Tuesday 16 July 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Churches of God and Gael will give their blessing to land deal'


'The GAA is planning to buy Clonliffe College and 38 surrounding acres from the Catholic Church'. Stock photo: Sportsfile
'The GAA is planning to buy Clonliffe College and 38 surrounding acres from the Catholic Church'. Stock photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

When the Vatican signed the Lateran Treaty with Italy in 1929, it was only fitting that this landmark moment in international diplomacy should receive the imprimatur of the GAA.

The treaty established Vatican City as an independent state and guaranteed full sovereignty to the Holy See, headed by the bishop of Rome, aka the Pope. Benito Mussolini as prime minister signed the treaty on behalf of the state.

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It was a big deal at the time. So one can imagine the wave of relief in Vatican City, the surge of vindication, when Archbishop John Harty of Cashel and Emly, patron of the GAA, sent his congratulations on behalf of Gaels everywhere to Pope Pius XI. They surely broke out the claret for that one. According to the authors of The GAA - A People's History, it was Harty's first act after becoming patron of the Association, which had presented him with a crozier worth £150 upon assuming the prestigious role. "The Pope's subsequent expression of gratitude," they write, "was later inserted into the minutes of the GAA's Central Council."

Ninety years later, and perhaps in keeping with the decline of one and the ongoing prosperity of the other, the GAA is planning to buy Clonliffe College and 38 surrounding acres from the Catholic Church. In his annual financial report last week, Peter McKenna, Croke Park stadium director, said that negotiations were continuing with the archdiocese of Dublin.

The college ceased operating as a seminary in 2000. It is but a stone's throw from the GAA's Holy See on Jones's Road. Both parties are committed to including a substantial swathe of social and affordable housing in any proposed re-development of the site. The GAA plans to install playing fields and build a hotel that would complement the stadium's thriving conference business. A spokesperson for the diocese said they would like to see the local community benefit from the project by way of sporting amenities, greenways, shops, jobs and housing.

She explained that the diocese would ultimately need official approval from Rome for the deal, given the size of the property and the fact that it was a former seminary. The Vatican, she added, "would be briefed on the place of the GAA in the sporting and cultural life of Ireland." On the GAA's side, any deal would need approval from their synod of bishops, aka the Central Council in conclave.

One would have thought that these two towering organisations, both with their missionary zeal, their heavenly calling and their congregations in every land, would come together like hand in glove for any such entente involving God and mammon.

But if the diplomatic choreography required any greasing of the axles, then surely they could be reminded of the mutual harmony that prevailed between Central Council and the Holy See back in 1929.

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Indeed, the GAA could go back further. It could point out that when it was first building its Church, in 1884, the enthusiastic support of Archbishop Thomas Croke lent a fair blast of wind to its sails. With Michael Cusack evangelising for the new organisation with the veritable gusto of St Paul, he invited Croke to become its first patron. The prelate was only too happy to accept. