family would move again circa 1900.

They were recorded living at Blessington Street on the northside in the next year’s census. Boarding in the same house was 22-year-old Shan Ó Cuív, who would become a leading Dublin Gaelic Leaguer and journalist. Over the course of this decade, John appears to have worked as a newspaper freelancer, writing for the likes of the Irish Daily Independent and Freeman’s Journal, and living with Ellen in Glasnevin.

No record of McKay having regular involvement in sport thereafter has come to light. He appears to have stood in as a Cork delegate at the 1902 Congress in Dublin, but simply as a one-off, presumably when a space had to be filled. He was also noted as attending Michael Cusack’s funeral in 1906.

If leaving GAA administration had left a void in his life, McKay filled it by serving on journalistic bodies. In 1891 he had been elected secretary of the Cork sub-district of the Institute of Journalists. In the late 1890s, he sat on the Ulster district committee. He went on to attend executive meetings of the IIJ’s Irish Association district in Dublin during the 1900s, some alongside John Wyse Power.

The McKays switched cities again, John returning to Munster to work as chief reporter for the Cork Free Press, from around its launch in June 1910. This was an evening radical newspaper published by William O’Brien MP and the All-For-Ireland League, as a moderate nationalist organ and rival to the Examiner. It was beset with financial woes from early on, however. Amid much angst among newspapers’ staff about poor wages and working conditions, John McKay was elected chairman of the newly formed Cork and District branch of the National Union of Journalists in November 1911.

Last chapter in London, c. 1912-23

John’s peripatetic career took one more turn in the early 1910s when he moved with Nellie and daughter Johanna to London. They moved to be closer to their sons, who were experiencing very different fortunes.

The elder son, John Paul, had changed his name to ‘Paul Murray’ and become a very big name in the theatrical industry in London. John, then in his sixties, provided clerical support, and was identified in the 1921 census as ‘office manager’ for Murray & Co. John was also described as a ‘press agent’ on his death certificate two years later, though how accurately this was intended to reflect his recent occupation in London, rather than the arc of his career, is unclear.

Patrick Joseph, by contrast, had joined the Royal Navy as a youth, contracted gangrene during the Russo-Japanese War, and developed a drug addiction. He enlisted during World War One but was discharged for stealing. His son, Patrick Joseph Jr, died after just 10 days in 1917, presumably due to exposure. As he struggled with his demons, he leaned heavily on his parents, who lived at Dumbarton Road, Brixton Hill.

It was there on December 2 1923 that John McKay, GAA co-founder and Downpatrick man, breathed his last, aged 71. Nellie survived until December 1949, when she died at 96. They were buried in St Mary’s Catholic cemetery, Kensal Green, along with Patrick Joseph (who died in 1929) and Junior.

The unveiling and dedication of the family gravestone in 2009 was not the end of the tale, however. Much of the research outlined in this article has been uncovered since then. There is more to tell. Not least, there is how John’s son, ‘Paul Murray’, a St Malachy’s alumnus, worked alongside Alfred Hitchcock on one of the first sound films, Elstree Calling (1931), though the advent of ‘talkies’ nosedived his boom-bust career and he met his end through a joint suicide with his wife in London in 1949.

There is also the discovery of a second grandson, Denis Paul McKay – second son of Patrick Joseph, born in 1928 and deceased in 2008. He in turn had two sons, both born in Fulham in the early 1950s. The search for them or any offspring as living direct descendants was hoped to be brought to a happy ending for this centenary date, but must go on.

For now though, in this centenary year, it is apt to reflect on the remarkable life of this long-forgotten Ulsterman and his part in an Irish sporting revolution.

:: A memorial ceremony will be held at the grave of John McKay and family at St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, this Saturday, 2 December, at 11am.

:: A 100th anniversary talk, ‘John McKay of Down: GAA Co-Founder’, will be delivered by Dónal McAnallen, Library and Archives Manager for National Museums NI, at Downpatrick Russell Gaelic Union club on Sunday evening at 7.30pm. Both events are open to all.