The origins of Gaelic games predate recorded history. Bardic sources provide an insight into the character of the pre-GAA games. Hurling predominates, but there are also references to football. Fragments of the ancient Brehon Laws show that hurling was regulated from at least the eighth century. After the Norman invasion of the 12th century, the English Crown proscribed hurling. Foreign visitors to Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries noted that hurling and football occupied an important place in the social life of the community. In August 1884 Micheal Cusack met a group of nationalists in Loughrea, County Galway, and outlined his plans to establish a national organisation for Irish athletes and to revive hurling. Cumann Láthcleas Gael – the Gaelic Athletic Association was thus founded and the rules of the modern game were promulgated in the same year.
Very soon GAA teams of hurling and football were appearing all over the Country and within communities Clubs were quickly formed to organise the teams and to promote Irish Culture. In County Down the first GAA was Leitrim Fontenoys,(3-miles from Castlewellan) formed as a direct result of Michael Cusack’s inspiration, when he taught in Violet Hill College, Newry. The earliest record of Gaelic games in Castlewellan, is an old newspaper report recording that Mayobridge played a friendly football match with Castlewellan in the Spring of 1893. Hurling was also played at this time as evidenced by an old faded photograph of a hurling team of the late 1890’s.
In the following years the G.A.A. suffered an almost total collapse in Down. Several factors would have contributed to this. Initially there was the Catholic clergy’s opposition to Sunday games. Then came the Parnell split, when Clubs broke up as a result of bitter differences of divided allegiance and, finally, the drain of emigration, which in the 1890s took many young men across the Atlantic to seek opportunities that were denied them at home. In some counties rough and dangerous play was blamed for the falling away of Gaelic games, but that did not seem to be a serious problem in Down.