Sunday 20 January 2019

Mary Kenny: Breaking ball

What is it to be Irish? It's all in the way the hurley meets the sliotar

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Being the month of September our thoughts naturally turn to the sporting event of the season - the GAA finals. We're told that the GAA is "in our DNA", and in one sense it's true: anyone who has grown up in Ireland hears, in the background of memory (for those of a certain vintage, accompanied by the immortal voice of Michéal Ó Hehir) the excitement, enthusiasm and acclaim associated with the GAA activities.

Although we must be honest and admit that there were also allegiances to what the GAA once called "foreign games" - i.e. rugby for some, and association football (soccer) for others. Soccer, be it remembered, was long anathematised by the GAA. The greatly honoured first President of Ireland and respected founder of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde, was - shamefully - demoted from the GAA board of patrons for the sin of attending an international soccer match. The GAA had its own brand of "vigilantes" who went around the country watching out for miscreants who had the temerity to attend a rugby or a soccer match on the sly.

It seems as strange to us today as the newspaper job advertisements which used to specify "Protestant preferred". Yet, the great thing about the GAA is that it changed and evolved; it made mistakes - a strong enthusiasm for the South African Boers, later the architects of apartheid, might today be an occasion for pulling down a statue or two - but history should always be seen in context. The ban against "foreign games" went in 1971, and by 2007, crowds were standing for God Save the Queen when a rugby international - a rugby international! - took place at Croke Park. By 2011, they were playing host to Elizabeth and presenting Philip with a hurley, which he examined with quizzical, though benign, interest.

The Gaelic Athletic Association - founded, as everyone knows, in 1884 at Hayes Hotel in Thurles - is an extraordinary institution which has achieved what every established institution tries to do: to change with the times and evolve towards modernity, without losing its core identity and without alienating its roots. It has swayed with the wind of history: strongly Catholic when its constituency was virtually wholly Catholic, and a Bishop would "throw in the ball" at the start of a game - then battling with the Church when it came under the influence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the clergy preached against "secret societies".

Yet divisions were overcome and, amazingly, the GAA athletes swiftly healed the wounds of the Civil War - there were GAA men and women on both sides - and quickly learned to play together again (unlike the party politicians, who kept up the bitterness of the 1920s until the 1960s).

How has the GAA been such a successful national institution, developing, changing, and yet remaining so consistent? It's usually put down to two prevailing elements: it is so grounded in the community, even in the parish, as well as in the county identity; and it has remained an amateur game, even if there are sometimes reports of money passed "under the table". But the obscene sums paid to stars of international soccer have surely corrupted that game. It's admirable that the GAA has remained aloof from the odour of financial turpitude that hangs around FIFA.

The heroes of the GAA are not big-bucks billionaires with diamond ear-studs, but players, later sometimes managers, who are celebrated with honour in their communities - the John Joe O'Reillys, the Christy Rings, the Kevin Heffernans. Jack Lynch is regarded by historians such as Diarmaid Ferriter as a less than outstanding taoiseach, but he'll never be forgotten as a legendary player of both football and hurling, winning six all-Ireland medals in a row. He was the captain of the famous 1939 hurling final when, on September 3, the outbreak of World War II seemed secondary news to this "thunder and lightening" game, as, under storm and tempest, Kilkenny snatched victory from Cork at the last minute.

Family involvement often seems to be part of GAA activities, and there are renowned GAA families which have produced generations of players: the Ó Sé family from Kerry, the Kernans from Crossmaglen, the Cannings of Portumna. Although the early traditions often invoked "manliness" - a common theme in sport in the 1900s - the GAA was promoting the camogie game for women from the 1920s. In 1974, "Ladies Gaelic Football" was launched. Themes of gender equality, and even perhaps transgender issues, may loom as new challenges to modernity, as well as gay rights. But because the GAA has its feet on the ground - literally - it will do so in harmony with its own grass roots, rather than in response to some Politically Correct diktat from social media.

The biggest challenge may be carrying that collective DNA it proudly claims. Ireland is changing fast, and will change even faster in the next decade. Immigration - from British bankers to refugees from the tormented Middle East - will have a huge impact on the values and character of the nation, as will the ever-increasing impact of globalisation. Perhaps all that will eventually be left of the core national identity will be the ethos of the GAA. Quite a responsibility to the future.


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