Sunday 18 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Sport played its part in Yes vote

Friday’s yes vote for marriage equality did for Irish gay people as a whole what Dónal Óg Cusack’s coming out did for GAA fans. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Friday’s yes vote for marriage equality did for Irish gay people as a whole what Dónal Óg Cusack’s coming out did for GAA fans. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Eamonn Sweeney

The most replies we’ve ever had to this column came after I wrote about Dónal óg Cusack’s decision to come out as gay six years ago. The response was extraordinary and it was moving.

A common thread ran through many of the emails. The writers were gay men and they were GAA fans and they’d always felt that these two identities somehow didn’t mesh together. If they were known to be the former, they felt, they wouldn’t be welcome as the latter. I remember one man telling me how immensely proud he was of his brother, a well-known inter-county player. But he wasn’t out to him and didn’t know how the brother would take it if he did come out.

Some of the correspondence came from England and even further overseas, from men who’d felt there was no welcome and could be no life for them in Ireland. There was sadness in many of the messages.

But more than that, there was jubilation. Because both Cusack’s coming out and the positive response to it made these men feel validated to a certain degree. It also made them think that things were changing and that the hatred they’d endured for so long might someday be consigned to the dustbin of history.

In a sense Friday’s yes vote for marriage equality did for Irish gay people as a whole what Dónal óg’s coming out did for gay GAA fans. It let them know that the two parts of their identity were compatible and were seen to be compatible. What happened was more than just a simple vote, it was a stunning affirmation of love and joy and respect and pride. It was one of the great moments in modern Irish history.

Sport played its part. One of the straws in the wind that showed how profoundly we have changed as a nation was not just the Gaelic Players’ Association’s decision to support a ‘yes’ vote but the fact that this decision was approved by 85 per cent of the membership. Inter-county players are young men who, and I don’t mean to do them a disservice here, tend to be fairly macho individuals. And over the years no-one has treated the gay community with more disdain than macho young men. It’s a culture which was a breeding ground for homophobia and where there was no worse insult than to call someone a ‘queer’.

Yet here were the ultimate icons of straight Irish maleness placing themselves on the side of gay marriage. It was a significant step. And so was the even earlier entry into the fray of Donegal’s Eamon McGee whose reward for declaring his support was to be attacked from the altar and deluged with hate mail. It didn’t stop McGee who on voting day was tweeting, ‘Spoke to a few people who said they aren’t voting cause it’s nothing to do with them, that’s a bullshit attitude. Get out and use your vote’. Gweedore should be proud of him.

Dublin’s Rory O’Carroll wrote a particularly fine article about why he was voting ‘yes’ while rugby’s Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy and Brian O’Driscoll supported it, as did Derval O’Rourke, Robbie Keane, Aidan O’Shea and Michael Darragh Macauley. The Women’s Gaelic Players’ Association delivered an endorsement backed by an even more overwhelming majority of their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, the ‘no’ side had Ger Brennan. I’ve seen a few people praise the Dublin defender on the grounds that it’s good to see a player come out and stand up for what he believes in, no matter what that is. The problem with this is that Brennan didn’t come out and stand up for what he believed in. Instead he, and this was the major fault of the ‘no’ campaign, claimed to have other reasons for opposing it which had nothing to do with the issue at hand. Brennan is a man of strong religious faith as were many people with the ‘no’ campaign. The honourable thing would have been to oppose the referendum on that basis but instead they tried to box clever and let themselves down badly. I’ll leave the last word on this subject to Jamie Wall who tweeted, ‘Either Ger Brennan is deliberately spreading false ‘facts’ or is one of the many who have been fooled by the No misinformation campaign?’

The fact that Wall, whose own bravery in the face of disability makes him my GAA personality of the year no matter what happens in the championships, took time off from his battle to weigh in on the debate really showed the depth of feeling in favour of the ‘yes’ vote. As did the sporting intervention which I personally found to be the most moving. Babs Keating is 71, a man from a generation and a part of the country which would not have been expected to contain many ‘yes’ partisans. Yet the former Tipperary manager’s explanation, grounded in a sense of decency, as to why he’d be voting ‘yes’ was a fine thing and I suspect struck a chord with quite a few wavering voters.

Did all these sporting endorsements help? I’m sure they did, not least because, for the younger generation in particular, sports stars have an authority which politicians have largely lost. But the victory was really won by the workers of the ‘yes’ side who fought a tremendous campaign. Many of them come from that younger generation which is forever being berated as obsessed with social media, tangled up in triviality and lacking in idealism. But when push came to shove they got out on the streets, put up the posters, knocked on the doors and made the winning arguments. They left it all on the pitch.

I’ll return to Dónal óg Cusack. After he’d come out he could have left it at that. I remember shortly after the revelation a leading GAA journalist commenting that Cusack wasn’t going to be one of those gays who went on about being gay. But go on about he has, to the extent of becoming one of the most combative, articulate and effective spokespeople gay rights has in this country. I’d say he was an inspiration to Valerie Mulcahy, who came out just a few months back and who hopefully can be the same kind of figurehead for gay sportswomen as Dónal óg has become for gay sportsmen.

These have been some couple of days. Ireland won’t see many better.  We did the right thing and today it feels like the whole country is after winning the All-Ireland.

Comhghairdeas. We love you.

