Sunday 18 March 2018

Club bans are the only way to stop violence becoming part of the culture of the GAA

Association President Aogán Ó Fearghail. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Association President Aogán Ó Fearghail. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Marcel Proust's great novel sequence A La recherche du temps perdu begins with the narrator's memory being transported back to the past when he tastes a Madeleine biscuit dipped in tea. When you grow up watching GAA matches your memory tends to be jogged by somewhat earthier experiences.

For example, last week when I heard that an off-duty Garda had been knocked unconscious as he tried to protect the referee at the end of a Sligo minor football semi-final between Owenmore Gaels and Shamrock Gaels, I was transported back in time to 1982 and a Sligo senior football quarter-final between Shamrock Gaels and my home club Eastern Harps in Tubbercurry.

There were a couple of minutes left and Harps were cruising to an easy victory when one of our wing-forwards bent down to pick up the ball and received a boot in the face from an opponent. A Harps midfielder arrived to seek retribution by decking the offender with a punch on the jaw. Whereupon a Shamrock Gaels supporter wearing a very large pair of brown boots stormed on to the field to attack the midfielder and anyone else within reach.

This led to a wholesale pitch invasion and several minutes of skirmishing. The referee, a well-known former inter-county player, was cornered at one stage and managed to escape. A Harps official was assaulted and managed to see off his assailants by deft use of the club Lucozade bottle. Lots of bad stuff was going on but luckily enough no-one was seriously hurt.

My father was doing commentary on the match for a local publican who was one of the first men locally to own a video camera. The man in the brown boots stood behind him and uttered numerous threats about what would happen if the film ever saw the light of day. My father was pretty shaken by the time the final whistle blew.

The atmosphere was toxic but as far as I know no punishments were ever handed down. And with the passage of time the Kilcoyne Park schemozzle became part of local legend. On request, the publican would produce the video and there would be much amusement as the sunlight fell on the Lucozade bottle, sweeping back and forth like the mighty hammer Mjolnir being wielded by the Norse god Thor.

I tell this story not to belittle the suffering of Detective Garda Chris O'Neill, who probably saved the referee from serious injury, or to have a dig at Shamrock Gaels. They are a fine club and I know fine people from there. In any event this latest assault was apparently perpetrated by a supporter or supporters of Owenmore Gaels. Chris O'Neill is a member of Shamrock Gaels. And if you're thinking 'they must be a right bunch of savages in Sligo' you have the wrong end of the stick there too. There is no county which hasn't seen an incident like this occur.

The point I'm making is that this kind of thing has been going on forever in the GAA, that it's a blight on the Association, that it's extremely upsetting for people who are subjected to it and that, sadly, there's a kind of ambivalence about it within the Association. Everyone pays lip service to the idea that these things are terrible but nobody cares enough to do anything which might stop it from happening.

GAA people can get a bit smug about the lack of fan violence in the game and tend to point out ad nauseam that there is no crowd segregation needed at the matches. But when it comes to violence and threatening behaviour against officials, the Association leads the way. In no other sport in this country are incidents like the one in Coola such a problem.

They happen so often that you wonder if there's something in the culture of the GAA which contributes to them. If there is, it's perhaps a reluctance to take responsibility for the misdeeds committed by your own side. There was a familiar 'yes, but,' quality to the official reactions to the incident. Association President Aogán ó Fearghail said that, "Any incident involving violence whether it occurs on a main street or a GAA pitch is wrong."

"It's not publicity that we'd like to see coming our way," said Sligo County Board secretary Gerry O'Connor. Owenmore Gaels said they'd be launching their own investigation and waiting for the referee's report, though you'd presume they know full well what happened and who was responsible.

Only when the GAA starts to ban clubs for this kind of thing will there be an end to it. You can always say that the many shouldn't be punished for the misdeeds of the few but my own experience is that the hotheads often feel as though they're merely carrying out the will of the silent majority. If clubs rather than individual fans were banned for assaults like this, you'd see a stop to it soon enough because supporters would know how much their club had to lose and nip the trouble in the bud themselves.

It's something for Aogán ó Fearghail to think about. Unless he's decided to try and clean up the main streets first.

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