Clublife: The GAA is a living, breathing, exulting miracle of communal energy
To know GAA clubs is to see the country differently. Their deeds redraw the map and touch the most apparently mundane locations with magic cut-out.
The GAA club is a unique institution. There is nothing else in sport anywhere to match it. It is the bedrock of the world's most remarkable sporting organisation, the centre of communities, the defining feature of parishes, the bringer of joy and heartbreak, the focus of unbending loyalty, the giver of pride, an immutable part of Irish existence, a little unit which both preserves the best of the past and moves with the times. It demands and earns our love and loyalty and it repays what we give it in a coin far more valuable than money.
It creates precious memories, brings the heroism out in ordinary men and women, moves us to song and story, tears of joy, sometimes sorrow and often laughter. Songs are written about it and across the globe generations of emigrants have kept in touch with its fortunes, by letter, by phone, at kiosks and corner shops in large impersonal foreign cities which sell Irish local papers and latterly over the internet. And when the game was big enough, they got, and still get, on trains and boats and planes to see if their club can make dreams come true. It gives youngsters an opportunity for self-expression on the pitch and off the pitch finds a use for the multifarious gifts of its members. It is a gift which we have given ourselves and cherish all the more because of that.
Of course almost all sports start with the local club. But the GAA is unique in that the link between player and club is never sundered. The leading players in other sports move away from their club into the wider and more lucrative world. But the GAA star who this week plays in front of some 80,000 souls in Croke Park and a worldwide TV audience, can next week be called upon to do his stuff in a divisional junior semi-final at some obscure rural pitch that the audience has never heard of. It is as if Rory McIlroy were still turning out in the Pierce Purcell Shield for Warrenpoint, Seamus Coleman popping home to help Killybegs in the Donegal Junior League or Sean O'Brien helping Tullow in the Provincial Towns Cup.
The inter-county star won't just put in the same effort on the smaller stage as he does on the bigger, he may even find a couple of per cent extra for the club. Because when players who have won the game's biggest honours say that the sweetest triumph of all was a smaller one with the club, they aren't lying or paying lip service. Ask any committed GAA person whether they'd prefer a club or a county All-Ireland and they'll always plump for the former.
Perhaps that's why GAA clubs punch above their weight to such an extent. You have, for example, the phenomenon whereby a final between two rural clubs who can muster a few hundred houses between them, draws a five-figure crowd, most of whom seem to be committed fans of the teams involved. It appears to defy demographic logic but the GAA club is often defined by its ability to thrive against the odds.
That's why sometimes you find yourself travelling through the heartland of one of the Association's iconic clubs and wondering when you're going to chance across the town where the players come from. But the town never turns up and you realise that this small village, this scattered collection of farmhouses, are where Ballyhale Shamrocks, Castlehaven, Roscommon's Clann na nGael, Galway's Sarsfields, Corofin et al, draw their players from.
This ability to make much from little is one of the great triumphs of the GAA. Drive through a county where you have some knowledge of the local scene and it's illuminating to see how every few miles of the road brings a transition into the territory of some new club. I can't imagine that there is any sporting organisation which rivals the GAA for the number of clubs per head of population. Any area which can by the wildest stretch of imagination provide enough people for a functioning club has done so and continues to do so. The tiniest of clubs not only abide but thrive.
The romantic tendency is to regard the rural club as embodying the true spirit of the GAA. But the town and city clubs have their own difficulties to overcome too. It's not long since it was predicted that the growing popularity of soccer, rugby et al in the big population centres would see the marginalisation of Gaelic football and hurling as a brash new generation rejected their old-fashioned rustic charms. The decline of the GAA in Dublin, often predicted, never happened and when club numbers in the capital are brought up now, it's to suggest that the metropolis is too powerful. The problem with Gaelic games in Dublin, we're told, is that they're too successful there. Not a bad problem to have.
GAA clubs in the cities have always welcomed newcomers who wonder if they will be able to find the same atmosphere they remember from home. They do, not just in Dublin but in New York and London and, increasingly, in the Asian and Antipodean cities where a new peripatetic generation of emigrants has fetched up. In education, social profile and expectations they may be different from the emigrants of previous generations but the belief that the GAA Club is an Irish institution well worth recreating on foreign soil unites them with their forebears. The mixture of tradition and innovation at their heart, places these new clubs firmly in the GAA grain.
At home these days the GAA club is making newcomers from further afield welcome. Underage teamsheets contain surnames from Eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. Those names may not always be pronounced correctly but the club is one section of Irish society where nobody cares about your colour or creed as long as you can help put one over on the local rivals. The dividing lines which matter are those between parishes.
To know GAA clubs is to see the country differently. Their deeds redraw the map and touch the most apparently mundane locations with magic. That little place you just passed through produced eight All-Ireland medal winners, this winding stretch of road is the home of the county champions and wait till I tell you the story about this place and the time they played their neighbours back in the '70s. To an outsider, one Irish town might look like another, but the GAA has given each of those towns a clear and proudly guarded local identity, a conviction that there is something special about this place. Sometimes the parish and the club are so closely intertwined it's hard to tell them apart. Sometimes they don't want you to tell them apart.
Pick up a local paper once the season gets properly underway and have a look through the GAA notes. You'll see that in even the smallest county or the smallest division in a big county a bewildering number of matches are taking place. Now think of the enormous effort of dedication and organisation required to set that machine in motion and keep it on the road. Players must be taught the game as kids, then coached all the way through, transport must be provided, pitches kept in order, referees plucked from the ranks, fixture lists drawn up, a host of logistical problems solved by voluntary effort. The energy required to complete just one weekend of GAA fixtures all over the country is quite something to contemplate.
The GAA works. And it works because people want it to. Because it is theirs. And that sense of ownership stems from the clubs, those remarkable little entities dotted all over the map. It is a living, breathing, exulting miracle of communal energy.
It is also a magnificent machine for the production of communal joy. Because all this effort is heading towards county final season, a time when towns, villages, telephone poles, farms, front gardens and back yards will be ablaze with colour, when communities talk about nothing else for the week beforehand and hold their breath as they walk en masse through the turnstiles to learn their fate. Half of those clubs will return to scenes of what is perhaps the most uncomplicated, unbridled and unpretentious outpouring in Irish life. Anyone who has been at a county final celebration will know that there is nothing quite like it with its sense of a goal attained not just by the players but by everyone who put their faith and trust in them. To think that hundreds of these take place every year almost blows the mind. Decades afterwards people will remember those nights of celebration as though they were yesterday, which in some cases is a bit of a bloody miracle.
That moment of joy comes to all clubs in time. Because while there are a few clubs who enjoy regular success and a very few who never win anything at all, the majority of clubs are situated in between those poles. The average club history is usually a tale of striving and setbacks punctuated by the odd glorious day in the sun.
The GAA club is an outlet for energy and creativity in a country where these qualities are sometimes stifled elsewhere. It shows us at our best. It is the huge benign machine which thrums along under the surface of the Irish summer. It restores your faith in Irish life and gives that life meaning. It is there in good times and bad times. It was there before we were here and will be there when we are gone.
It is a beautiful thing.