In the run-up to the All-Ireland junior football semi-final, the excellent Gaelic Life magazine declared that "everything about the sensational run towards All-Ireland glory currently being enjoyed by Derrytresk highlights all that is good about the GAA at grassroots level."
It was a heart-warming tale to be sure. The Tyrone junior champions were a tiny club on the shores of Lough Neagh whose story was one of almost perpetual struggle. In the words of their captain Cathal O'Neill, "we haven't been used to any sort of success around Derrytresk over the years. In the past our form has been so bad in Division Three in Tyrone that you were almost afraid to say where you were from."
Prior to last year when they triumphed with a team whose average age was 22, Derrytresk's only county title was a 1955 junior crown. When they won the Ulster title, Gaelic Life trumpeted "Things can only get better for Derrytresk."
Yet over the past week after their victory over Dromid Pearses was marred by a first-half brawl and incursions by spectators after the final whistle, Derrytresk have been portrayed as epitomising everything that is bad about the GAA. The scenes at Portlaoise, we were told, were unprecedented in their viciousness. No-one had seen the like of it before. Implicit in much of this commentary was the notion that this kind of violence was an Ulster problem. On the internet, that great ball alley full of jackasses, there was much comment along the well-worn and witless lines of 'those Northern bastards are at it again'.
So was the fracas in Portlaoise really an appalling new low in GAA violence? Are Derrytresk a gang of monsters who should immediately be expelled from the competition? And are the barbarians from across the border an inherently more violent lot than us peaceable Free Staters? Hmmm.
October 2008, Galway West Board Junior Football Final: "Up to 100 people, some of them intervening as peacemakers, were involved in a mass brawl at the end of An Spidéal's two-point victory over the Aran Islands at Pearse Stadium. Players from both sides were seen kicking and punching and three members of each club were reportedly taken to University Hospital Galway for treatment in the Accident and Emergency Department."
September 2006, Laois County Senior Hurling Quarter-final: "As Greg Cuddy stepped off the field at the end of the stand, he was attacked by a number of individuals, including one who appeared to strike him with a hurley. This was the signal for all hell to break loose at the end of the stand and a huge number of supporters became embroiled in a ferocious battle in disgraceful violent scenes as young children were caught in the middle."
September 2003, Kerry Senior Hurling Semi-final: "Just seconds after referee Gearóid O'Regan blew the final whistle, he was assaulted by a Ballyduff player and this was followed by the unbelievable sight of several supporters charging on to the field of play and striking blows on the match official."
December 2004, Kerry Senior Hurling League Final: "Close to full- time a row broke out involving players and others on the sideline that lasted for over a minute and referee Brendan Dunne decided to end the game at this point. . . players piled in from both sides and an indiscriminate striking took place and it was impossible to see who was hitting who."
October 2009, Kerry Senior Club Football Final: "All hell broke loose. There was a mass brawl involving 29 players and then both sets of substitutes ran in and the battle raged for three or four minutes before order was restored."
It appears that what happened on Sunday was not quite so unprecedented after all. And that this kind of thing is not confined to lesser breeds without the law. A little less moral outrage, a little less hyperbole and a little less bullshit might be in order.
Take, for example, the suggestion that Derrytresk should be expelled from the competition and that if the GAA don't take this extreme step they are condoning the culture of violence we're told currently infests the game. Well, in 2008 An Spidéal, quite correctly, weren't expelled after their donnybrook with the Aran Islands. They went on to win the Galway junior final and come within two points of winning the Connacht title. And in 2009 there was no suggestion that Kerins O'Rahillys, who'd participated in that Kerry club final brawl with Ardfert, should be prevented from representing the Kingdom in the Munster club championship.
I'm not trivialising what happened to Dromid and in particular their two players who were seriously injured, one suffering a fractured
cheekbone and the other concussion, in the Portlaoise fracas. The video currently doing the rounds on YouTube clearly shows people throwing blows and they should be dealt with rigorously by the GAA. I've no doubt that they will be. Despite all the hand-wringing and assertions to the contrary, the fact is that people don't generally get away with this behaviour in the modern GAA. I would expect Derrytresk to be hit with a number of lengthy suspensions. But it would be a travesty if the Ulster champions were not allowed to fulfil their final date with Clonbur. Games should be won and lost on the field and not in the committee room.
Fintan O'Toole of the Irish Examiner, who has overcome the handicap of his name to become a fine sportswriter, was at the match and wrote a thoughtful piece in which he noted that at the end of the game "the majority of the Derrytresk supporters were focused on celebrating their team's victory and it was a minority that confronted the players on the Dromid Pearses team." I don't see any reason why that majority should be denied their big day in Croke Park because of the actions of the minority.
Colm O'Rourke may well come in for some stick for observing last week that "from what I saw on television it was over quickly and I didn't see too many punches being thrown at all." Yet he's right. When I, like a few hundred thousand other violence junkies, checked out the video on YouTube, I was expecting to see a cross between a 19th century faction fight and the battle between the aliens and the Americans at the end of Avatar. Yet the truth is that I've seen a lot worse, I've seen fights at football matches which went on a lot longer and ones where many more punches were thrown. Some didn't even make the papers.
Ninety nine per cent of GAA matches pass off without any violent incidents at all. In an ideal world that number would be 100%. But it never will be. Football and hurling are physical games and the close-knit structure which makes the GAA special can sometimes work to its detriment. If the guy being hit isn't just a team-mate but a friend, a neighbour or a relation, common sense can go out the window. It shouldn't happen but it does. Given the wrong circumstances, the best of clubs and the best of people can end up disgracing themselves.
Unless they're unlike the people from every other GAA club I know, Derrytresk will know they let themselves and their county down last weekend. But they weren't the only ones. The match ended up being a nine-day wonder because Dromid made it so. I can't remember, for example, any other team petitioning for the side which beat them to be thrown out of a competition. And some of Dromid manager Michael Anthony O'Connell's complaints crossed the line which separates genuine outrage from the whinging of a sore loser.
When Paul Galvin was suspended two years ago, you could hardly move for complaints by Kerrymen that their player had been subjected to trial by media. Well, I don't think you could find a better description of what happened to Derrytresk over the last week than trial by media.
This time round Kerry don't seem to mind the idea at all. Funny that.
Sunday Indo Sport