The 1888 American Invasion Tour
One of the ideas considered by the founders of the GAA was the revival of the ancient ‘Tailteann Games’ (An Aonach Tailteann).
In 1888 the idea of hosting this ‘Celtic Festival’ was again raised and plans were put in place to hold the festival in Dublin in the summer of 1889. The festival would include field games, athletic contests, an industrial exhibition and literary and musical competitions. It was estimated that hosting the festival would cost in the region of £5,000.
To raise the capital it was planned that a group of Irish athletes would embark on a fundraising tour of Irish centres in America staging displays of hurling and athletics and international contests between Ireland and America.
£1,000 would be needed for this American Tour and a nationwide fundraising campaign was initiated, the idea being that each of the 800 or so affiliated clubs would contribute a small amount.
In the meantime the process of selecting hurlers and athletes to accompany the tour began.
Counties with properly constituted boards were asked to nominate a number of hurlers for the trip but the fall-out from the 1887 split and the renewed influence of the IRB meant that some counties (most notably Cork, Limerick and Galway) did not nominate any hurlers. In the end 25 hurlers were chosen with both Tipperary and Dublin contributing 5 each.
The All-Ireland athletic contest was held in Limerick in August 1888 and Maurice Davin and Daniel Frewen (treasurer) attended with a view of selecting the best competitors. The selection of the 18 athletes to travel was straightforward.
When the Central Council examined the details of the fund it was discovered that, despite all the public appeals, the amount collected fell far short of the target. With preparations at an advanced stage cancelling the tour was not feasible so the decision was made to postpone the August departure date, until the 16th of September, and to intensify the fund-raising campaign.
To help raise funds Davin decided to bring the party together a week before the departure date and hold a number of exhibition fund-raising games in Dublin, Wexford, Dundalk, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork.
On September 16 1888 the “Invaders” boarded the Wisconsin and after a nine day journey they arrived in New York to a heroes welcome with representatives of the Irish Societies clamouring to greet them.
The tour visited several areas in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, Patterson, Providence and Lowell. They were awarded a tumultuous welcome in each centre and the press were generous in their coverage of the games with hurling getting great reviews. From a social viewpoint the tour was a success and helped establish the GAA in America.
However influences outside of their control ultimately lead to the trip being considered a failure. The Invaders arrived in America to a bitter dispute between the two rival American athletic bodies; the National American Athletic Association (NAAA) and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) The larger AAU refused to participate in the tour unless the GAA denounced the NAAA. When the GAA took a neutral position the AAU refused to compete against them. This meant that the tour lost the attraction of the international contests between the Irish and the best Athletes of America. The tour lost much of its appeal and gate receipts suffered.
Attendances throughout the tour were also affected by the poor, sometimes hostile, weather which in one case resulted in the abandonment of a hurling match half way through. Had the tour gone ahead in August, as originally planned, it is sure attendances (and gate receipts) would have been much higher.
When Davin and the other officials sat down during the last days of the tour to examine the financial position their worst fears were confirmed. A further £450 was needed just to meet the travel and accommodation bill. Michael Davitt advanced the party the money and all debts were cleared.
When the party left America on October 31 1888 its numbers had fallen and of the 51 that arrived, 17 (and possibly more) chose to stay in America permanently.
Upon arrival in Cobh the party was met by the Cork County Board and an address was read by Michael Deering in which he congratulated the party on the manner in which the tour had been conducted stressing that the tour had proved Irish Athletes could hold their own against the Americans and he highlighted the publicity generated for the Association as a result of the tour.
However the aim of the tour was to raise £5,000 for the staging of the Tailteann Games in 1889. In this aspect the tour must be considered a financial failure.
It would be 34 years before the idea of staging the Tailteann Games was raised again.