Civil wars and splits are a recurring theme in Irish history.
So I guess it’s not surprising that the GAA is now experiencing a kind of civil war, centred on the ongoing club-versus-county conflict.
In that context, the recent comments of GAA president-elect Larry McCarthy were informative.
In an interview, he spoke about elitism – particularly in the GAA – and how he intends to combat it when he takes office in early 2021.
Having lived in the United States since 1985, he is familiar with what has happened in US sport.
There is mass participation in sport of all kinds up to the age of 12. However, by the time students are in high school (our secondary school) many of them have stopped participating in sport, and that drop-off accelerates at university level.
As a result, the US has turned into a nation of couch potatoes who watch the mere one per cent (probably less than that in truth), who are involved in elite sport.
When it comes to Irish sport it is a bit of a mixed bag.
Take rugby: forget about the marketing gurus who try to convince us that Ireland is a rugby country.
Club rugby is dying and our international team is still predominantly drawn from a handful of fee-paying, second-level schools. As for soccer, the League of Ireland and the FAI are essentially basket cases.
However, soccer still has the highest participation level of any sport in this country. Why?
Because at junior level they have a regular programme of games with an emphasis on enjoyment and participation among friends.
There are lessons there for the GAA.
Then there is Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport – boxing.
My colleague Sean McGoldrick wrote a fascinating article in last week’s Sunday World about the chronic lack of funding for under-age boxers in Ireland.
I couldn’t believe the figures he produced. Only 11 boxers are currently being funded by Sport Ireland to the pitiful tune of €284,000.
Take the case of Bray boxer Regan Buckley, who has now quit the sport. From Tuesday to Friday he was involved in high-performance training; he also travelled abroad to training camps and international competitions.
But the 22-year-old’s only income was €44 a week from social welfare. As Eric Donovan said, boxing is no longer a working-class sport, it is a disadvantaged sport.
Meanwhile, the Irish government annually pours €67m into horse racing – much of which goes on prize money which ends up in the pockets of millionaires, billionaires and ultra-wealthy sheikhs from countries with dubious civil-rights records.
So where does the GAA sit in this elitism debate?
Current Cork minor hurling manager Dónal Óg Cusack recently touched on the topic on RTE’s GAA podcast.
He argued that strong county teams increase the profile of the game, while successful ones raise the spirit of entire communities.
In his world though, everything has to be either black or white.
He was also guilty into drifting into what I consider conspiracy theories.
Dónal claimed certain people had gone out of their way to drive a wedge between the club and county game. I presume yours truly is one of those.
Of course, you can’t beat a good conspiracy theory when presenting an argument.
Throw it out, because it serves to confuse what the discussion is all about.
Cusack was also quoted as saying that a lot of the people who are making the most noise at the moment are actually people who make, or try to make money off, the backs of their very own players.
And he added that: “I do think we need to be very careful because if some of these people have their way, the GAA will be as anonymous as the League of Ireland B.”
This is nothing short of populist scaremongering. He makes controversial, eye-catching statements but doesn’t provide an iota of evidence to back them up.
It’s straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.
Of course, Dónal Óg is entitled to his opinion – and so am I. But it is important in any debate to have balance.
It ought to be remembered that Cusack is president of the elitist Gaelic Players’ Association (GPA).
In his pubic utterances he was batting on behalf of his beloved GPA.
Actually, I agree with a couple of his comments.
Inter-county success can unite people. The classic and most stark example happened during the Civil War when pro- and anti-Treaty forces in Kerry came together to play football for the county.
Inter-county football and hurling can also lift the spirits not just of a county but an entire nation – which is why it’s so important that this year’s Championship is played.
Nobody is interested in cutting off their nose to spite their face. Inter-county games have a crucial role in the GAA.
It generates the bulk of the income which allows the organisation to operate and provides the inspiration for many youngsters to take up Gaelic games. Nonetheless, a balance needs to be struck.
It’s not an international game or a professional sport.
It is a hobby for young men and women.
And it is supposed to be a leisure-time pursuit even at inter-county level, though frankly that’s a bit of an Irish joke.
But the degree to which the pendulum has swung in the wrong direction is emphasised by the following statistics – and I make no apologies for repeating them for the umpteenth time:
As I’ve written many times, the inter-county bandwagon is careering out of control.
But this issue has not arisen overnight – it has been festering for many years.
I believe there are two main reasons why the county game has mushroomed into a monster that threatens the existence of clubs.
The introduction of the county development squads from U-14 level created the concept of elitism in players at a very impressionable age and it permeates at every level now.
Secondly, subservient county boards have allowed team managers to take control of issues way beyond their official remit.
Managers are allowed influence when club fixtures are played and virtually dictate when county players can train and play with their clubs.
County boards allow budgets run riot and don’t appear able to set limits on the number of paid personnel in county managerial teams.
The Covid-19 pandemic has merely brought all these issues to a head, because of the restricted time frame available for action this year.
I welcome the GAA’s efforts to try and define designated club and county seasons and their belated decision to impose sanctions on counties who are found in breach.
But when it comes to self-regulation the GAA’s record is poor.
As former president Peter Quinn commented when asked about under-the-table payments to managers, he said the Association would have difficulty locating the table.
The issue is that a significant number of county team managers are not prepared to play ball and abide by the rules.
They are unwilling to accept that the days of when they could ‘do it my way’, to quote the late Frank Sinatra, are nearly over.
At times they can’t just help themselves. Pulling strokes in order to get their players to train and break the regulations is part of their DNA.
My answer to them is ‘what part of NO do you not understand?’.
All this nonsense about a ‘them-and-us mentality’ and the GAA being reduced to the status of League of Ireland B is pure poppycock.
Abraham Lincoln said that democracy is government of, by and for the people.
It’s the kind of democracy we must strive for in the GAA.
Read Pat Spillane every week in the Sunday World