There was a time when a particularly fanatical form of Catholicism was all the go in this country. Among its tenets was that there were great benefits to be had from fasting, flagellating, mortification and a generally miserable attitude towards life. The writer John McGahern remembered that going around with a long face on you was seen as a proof of good character. No physical pain, no spiritual gain.
Autre temps, autre moeurs obviously.
But perhaps that old Jansenistic spirit hasn't entirely gone away. You see, quite a few people greeted Dublin's draw with Kerry in Tralee with the giddy enthusiasm of a confraternity man having his second cold shower on a freezing morning. Yet the match was merely the latest boring game in perhaps the most boring National Football League of all time. That apparently sane people saw fit to praise it merely shows how little we expect from Gaelic football these days.
This wasn't just boring football, this was Lough Derg football. Lots of huffing and puffing, lots of frees, not many scores from play and a general air of bad temper. It was interesting to see how those who praised it have scrapped the old criteria by which we used to evaluate a game of football. In the new calculus, mass punch-ups, players being pulled and dragged around the place and lads bumping into each other hard are all seen as adding to the game. They supposedly denote 'intensity.'
Yet 'intensity' in the real sense is often lacking from the modern football match. Players spend an inordinate amount of time jogging around at half-pace inside their own half executing short passes under very little pressure while the opposition funnel back towards their own goal at a pretty leisurely pace. When everyone's got set up the attacking team then jog forward and more often than not lose the ball. And the cycle begins again.
At times it resembles a film of a basketball match enormously slowed down as part of a video art installation. Other times it reminds me of childhood games of backs and forwards at under 12 training. The guy bringing the ball into the opposition half is like the young lad coming back with the ball after the backs kicked it downfield into a ditch. An awful lot of time is spent waiting for something meaningful to happen.
Dublin-Kerry wasn't the worst game of the season so far. That honour belongs to the Dublin-Donegal match, an atrocity exhibition of protracted tedium. If you wanted to sum up everything that is wrong with football right now, you could just point to the final passage of the game where Donegal had the ball in the Dublin half with the scores level and two minutes to go only to become so obsessed with short passing that they forgot to take a shot before the whistle blew. All through that game Donegal took so many passes to move the ball a short distance it was like looking at some strange ritual being performed by a sufferer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I'm not, or at least I wasn't, one of those gloomy soothsayers who like to proclaim the impending death of Gaelic football. I think, for example, that last year's All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry showed that when it's played well there are few games anywhere to match it.
Yet the current Division 1 league campaign has been an eye-opener. It has given us a version of Gaelic football which hardly anyone can enjoy. The old county loyalties, an affection for the game itself and the traditional sporting desire to see who wins may keep the fans watching, but they are not by and large being entertained.
The impression you get is that like the Redemptorist preacher of old, the men in charge of county football teams distrust the idea of pleasure and think that their flock might actually benefit from getting a bit of a scourging of a Sunday afternoon. But football, like any sport, is not just about the people out on the pitch, it is also about those in the stands. The 30 guys on the pitch owe something to the people who've paid in to see them, gauche and unsophisticated though this may seem. They owe it to them to make the game something which is enjoyed rather than endured.
The point of all the mortification once recommended by our spiritual leaders was that you'd gain brownie points with God, or indulgences as they were known. Well, if you've been going to matches in Division 1 of the National Football League this year, hang on to the programmes and produce them when you reach the pearly gates.
One look at them and St Peter will put you to the head of the queue. 'Let this lad through, Big G,' he'll say, 'He's been through Hell already.'
Sunday Indo Sport