Lower leagues high on serious entertainment

Donegal-Tyrone was pretty exciting and Manchester United-Arsenal had its moments. But the most compelling game to be found this day last week was the Conference promotion play-off final between Bristol Rovers and Grimsby Town, not least because in a strange way it was the match with the most at stake.

Rovers and Grimsby are really football league clubs who’ve slipped into non-league by accident. When Town were relegated to the Conference in 2010, it brought a 117-year history as a Football League club to an end. And their opposition had been 93 years a league club before taking the drop last year. Their attendances are Football League attendances, only two League Two clubs had a better home average than Bristol, while there are four League One clubs who draw fewer souls every second week than Grimsby.

As any senior GAA team which drops to intermediate knows, it’s much tougher to get back up than to survive just above the relegation zone. But here both clubs were at the end of a long season, just one game away from returning to the promised land. The fact that the game was at Wembley in front of 47,209 spectators added to the sense of occasion. And when the match moved into extra-time with the teams locked at 1-1, the tension was palpable even for the neutral.

In the final minute of the game Bristol manager Darrell Clarke replaced his ’keeper Will Puddy with Steve Mildenhall. The commentators referred to this as doing a Tim Krul, though of course all knowledgeable football people know the move was patented by Sligo Rovers when they brought on Ciarán Kelly before winning the FAI Cup final shoot-outs in 2010 and 2011. It worked this time too and Rovers won 5-3 on penalties with former Irish under 19 ’keeper James McKeown unable to make any saves in the Grimsby goal.

And there is more in store this weekend as the three lower divisions in England face their final curtain. In fact, the play-off series has already provided more excitement over the past fortnight than a Premier League that’s fizzled out somewhat.

You’ll know by now if Southend United’s Irish brigade managed to propel them past Wycombe Wanderers yesterday and into League One. Whatever happened it will hardly be more dramatic than their semi-final second leg on Thursday of last week against Stevenage Borough when top scorer, Wicklow’s Barry Corr, missed an injury-time penalty to put them into the final before they triumphed with goals in extra-time by former Derry City youngster Stephen McLaughlin and one-time Irish under 21 international Michael Timlin, playing with a headguard after sustaining 15 stitches during the first leg. Former Bohemians midfielder Gary Deegan and Celbridge-born centre-back Cian Bolger also saw service on the night for the Shrimpers.

Today’s League One final features Preston North End and Swindon Town. Swindon’s Irish connection is an intriguing one; they’re owned by Lee Power, a one-time teenage sensation who played for the Republic of Ireland ‘B’ team and whose career included two broken legs and 11 clubs before he retired at the age of 28. Power owns the Racing Plus newspaper.

Tomorrow comes the big one, the Championship play-off final between Norwich City, who’ll have Wes Hoolahan pulling the strings, and Middlesbrough, who less than 10 years ago were playing in the UEFA Cup final.

It’s always reported in terms of the financial bonanza available to the team who make the Premier League though I always feel the really important thing is the opportunity for fans to enjoy trips to Old Trafford, Anfield et al instead of the likes of Rotherham and Huddersfield.

I’ll watch all three games with great interest. And if I only really notice the lower-division action at this time of year, I’m hardly alone. At Wembley all the clubs will be playing in front of crowds far larger than their average combined home attendance.

There’s nothing like a game that really, really matters.

Small Tom can’t drag himself out of the past

It’s disappointing, if not surprising, to see that the new Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Tom Elliott, has turned down an invitation to attend next Sunday’s Ulster Championship match between Fermanagh and Antrim at Brewster Park in Enniskillen.

Elliott says he won’t go because the Irish national anthem will be played at the game and the tricolour will be flying. Wonderful, isn’t it? The GAA have dropped the ban on members of the British Army joining the Association, the English rugby team have sung along to God Save the Queen in Croke Park and Northern Republican politicians have attended commemoration ceremonies for the British Army dead from two world wars, shook hands with the Queen and met Prince Charles. But this gobdaw still can’t stomach the sound of our national anthem or the sight of our national flag.

For Small Tom and his crew nothing has changed. Maybe he thinks the Blanket Defence is a tribute to the H-Block prisoners. But it’s more likely that he wants to display his disdain for the 50.8 per cent of the voters who put their tick beside a nationalist candidate in the recent British general election, Tom having taken his seat because the SDLP, with typical brilliance, split that vote sufficiently for him to scrape in by a few hundred votes. He also says he won’t be going to any Gay Pride marches. When it comes to witless prejudice, Elliott is a dual player.

In two years’ time it will be the tenth anniversary of the Ireland-England match and we will no doubt be deluged with lachrymose reminiscences of the day and declarations that everything changed irrevocably once Irish rugby fans, those most visceral and irredentist of republicans, took the scarcely believable  decision not to boo the British national anthem.

But it is perhaps worth remembering that for the representatives of Ulster Unionism such gestures change nothing. And that it is the representatives of Ulster Unionism who Northern GAA people have to deal with which is something worth bearing in mind next time we down here congratulate ourselves on our ‘maturity’ and deliver a sanctimonious lecture in that direction.

Winston Churchill famously lamented the never-ending nature of the squabble between the two sides in Fermanagh and Tyrone. But these days when the Queen can be welcomed in Dublin and Cork, yet a Unionist MP can’t bring himself to watch 70 minutes of football with his constituents, it seems that only one side is still fighting.

Perhaps the FAI should invite Small Tom down to the Aviva for the Republic of Ireland-England soccer match. He could lead the English soccer fans in a few stirring verses of, “No surrender to the GAA.”

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