News Eoghan Harris

Monday 22 September 2014

Slaughtered sacred cows fed the land of good grass

Published 29/09/2013 | 05:00

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LISTENING to the radio last week, I was reminded of two revolutionary, and fairly recent, positive changes in the images of two institutions and their members – the IFA and the GAA, representing the farmers, footballers and hurlers of Ireland.

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The record attendances at the National Ploughing Championships and the All-Ireland championships in Croke Park reveal a widespread respect for rural life and Gaelic games. But few under 30 realise that not so long ago neither farmers nor hurlers were universally loved by the urban working and middle classes.

Ten years ago many city workers, pluralists and women had plenty of reservations about the IFA and the GAA. Farmers did not pay taxes as PAYE workers did, GAA members were in the grip of narrow nationalism, both shared a macho culture.

Conversely, a modernising Ireland had forgotten the hegemony of grass in Irish history, politics and culture.

* * *

Grass is the most important crop in Ireland. Everywhere in Europe the choice is between pasture and tillage. But in Ireland the rainy and temperate climate provides a built-in bias towards grass. And grass means cattle.

Behind the IFSC and other metropolitan temples, Ireland is a cattle country. Our greatest story is a cattle story, the Tain. Even the National Ploughing Championships is not really about ploughing but about pasture. About grass, about cattle.

Grass also rules the class structure of rural Ireland: the small farmers of the West who begin the cycle of cattle, the beef barons of Royal Meath who fatten and finish them, the farm workers who tend them and give the Labour Party a profile among flat fields.

Until the 1970s, farmers were a powerful political force. By 1979, however, as their numbers fell fast, they were losing political clout. Most city workers felt that farmers dodged tax and whinged all the time. But 30 years on they are again hailed as the backbone of the country and the whinging comes from city teachers.

Nowadays the National Ploughing Championships is enjoyed equally by town and country. This synthesis was caught by the enjoyable exchanges between the two presenters of Newstalk's Breakfast Show on the spot. Significantly, the cross-talk between townie Chris Donahue and country boy Ivan Yates moved comfortably between the IFA and the GAA, between heifers and hurling.

* * *

Hurling, our greatest national game, is also played on grass. Thereby hangs another link between sport and cattle. Because the new popularity of the GAA comes from the fact that between 1971 and 2005 it slaughtered three sacred cows.

Growing up in the late 1950s, I also supported the GAA because I was a nationalist. And because the GAA was racy of the soil I also romanticised rural Ireland. Like many Irish people I was only a generation away from the land – my maternal grandfather was a small farmer in Roscommon.

But when I moved to Dublin in 1966 I soon became aware that the abusive term "culchie" also carried political connotations of redneck reaction. And I was jolted by how much the GAA was despised by people with good politics – and with good reason. The chief causes of this contempt were the three tribal rules referred to already.

Rule 27, (the "Ban") which prevented GAA members from taking part in foreign games, was only finally removed in 1971. But Rule 21, which prevented RUC men from playing GAA games, was removed as late as November 2001. And Rule 42, which forbade foreign games at Croke Park, was removed as recently as 2005 – just in time to allow us to beat England at rugby.

But from 2000 onwards the GAA opened up fully to modern Ireland. The credit for its consequent mass popularity belongs to a few brave pluralist pioneers – and Cork can claim little credit. The two most important figures were Tom Woulfe, who fought a long and lonely campaign to end the "Ban", and Sean Kelly, who removed Rule 42.

At one stroke Kelly changed Croke Park from a narrow nationalist cockpit into an arena for all our people. He did so by slaughtering the last of the three sacred cows. And that bloodless sacrifice made it possible for Queen Elizabeth to walk in peace on that sacred sod. And for Protestant, Pluralist Catholic and Dissenter to feel at home there for the first time.

* * *

Micheal Martin should copy Sean Kelly's success by slaughtering a few of Fianna Fail's sacred cows. This became clear during his otherwise commanding performance with Sean O'Rourke last Thursday, when a caller asked him whether he would go into coalition with Sinn Fein.

Martin should have said the murder of Det Garda Jerry McCabe alone ruled out any such deal on moral grounds. And then slaughtered a sacred cow by saying that since he shared Seamus Heaney's pragmatic view that there would be no united Ireland in any foreseeable future, there was also no basis for a deal on republican grounds.

Had he done so, Fianna Fail would have forged ahead in Dublin. Instead, he opted for the evasive Enda Kenny line of waffling about differences in economic policy. Apart from that, however, Martin showed up Kenny by taking on all-comers. And by taking this column's advice to hang a lantern on any problem.

So while belatedly giving Bertie Ahern credit for making a crucial contribution to the peace process, Martin correctly condemned – as I do – Ahern's social partnership policy, which bloated the salaries and selfishness of public sector pressure groups. That is why some teachers have lost touch with reality.

* * *

But while enjoyably robust with Micheal Martin, Sean O'Rourke was a tad too reverential talking to President Michael D Higgins last Tuesday. At the top of the show he allowed the President to comment on a critical piece by Dan O'Brien in the Irish Times. Then, after the break, he ran the presidential clip a second time before letting O'Brien in.

To make doubly sure we got the President's side, O'Rourke ended the show with a text from "Emer of Dublin 8" who strongly supported the President. Has RTE already forgotten Gallaghergate? Neither tweeters nor texters should ever be given the glib – and anonymous – last word.

* * *

Mary Lavin, the distinguished writer, plumbed the dark side of rural Ireland, before its reformation, with a restraint which recently earned her both praise and blame from my friend and colleague, Emer O'Kelly. Like Lavin, Emer combines the hard word with a soft heart. I speak from personal experience.

Some time in 1968 I shared a long train journey with Mary Lavin. I was a callow young man in my early twenties. She was a handsome woman in her prime, a writer I had admired since reading her short story The Will in Frank O'Connor's famous anthology – she was one of only two women featured.

At the time I was torn between politics and writing. Could I do both, I asked? She shook her handsome head.

"Don't get distracted from writing. I made soup for too many people."

Looking back I wish I had taken her advice at the time. I also made political soup for too many minor politicians. But Mary Lavin was too tough on herself. She fed people by word and deed. But I'm glad I belatedly took her advice.

Sunday Independent

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