James Nowlan - who was he?

Jim Walsh siging his book about James Nowlan for former President of the GAA, Nicky Brennan, who launched the book in Nowlan Park,   (Photo: Eoin Hennessy)
Who was James Nowlan? Where did he come from? What was the connection to Kilkenny?

Who was James Nowlan? Where did he come from? What was the connection to Kilkenny?

Why does the GAA in Kilkenny name their marquee sports arena after James Nowlan? The answers to all those questions are answered in a first class publication, written by Jim Walsh, former everything at all levels of GAA activity from his home base in Slieverue to county level in Kilkenny, writes Barrie Henriques.

Jim’s book was launched in Nowlan Park by former President of the GAA, Nickey Brennan, one of four Kilkenny men elevated to the highest office in the biggest sporting organisation in the land.

There was a big audience in attendance, many of whom would not be overly familiar with the historical significance of James Nowlan, and who wouldn’t have known of his contribution to the national and sporting life of Kilkenny, and in a broader context, the country at large.

The Fear a Ti for the launch was the ebullient chairman of the County Board, Ned Quinn. In Irish and English he welcomed all, including the Mayor of Kilkenny - a significant and appropriate guest - Mrs. Maura Walsh, wife of the author, Nickey Brennan, Jim Walsh, and relatives of the Nowlan family who are now resident in Dublin.

The fine crowd included officers of the County Board, staff members of the Kilkenny County Council, local Councillors and prospective Councillors, members of the Slieverue community, Fr Jim Crotty PP, Ferrybank, Fr Pat Comerford PP, Freshford and Fr Lar Dunphy PP, Johnstown, and a number of people who had rendered assistance with the publication.

Official opening of ’Park

Chairman Quinn opened proceedings with information - he is quite superb at statistical information - by telling us that in 1928 Nowlan Park was officially named Nowlan Park. A football game between Conahy and Cotterstown (see Gerry O’Neills GAA bible) was played which Cotterstown won, plus a hurling match between Dicksboro and Mooncoin, which the city side won.

“In 1928 Nowlan Park was officially opened by the President of the GAA, Sean Ryan (Dublin),” Mr Quinn added. “Afterwards one of the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals was played between Dublin and Cork. James Nowlan had gone to his eternal reward in 1924, after a memorable life of servitude to his county, province, country and religious beliefs.”

So who was James Nowlan?

Many speakers took the gathering down that avenue of identity. History tells us that nationalism and the GAA were very much bedfellows when the GAA was founded in Thurles. Organisations like the United Irishmen, the Land League, the Gaelic League, and later political activists were bolstered by crossover from each other.

The GAA was well populated with members of all national movements then. In 1858, on March 17, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded by James Stephens, a Kilkenny native, who had been forced to flee the country after the failure of the Fenian Rebellion of 1867.

We are talking about the same James Stephens whose glory and honour in Irish history has been perpetuated by one of Kilkenny’s great hurling strongholds in Larchfield, and many other noted edifices around the town and county. Paddy Nowlan was a member of the IRB, and in true Irish tradition, his son James, followed in his footsteps.

Speaking of the James Stephens club, another connection to their area was a Fenian called John Haltigan, who was a beneficiary of a fund, administered by a Committee of which Paddy Nowlan was an active administrator, and which donated funding to released Fenians who had been incarcerated after the Fenian Rising. Haltigan Terrace near Upper Patrick Street in the City bears his name and a Celtic cross marks his grave in Patrick Street cemetery.

Paddy Nowlan was a cooper by profession, a prized occupation, given the demand of the many brew houses and distilling companies around the county. However, work, or the lack of work, forced the already stretched Nowlan family to move away from Kilkenny in search of gainful employment.

Settling in Monastereven, Paddy Nowlan procured work at Cassidy’s distillery. In Monastereven, James was born. He returned to Kilkenny, and later with his father, Paddy, was involved in a movement to achieve the revival of the Gaelic language and Gaelic games.

The politicising or the attempted politicising of the GAA from its inception was symptomatic of the times. There were fractious confrontations on many fronts. There were splits at all levels. Leaders of the GAA like Davin and Cusack were voted out of office.

Trying times indeed for what became the greatest amateur sporting body in the land. James Nowlan joined the Confederation hurling club in the City and was elected the honorary secretary during the 1890s. Based in the Dean Street/Vicar Streets area, the club had a playing pitch on the Freshford Road.


They won the county senior hurling final in 1893 and represented Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final played in 1894. They were hammered by Cork’s Blackrock - they were never to achieve that result against a James Stephens team again.

James Nowlan was fast gaining a reputation of a moderate - although nationalistic in outlook - in the turbulent times of the GAA of the day. He represented the Confederation club on the County Board. Being an employee of Smithwicks Brewery from 1890, he was transferred to the Guinness Brewery in Dublin for advancement purposes.

Whilst in Dublin he represented Kilkenny at Central Council level.

In 1899 James Nowlan stood for election to Kilkenny Corporation. He got the second highest poll of the 16 candidates at 359 votes. John A. Healy topped the poll at 383 votes, while Tom Cantwell won the admiration of 358 voters.

James Nowlan won the seat in every subsequent Corporation election until he retired in 1919.

Leinster chairman

At the Convention in Thurles of 1900, James Nowlan was elected chairman of the new Leinster Provincial Council. The ’Council was not operational until 1901. There was still much acrimony abounding. He remained as Leinster chairman until 1905.

