Right message at right time
Thirteen years ago, Graham Geraghty called 17-year-old opponent Damian Cupido a "black c**t" as Ireland played a warm-up game for their international rules series against Australia.
The GAA reacted by suspending Geraghty for the forthcoming first Test and allowing him to play in the second, something which suggested they didn't think the offence was all that serious. But even that slap on the wrist was too much for some who felt greatly aggrieved at the punishment meted out to him.
A journalist who covered the tour later recollected being in a hotel lift with members of the squad who spent the descent hissing at him in a bizarre display of displeasure. As far as they were concerned, the media were the villains and Geraghty was a martyr.
More dispiriting still was the amount of folksy comment back in Ireland along the lines of, "What's the big deal. Didn't I often call a lad a Kildare c**t or a Mayo c**t." As Dermot Crowe pointed out in these pages at the time, this missed the point that there is no history of people from rival counties subjecting each other to slavery or lynching.
What was most depressing about this kind of argument was its implication that racist comment was something outsiders and foreigners would have to put up with if they wanted to play in or against the GAA. It was part of what we are. This implication was not always a conscious one but it was there nonetheless.
The GAA has come a long way since then. How far can be gauged from the fact that last week two players from the Duffry Rovers club in Wexford were given eight-week suspensions for racially abusing Lee Chin, a promising Wexford player of Chinese extraction who has played senior football and under 21 hurling for the county, during a club football match against Sarsfields.
This time around the reaction was very different. Wexford County Board chairman Diarmuid Devereux said that, "Any form of racism in the GAA cannot be tolerated. It is terrible that Lee was subjected to these comments on a GAA pitch and the players involved should be ashamed of their behaviour." A statement from Croke Park said that the GAA is "an anti-racist, anti-sectarian association, and our games are open to people of all backgrounds. There is no room for behaviour of this nature."
The Gaelic Players' Association welcomed the suspensions in perhaps the strongest and most impressively worded statement of all. "Racism is a huge problem that, if allowed to go unchecked, is a huge threat and the GAA have made huge strides to promote integration. If incidents like this are even perceived to be taken lightly then it is a huge threat to the reputation of the game. So we would commend the board for taking action swiftly."
And, importantly, the Duffry Rovers club eschewed the natural reaction to protect their own and co-operated fully with the county board investigation. The club doesn't deserve to be demonised because of the actions of a couple of bad apples.
This time round there was no equivocation and no excuses were made for the culprits. So what's changed? Perhaps the difference is that over the last decade and a half Ireland has changed from being a largely monocultural country to being one which people from all over the globe have opted to make their home. There are people from other races in our streets, our shops and our schools. And on our rugby, soccer, football and hurling pitches. The result is that, as Devereux pointed out, "In the next 10 or 20 years we will see the children of former non-nationals representing more and more counties . . . in the years to come the GAA is going to be more ethnically diverse so it's important to send out a clear message that we'll not tolerate such racist abuse."
Exactly. What the GAA did last week was show that racism won't be tolerated in Gaelic games. That there wasn't an ounce of ambiguity about this from any quarter means it was a great week for our top sporting organisation. Because taking a stand against racism has nothing to do with some spurious notion of Political Correctness, it has to do with good manners and basic common decency. Racial abuse isn't just another category of banter or sledging. We live, after all, in a world where people have often been murdered because of the colour of their skin. Lee Chin himself was said to have been "extremely shocked and upset" by the incident.
It's good to see the GAA fighting the good fight in this manner. And in doing so I believe it's reflecting the views of the vast majority of its members. Your average GAA man or woman is a more tolerant and decent character than they sometimes get credit for being.
There was a time when Dónal óg Cusack's homosexuality was pretty much an open secret among sports journalists though the player hadn't yet come out to the wider public. At a Kerry press night in Killarney, a couple of us suggested that if the Cork goalkeeper did so he might well get a positive reaction. One of our number poured scorn on this suggestion: "It's alright for the Dublin 4 media to say that but the average hurling fan wouldn't stand for it." Cusack did come out and the average hurling fan admired him for his courage. When I see the English papers talk about how the Premier League 'wouldn't be ready' for a gay player, I feel proud that the GAA was ready.
Similarly, there's nothing racist about the GAA. Witness the iconic status enjoyed by Seán óg ó hAilpín. One reason that Seán óg struck such a chord with fans was that deep down they felt the sight of him lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup reflected well on the Association. And it did.
Most people like the idea that some day Okocha might be marking Kieslowski in an All-Ireland final.
This feelgood factor derives from the pride we take in our games. When we see people from other countries and cultures embrace Gaelic football and hurling, it confirms our feeling that there's something special about these games, that you don't have to be born into them to realise that they're great. And there's something in it for the new recruits too as by getting involved in the GAA they're experiencing one of the best things in Irish life. Everyone's a winner.
It might have its moments but Ireland isn't a racist country. We have no Front National or BNP and by and large we judge people by the kind of people they are rather than what they look like. I'd hope that the two Duffry Rovers lads are eejits rather than bigots and will emerge from their suspension with the realisation that there are some lines a decent human being shouldn't cross. And I wish Lee Chin the best of luck and hope he reaches the same heights as Dónal óg, Seán óg and Jayo.
My nephew Ferdia isn't two years old yet but he's already accrued an impressive array of jerseys. Last Christmas, I bought him a Kilkenny hurling top in memory of the times his father and myself spent following the Cats with our father. Ferdia's mother is Korean and a committed Leinster fan so perhaps he'll be a centre rather than a centre half-forward.
But chances are he'll find his way to the GAA at some stage. When he does, I know there'll be a welcome there for him.
Sunday Indo Sport