Our local heroes will always be worth fighting for
Published 25/01/2009 | 00:00
I f you travel the backroads of the country, particularly on Tuesday and Thursday nights, the glow of lights from club grounds is a constant reminder of the cycle of life, GAA-style.
The old year is over, new management teams are in place and players are making promises about the season ahead. Most of those will be quickly broken but for now the biggest numbers will be out bursting a gut in the most inclement of weather.
The diehards of the club will also be in attendance at these training sessions. It is their fix too and it has been missing since last August or September when their team was beaten. At that stage, they were never going to the field again, the players were useless, had no loyalty to the jersey and were too fond of drink and late nights.
But now, hope springs eternal. They lie against the fence and comment on the weight players have put on, the jobs that have been lost and the cost of the trainer that has been brought in from outside. And of course they make the tea after training and turn out a mound of sandwiches which might not pass any nutrient guide, not to mention the health and safety officer's concerns about cleanliness.
By June, many of the players will have stopped training, they will be back on the drink and the early morning training sessions on Sunday will begin to appear totally unreasonable. The new manager is just as bad as the old one and the late night discos on Saturday have seen their numbers increase directly in line with the fall-off in training. In other words, the world is back spinning on a normal axis.
At the top end of club activity, players put in enormous effort, driving wives and girlfriends mad by refusing to book the summer holiday, just in case they might miss an important game while they train diligently for their own enjoyment but also for the honour and glory of the club.
So while big days in Croke Park showcase the GAA, the real organisation works away far from those madding crowds in every village, parish, town and city. It is where the Irish derive their pride and sense of identity with their home place, something worth fighting for (often literally).
It does not matter whether the club is Junior D or Senior, the passion is the same, the sense of achievement great when winning and the sense of disappointment acute when losing.
The greatest education of life is being involved with a club. First of all it is important to know seed, breed and generation of all involved. Like Barack Obama was one of the O'Bamas from Moynalty, his grandfather played corner-back on the junior team in the '20s before he hit the ship to America; he even sent home a few dollars when the collection was being made for the new pitch. So if you are going to cross someone in a club, it is crucial to know how many cousins, friends and others you are taking on and there is no grudge quite like a GAA grudge. It lasts as a minimum of six generations and an exorcism would not shift it.
Naturally, much of this has changed in the big town and city clubs where people from all corners are thrown together. In many cases, a healthier atmosphere can prevail. There are fewer agendas and people are only interested in getting out a huge number of teams, something which is carried out with military precision despite a lot of the grumbling which goes on.
Yet it is in the area of politics that the GAA at local level is unique. The agm is often the greatest test of intellect. It brings reading between the lines into an art form. What is not said is generally far more important than what is said. The real meeting of course is the one before the agm, when those who make the real decisions get their ducks in a row.
Many far-reaching changes are often made over a quiet drink where people accidentally bump into each other in the days of quiet speculation prior to the 'big one'. And from such humble origins great political dynasties have been born as no politician with national ambition will ever lose the run of himself when he has his ear to the ground in the local club.
Some of the greatest people in the world run GAA clubs. Not only do they run teams but they are also the social conscience, especially in rural areas. The network helps look after the old, the sick, the lonely, the dead and dying and those down on their luck. In a GAA club there will always be four to carry you out.
In many cases too there are brilliant administrators involved, men and increasingly women who make multi-million euro decisions to improve their facilities -- and then go out and raise that money. These clubs are tighter as those who volunteer to build something for their own and the next generations will always have special pride in their work. Perhaps now in more difficult times there will be a return to voluntary work on behalf of the community; more time and less money could improve a small club and fewer people might regard it as a babysitting service. In other words, a bit of self-help.
The new Obama economics might be good for clubs as it will be a kinder type. But clubs must also help themselves: the seeds of their own destruction are being sown by massive payments to outside managers, so a bit of perspective there would do no harm.
In sheer football terms, I probably enjoyed playing carefree club league football more than any other. Before a few dozen people you really do belong to your own and a county man who not does put in the same effort for club as county needs reminding on the facts of life and how to keep feet on terra firma.
So for a thousand reasons I love the atmosphere created by the club, the football and everything else it represents: that authentic form of local life free from all pretension. And I admire greatly those who built enterprises and created employment while never losing sight of the values of the club they belonged to.
Men like Sean Quinn, whose contribution to Irish economic growth has been enormous, a shining example of loyalty to his own home place and the country in general. I hope he recovers quickly from recent setbacks. His type of spirit and willingness to have a go is needed now more than ever and the GAA in general can play a leading role in economic recovery.
There are many more examples of these type of GAA club men whose determination to improve Irish society in a practical way by creating and dispersing wealth is a thousand times more valuable than those who talk and write about it and deride many like Quinn who created some of the wealth they and all of us indirectly benefited from.
But we will survive with the club at the centre of all types of debate, ideas, togetherness and enterprise. From the cradle to the grave.