Monday 23 October 2017

Community of faith still defines GAA

Association gives people a sense of belonging in way the Church once did, writes Aisling Crowe

A display of pomp and ceremonial splendour to rival any royal pageant, the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was like nothing ever witnessed on these shores. Dublin, indeed the whole country, ground to a halt for a week in June as hundreds of thousands of the faithful flocked to the city to partake in the religious events.

As the biggest cultural and sporting organisation in the country, the GAA played a leading role. It provided 5,000 stewards for the masses in the Phoenix Park, agreed not to schedule any important matches during the congress and a ceremony was staged in Croke Park.

Fast forward 80 years and the Eucharistic Congress has returned. Its liturgical focal point is in Croke Park today but that's where the similarities end. While Mass goes on, in Portlaoise, a place in the Leinster hurling final will be fought for and one of the leading contenders for Sam Maguire will make their championship bow.

For historian and author Paul Rouse, nothing should be read into Mass taking place in the home of Gaelic games. It's just another event held in Ireland's premier outdoor venue. The symbolism is merely incidental. Today it will play host to the Catholic faithful; at the end of the week, the congregation will be heartbroken Westlife fans bidding farewell to their pop idols.

"The GAA is always used for big events," says Rouse. "It's a reflection of the size of Croke Park as an appropriate venue, but it's also possibly a reflection of the fact that most members of the GAA are either Catholics or lapsed Catholics. That connection can be overdone. The GAA was used for the Special Olympics, the Olympic torch was here two weeks ago. It's an iconic venue because of its scale and its meaning and that partly explains the choice of Croke Park.

"There is a tradition of sympathy between the GAA and the Catholic Church so why would it not take place there? It's the logical choice."

That sympathetic tradition goes back to the birth of the sporting organisation in 1884 when Michael Cusack invited Archbishop Croke to be one of the patrons of the newly formed Gaelic Athletic Association. There was nothing unusual in that. The GAA was born out of a cultural nationalism that saw Catholicism playing an important role in its vision of Irish identity.

The most obvious way in which those links were fostered was the one parish one club rule. Catholic parishes provided an obvious boundary for a network of clubs, but Rouse argues that this was more for reasons of geographical convenience than out of deference to the Church.

"The greatest single identifier of the relationship between the GAA and the Catholic Church is the idea that a club is based on a Catholic parish and of course that is largely true, but it's not wholly true. There are a lot of Catholic parishes around Ireland where there is more than one club in the parish so it's a little bit overdone this idea of the unity of club and parish. It's more of a geographic boundary thing than religion."

Whatever the reasons behind it, the decision was an inspired one and has left a legacy of local spirit and fostered a sense of community and feeling of belonging, which sustains people to this day.

For so long education in Ireland was controlled by the religious orders and through their influence and the development of football and hurling in the education system, the perception that the GAA and the Catholic Church were intertwined grew. As with so much of the story of the GAA's relationship with the Church, it is wrong to draw the obvious conclusion from surface appearances.

"It is too simple an equation to make but there is a large truth in it that a lot of these schools were identified with the GAA, notably Christian Brothers schools," adds Rouse. "There was the perception that the Catholic Church and the GAA were two sides of the same coin. That isn't the case. The leading Catholic schools in Ireland were, and remain, rugby schools. The Catholic Church and the GAA are not and never have been one and the same."

The religious orders have loosened their grip on the education system but the GAA remains as strong as ever in schools, disproving the notion of a deep relationship between the fortunes of the GAA and the Church.

Overtly Catholic symbols on match days helped perpetuate the idea. The singing of Faith of our Fathers before a match or a member of the hierarchy, usually a bishop, throwing in the ball were once associated with important GAA occasions.

The Eucharistic Congress in 1932 perhaps marked the zenith of the GAA's links with the Catholic Church. Even in the decades of the relationship's heyday, it was more nuanced than a cursory glance revealed. The hierarchy approved of clergy being involved in the administrative side of the game but when it came to playing, they frowned upon it.

Stories are told of daring escapes by seminarians desperate to play matches, climbing out of windows and shinnying down drainpipes where a bicycle would be hidden under a bush or a getaway driver would be waiting to ferry the young priest to his forbidden destination. These covert operations were matched by the story of Fr Ignatius McQuillan, who lined out for Fermanagh in the 1959 All-Ireland Junior final under the pseudonym Sean Maguire. Bishop Farren, Fr McQuillan's superior, threw the ball in for the final and recognised him but chose to turn a blind eye. His story was not unique and the dedication of many priests helped to foster links between the two organisations and contributed to the perceptions which abounded of their closeness.

In a sense, Croke Park is itself a sporting cathedral. It is a place of pilgrimage for Irish people where match-day rituals are observed.

Dublin footballer Ger Brennan was involved in organising the Eucharistic Congress and is taking part in the Statio Orbis today. The Church and the GAA have been guiding influences on his life and he sees similarities between them.

"They are two great organisations based on community, on team work, on taking care of one another," he says. "The sense of belonging is important to me with the Church. From my own experience, that happiness you feel when you are part of something and that sense of belonging to something as great as the GAA and the church adds something to people's lives."

In modern Ireland, where old certainties have been exposed as built on foundations of sand, where people feel let down by church and politics, the GAA remains. The organisation provides a sense of belonging, of community, of working together for the greater good based on a value system and ethos that has its roots in Christian tenets.

The GAA brings people together in a way that religion used to. In its own way it is a community of faith, not intricately tied to one religious belief but embracing people of all beliefs and none. The wheel has turned fully since that week 80 years ago and now it is an organisation that provides a sense of community and belonging in a secular world.

The GAA is a resilient organisation that has adapted to the many changes in society it has lived through. The loose threads that connected it to the Catholic Church and the other elements of the founding fathers' vision of Irishness are severed. The Church no longer holds a privileged place in Irish life and as the country's largest sporting body the GAA's relationship with the Catholic Church reflects that.

"The strength of the GAA has nothing to do with symbols or ideas of its nationalism or connections with the Church," says Rouse. "The strength of the GAA is the extraordinary network of grounds and clubs spread all across Ireland and far beyond as well. That's the strength of the GAA -- the facilities and the games it offers to people."

The volunteer ethos underpinning the organisation makes it great. Thousands of people sacrificing their free time to devote themselves to the GAA is a proud reflection of the community spirit it engenders. In the end, the GAA is about people and sport. People who believe enough in the games and in each other to spend their lives involved in the association. The GAA's relationship with the Catholic Church does not define it. Nor do symbols or relics. They never did.

Today's Mass in Croke Park is just that, a ceremony in Ireland's largest stadium. The bodies may share members and some characteristics but that's all. What defines the GAA, and always has, is community, place and people working voluntarily for the greater good.

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