Sunday 21 October 2018

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.

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