Wednesday 23 August 2017

Tommy Conlon: Of society's three pillars, only the GAA has managed to remain relevant

 

Galway and Meath players line up to kiss the bishop's ring before the 1966 All-Ireland final between Galway and Meath. Croke Park, Dublin.
Galway and Meath players line up to kiss the bishop's ring before the 1966 All-Ireland final between Galway and Meath. Croke Park, Dublin.

Tommy Conlon

We may be going out on a theological limb here, but sometimes you have to have the courage of your convictions.

So, in a bid to settle the eternal question once and for all, we're going to declare without fear or favour that the Pope is indeed a Catholic. Sue me if I'm wrong.

Anyway, the pontiff is coming to Ireland next year so it is time for Gaels everywhere to head up to the attic and come down with the seven inch vinyl single that they bought by the truckload around Christmas 1979: Dana's Totus Tuus.

By 'Gaels', we mean of course Irish Catholics. This is perhaps an outmoded conflation these days. But back in '79, when John Paul II visited this sceptred isle, this holy ground, you could be pretty sure that the terms were interchangeable. The universal GAA man was wedded to the one true faith. And to complete the holy trinity, there was a fair chance he voted for Fianna Fáil too.

And there you had it: the three pillars of Irish society, still dominant in the culture back then, seemingly rock solid in their foundations. But it turned out that John Paul's ecstatic reception was the high watermark of Church pre-eminence before the tide started to recede inexorably over the following decades. Before what Matthew Arnold described in his great poem Dover Beach as the ebbing "Sea of Faith", its "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar".

The ground beneath the Popemobile was crumbling away, churning beneath the surface, and the three pillars were being eroded under the weight of their own oppressive orthodoxies. Less than a year after Dana reached number one in the Irish charts, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats got to number three with a somewhat less devotional hymn to the country's pieties. In Banana Republic, this sceptred isle was a "septic isle".

Where Dana sang her biblical praises to "The rock and the lamb/The Lord and the man", Geldof spat out his disgust. "Everywhere I go yeah/Everywhere I see/The black and blue uniforms/Police and priests". His parting shot was a mixture of vitriol and frustrated affection: "Glad to see the place again/It's a pity nothing's changed."

But by the time he wrote those lyrics, Fianna Fáil was already in decay. Its days in sole single-party Government were coming to an end. The Church was beginning to see empty pews too. With every passing decade it has become increasingly deserted and marginalised as an engine of influence. These two great establishment fortresses are still relevant in society - but they are no longer central.

The third, the GAA, has arrived into the 21st century in much better shape. It has evolved and changed. Crucially, it still retains the trust of the people. It is a trusted institution. It is even widely, or at least begrudgingly, admired by that cohort of the populace with no stake in its existence. It has remained in lockstep with middle Ireland. As middle Ireland has modernised, so also has the GAA. It has replaced most of its old ideological conservatism with a comprehensive commitment to its role as an engine for social cohesion. It has a vigorous presence in most parishes, which is to say it has a vigorous presence in virtually every cell of Irish society's cellular structure. It therefore remains strongly and confidently at the heart of the island's community life.

It is this vast grassroots network that gives it its formidable presence. By symbolic contrast to its waning 20th century counterparts, it was able to rebuild its old grey, forbidding fortress at the start of the new millennium, almost as a statement of its wider reinvention: an organisation determined to remain vibrant and relevant for the next 100 years.

The new Croke Park became that symbol. And it is here that Pope Francis will next year celebrate a Mass for the citizens of this country who have remained loyal to the Church. Despite all the societal convulsions since '79, Croke Park still seems like the natural home for a great gathering of the Catholic faithful. So it was when an estimated 80,000 pilgrims attended the closing Mass there of the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress.

The ancient bond hasn't been fully sundered; there are still the ties that bind. Just as its traditional links to the dominant political party saw Gaelic games frequently lampooned as 'Fianna Fáil at play', so too might its previous religious fervour have been described as "the GAA at pray".

The stadium itself, of course, was named after Archbishop Thomas Croke of Cashel. Numerous priests became involved at all levels of the Association after its founding in 1884; clergy remained prominent in the decades that followed. When the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 came to Ireland, the GAA provided 3,000 stewards. In 1929, according to Marcus de Búrca in his The GAA - A History, Croke Park "sent a message to the Pope congratulating him on the conclusion of the Lateran Treaty between the Italian and Vatican Governments." (As opposed to, presumably, any sort of Lutheran treaty.)

And then, lest we forget, there was that grand old tradition whereby the flower of Irish manhood, those strapping players lined up to do mortal battle in All-Ireland finals, would first of all go down on bended knee to kiss the bishop's ring, as it were.

Christ this was once a very weird country. The Gael, even the Catholic Gael, has come a long way since.

thecouch@independent.ie

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