He was the first GAA official to sign the minutes of a Central Council meeting in Irish. He would sign Seamus Ou Nuallain on every document he ever put his name to, which brought him into conflict with authority who insisted that such a signature was perceived as neither appropriate nor acceptable. He never changed the practice, however.

President GAA

He was elected vice-President of the GAA at the end of 1900. The ’Association had now “reached its teenage years in a sense, having had an erratic childhood that was sometimes temperate, sometimes tempestuous,” apparently. Cork’s Michael Deering was installed as President in 1901, but he died suddenly, on March 25, 1901.

Nowlan chaired the National Convention in Thurles in the month of September. Three candidates were nominated for the office, M. Moynahan (Kerry) and R. Cummins (Tipperary) along with Nowlan. Moynahan and Cummins withdrew in favour of Nowlan, with Moynahan fulfilling the protocols of nominating Nowlan for the office.

From then on Nowlan presided over GAA affairs until 1921 - an unprecedented tenure in the history of the Association. Wicklow born, but considered a Dubliner, Luke O’Toole was elected as secretary, a position he held until 1929 when a gentleman very familiar came on the scene, the iconic Padraig O Caoimh, who held the position for 35 years.

Nowlan inherited a debt-ridden organisation. A Mr M.J. Burke (Kilkenny) had reported that the ’Association was facing a crippling £800 debt. Michael Davitt was owed £450 of that sum, which he had loaned to the ’Association for the 1888 American Invasion Fund.

Other difficulties

Davitt generously informed Nowlan and Convention that the debt should be written off. A patriotic gesture indeed.

But there were other difficulties for Nowlan and his fellow officers. Nowlan had seen his great friend and fellow Kilkenny man, James Stephens pass away on March 28.

He was interned in Glasnevin cemetery, where his cortege was flanked by every surviving 1867 veteran. A special train left Kilkenny station on the morning of the burial on which rode Alderman James Nowlan, the Mayor, M. Joe Purcell, St Patrick’s juvenile band and members of the Corporation.

It was fitting too that the present Mayor of Kilkenny, Martin Brett was present at the launch in Nowlan Park. He expressed his joy and the honour of being asked to the launch in Nowlan Park.

“He was an amazing man in many respects,” said Mayor Brett.”He held the office for three years and cut a niche for himself as an Alderman of our city. Jim Walsh has done the City and county a tremendous service by publishing this book. It might not win a Booker prize but it fills a void in the historical requirement apropos James Nowlan.

“If we didn’t know where we came from, how could we know to where we wanted to go? Whilst the man made a tremendous contribution to the lives of his fellow Kilkenny citizens, his contribution on a national scale was truly outstanding. He piloted the ’Association through some challenging times, when the popular way was often not the correct route to take.

Many problems

“The problems he encountered were many. Not only had a major reorganisation of the ’Association to be undertaken, but both he, his committees, and ground troops were constantly under scrutiny, and vigilant policing from the Royal Irish Constabulary. He was truly a remarkable man on the home front and at national level,” added Mayor Brett.

Former GAA President -Kilkenny’s fourth - Nickey Brenann outlined the value of the book. He too paid high regard to the contribution of his fellow Kilkenny citizen.

“It certainly was not an easy calling for James Nowlan,” he insisted. “The political situation at the time was frantic, with the ’Association populated with nationalist up to the withdrawal of British Forces. But then it all changed with a dreadful consequence.

“We had a Civil War, where brother faced brother, where men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy found themselves in opposite corners. But above all other organisations, the GAA of Nowlan’s

time must be credited with being the great arbitrator, the greatest healer of festering wounds, the great peace maker.

“Others defined the Nowlan contribution. It is to the tremendous credit of Jim Walsh that he has painstakingly recorded the life and times of a memorable Kilkenny man,” said Nickey.

Nowhere in the book is the concept of the futility of Civil War better underlined than in a photograph at a match in Croke Park in 1919 where the likes of Eamonn De Valera, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins are seated side by side obviously enjoying the occasion.

On opposite sides

History records that not long afterwards they were on opposing sides in a bitterly, brutish, blood- letting Civil War. The book of 147 pages contains much pictorial information. There are stories about the politics of the GAA, the influences of Church and State.

The intricacies of GAA manoeuvrings and manipulation are all there, warts and all. Author Jim, addressed the gathering, which included James Nowlan’s grand-nephew, Con Nowlan, and his great grandnephew, David, thanking all for their interest and attendance.

He too took the audience on a trip through the chequered developments of the ’Association, and James Nowlan’s relevance.

I can honestly say that a more meticulous historical tome has not been completed.

For instance, in his pursuit of information about James Nowlan, he discovered that he was buried in Glasnevin in an unmarked grave. He made representation to the Kilkenny County Board to rectify the situation, and with the assistance of Ned Quinn and former chairman, Paul Kinsella, plus the Leinster Council and Croke Park, a fine Celtic Cross now marks the grave of a Kilkenny man whose name will live in the annals forever.

David Nowlan, an artist of repute, presented a painted portrait of his relative to chairman of the Kilkenny County Board, Ned Quinn after Nickey Brennan officially launched the book. The book is available in all good bookshops around the county and it can be purchased from the author, Jim Walsh, Treanaree, Slieverue, Co.Kilkenny. It costs €15, including PP.

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