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GAA has done us all a great service

THE visit of Queen Elizabeth is turning out to be a great success, and there was a huge audience for the royal wedding, but nationalist Ireland has no hankering after monarchy. It does, however, boast an institution that is held in much the same esteem and affection as the British hold their Crown. That institution is the GAA.

What makes this institution so unusual -- possibly unique -- is that a sporting body should be held in such high regard and be so vibrantly democratic. The less said about FIFA or the IOC in such a context, the better.

If for no other reason, Croke Park would be worth a royal visit. An understanding of the history and status of the GAA will reveal as much as anything could about the nature of Irish society. That is why President Mary McAleese specially asked that the Croke Park visit be part of the queen's programme.

Of course, the GAA's place in Irish life is not the reason why yesterday's visit was so moving. The GAA was, and in many ways still is, the embodiment of Irish nationalism. The Black and Tans knew what they were doing when they went there on that fateful Sunday in 1920.

Naturally, that episode was mentioned in coverage of the visit, though maybe not during it. We can be sure, however, that Queen Elizabeth would have been fully briefed on it, and the extra symbolism that gives to her visit.

She can now learn more, from the history of the GAA presented to her yesterday. It shows that the association did not begin as an overtly nationalist organisation but, as tensions mounted towards the end of the 19th Century, its games became part of efforts to create a new Irish identity.

Back then, and for much of the 20th Century, being Irish could often only be defined as not being British. This applied to "foreign" games, which meant games popular in Britain. Playing such games could have serious consequences for a GAA member; or even for a non-member whose right to play what they liked was often challenged at what could literally be called the grass roots. The GAA has accomplished a quiet revolution in changing these rules. The peace process was needed to make possible the lifting of the ban on British security force members, or the visit by Queen Elizabeth. The symbolism of soccer and rugby being played at Croke Park in some ways goes deeper -- to what it means to be Irish.

Certainly, it no longer means just not being British. Ninety years of independence have relegated that to little more than irritation abroad when we are mistaken for the English. Yet just knowing we are not British does not settle the question of identity. The economic crisis raises issues about our relations with Europe. It also damages the mood of self-confidence that must have helped those leaders of the GAA who succeeded in making it a less inward-looking organisation.

That was not an easy task. Remarkably, given nationalist history, it was done without a split. Yet it was far from unanimous. Only one of nine Ulster counties -- Down -- was represented at Croke Park.

That is a pity, but it cannot detract from the positive role that the GAA has played in supporting the peace process and, latterly, setting its communal face against dissident republicans. The old issues for nationalism are still raw in the North, but the GAA as a whole must tackle the new, more subtle ones if it is to retain its place as the pre-eminent symbol of Irishness.

It showed that it can do so in its warm welcome for immigrants who wanted to take part in its activities. It will doubtless continue to be a vital force in holding together blighted communities. A more intriguing thought is whether one of the most important tasks might lie in the GAA's own internal arrangements.

Irish music has retained a distinctive voice. Irish literature continues to astound.

These are the kinds of things that distinguish a nation in a connected world.

If the GAA can maintain an alternative to the crass commercialism and cruelty of modern sport, it will have done the country, and itself, another great service.

Irish Independent