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Historic Kilkenny
Alderman James Nowlan

James Nowlan was the longest serving GAA president, serving from 1901 to 1921.

His father was from Kilkenny but James was born in Kildare as his father had to move for work.


He was president of our gaelic games during many troubling years, his involvement in the Gaelic revival cannot be overestimated. It is incredible to think that he was involved in such an important organisation at such a pivotal time in Irish history when it was needed most. He took his role as head of the GAA only 14 years after it's inception, and as it was so new, and he spent 20 years in that position, he very much shaped the GAA into what we know it as today.

Today, we honour this man with our stadium, Nowlan Park, a fitting tribute to the man who continues to be a part of our sport.

Nowlan was a lifelong advocate of the Irish language and was a member of the Gaelic League. He was friends with the Fenian James Stephens, also from Kilkenny, and was an early member of the IRB. There is no doubt that Stephens had an affect on Nowlan and both were incredibly important to Ireland in helping us achieve our eventual independence.

If not for Nowlan, the Rising might have been very different and less men would have taken to arms. For his involvement, James Nowlan was taken into custody in Kilkenny Gaol (now demolished) on the 4th of May, 1916. Shortly after, he was interned without trial in Frongoch, Wales. In August of that year he was released and continued with his GAA and Sinn Féin duties. He publicly voiced support for the Irish Republican Army during the Anglo-Irish War in the 1920s and this was vitally important as the GAA was so influential, becoming more ingrained in Irish life and society.

Nowlan was instrumental in steering the GAA on a path towards a Republic. Due to his actions, many GAA members played a prominent role in the events of Easter 1916.

The Official Commission of Inquiry into the Rising was told that the GAA had been an instigating factor. From those in the Rising with a known involvement, we are certain that there were over 300 rebels who were members drawn from 53 clubs, or about 20% of all those involved in the Rising. Indeed the naming of clubs is evidence enough as to the movement within the GAA with many clubs, especially in Kilkenny, with many clubs having names of well known Fenians.

At the 1921 Congress, held in March of that year, Nowlan retired as GAA President, and was appointed Honorary Life President of the association — the only person to be so honoured.

He died in June 1924 in his mid-70s and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. While there was no headstone on his grave for some time, a Celtic cross was erected on his grave in 2013.

James Nowlan shakes hands with Michael Collins on the 11th of September 1921 at the Leinster Hurling Final between Kilkenny and Dublin. Harry Boland is on the left facing the camera.

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