Wednesday 21 March 2018

Joe Brolly: Forget foreign sports such as rugby and soccer - The real threat is within the GAA

Joe Brolly

The big fallacy at the heart of the GAA's thinking over the last 20 years is that we are competing with soccer and rugby. This has had a number of damaging knock-on effects.

As commercial opportunities have been pursued without recourse to principle, GAA members have increasingly come to be treated as mere consumers. The county game has become a commercial colossus that dominates the calendar, leaving the clubs to feed on the scraps. All of which has left the grassroots feeling alienated.

The idea that we are competing with professional sport is a fantasy. The hierarchy - until now - has been looking at it in the wrong way.

My good friend Des Fahy is the author of How The GAA Survived The Troubles. It is a poignant, well written book, but I disagree entirely with its central premise. There was never any question of the GAA not surviving the Troubles. If the British had blown up every GAA club in the six counties it wouldn't have mattered a damn. We would simply have rebuilt them, and better. Because the GAA is a part of what we are.

Pat Gilroy said in an interview once that when it came to his kids, he had a very democratic approach to sports. "They can play any sport they like so long as its football and hurling for St Vincent's." My own kids tried various sports but having been immersed in GAA club life since childhood, found themselves as fish out of water. It is what we are.

So, for example, the idea that Sky would somehow help to promote the GAA in foreign lands was always doomed, since the GAA is a self-help, community-based organisation. On Friday night, I was in the packed Dungiven clubhouse for an absorbing lecture on the Easter Rising. The critical role of the GAA in breaking the mental stranglehold of the British was one of the central themes. We were little Englanders by the late 1800s. At the national schools we sang God save the Queen. It was compulsory to start each school day with the following prayer: "I thank the goodness and the grace that on my birth has smiled/And made me in these Christian days, a happy English child."

The GAA, founded in 1884, was a profound catalyst in the revival of Ireland. The example of Kilkenny is instructive. By 1890, the most popular sport in the county was . . . cricket. It was played extensively in rural areas by farmers and farm labourers and had widespread appeal. There were 50 cricket clubs in the county (that is not a misprint) compared to four hurling clubs.

A tourist might easily have mistaken it for Lancashire. The historian Mark Duncan notes that when Michael Cusack visited Kilkenny to see for himself what the state of play was, he was enraged. He eventually found a hurling game which was "very poorly attended" being played by two teams "whose hurling was the worst and most spiritless ever witnessed on an Irish hillside". At one point, "as the game continued around them, a half dozen players lay down on the ground for a rest, which would be enough to break the hearts of the more serious hurling folk of Tipperary and Galway". This was obviously pre-Cody.

What happened next tells us all we need to know. The GAA leaders put in place an administrative structure and set about organising club championships. It quickly became a source of pride to Irish folk and spread like wildfire. In Kilkenny, they set down the cricket bats and took up the hurls. As Duncan puts it, an identity centred around hurling prowess began to take shape. Cricket disappeared. Clubs quickly became the focal point of communities. We were no longer aping the English. We had something of our own. Something that made us feel great.

It didn't take winning an All-Ireland to promote the GAA in Derry. It was flourishing for 100 years before that. The county remains a cultural and Irish sporting hub. We brought two underage teams to Lavey last week, one of the smallest parishes in the county. They have architect-designed state-of-the-art changing rooms and clubhouse. There is a three-quarter size indoor GAA pitch, two full-size floodlit grass pitches and a large gym. There was tea and sandwiches afterwards for everyone. When we were leaving, the under 8s were training indoors and the lady footballers were taking the field. Competing with rugby my arse. It is the same throughout the country.

We brought underage teams to Kilmacud last year. At under 14 level, Kilmacud had 120 kids. In the city, the GAA is flourishing like never before. Why? Self-help.

Until now, the GAA has looked at things in the wrong way. Real promotion of the GAA entails supporting the clubs. The reason lads play soccer - especially in cities - is not because they don't like The Sunday Game, which would be a heresy in itself. It is because they get regular games. As Liam Farrell from Rostrevor, Co Down tweeted recently when club fixtures were postponed at the county manager's request, 'Down club football suffers yet again, no wonder players starting to prefer soccer'.

Gaelic club footballers train very hard, often four times a week, often with no game in sight. There are big fixture gaps during the season and the training/match ratio is around 12-14 to 1. If, however, they choose to play soccer, they get a game every Saturday, and train around once a week. It's a guaranteed 25-game season, run off weekly, allowing players to plan their lives. As the young population moves east, to Belfast and Dublin, lads simply want to play regular games. If we cannot offer them that, they might play soccer, which can. That is where the competition lies.

On the face of it, Paraic Duffy's fixtures motion which goes before Congress this weekend couldn't be any less radical. It merely condenses the league by a few weeks, removes replays save for provincial and All-Ireland finals and fixes the All-Ireland finals a fortnight earlier. But it could be the beginning of something far more profound. Perhaps the fog is beginning to clear from the minds of the hierarchy. Maybe the penny is finally beginning to drop with them that promoting our games means supporting the clubs, not just telling them now and again that they are "the lifeblood of the Association".

We are not under threat from foreign sports. The threat lies within.

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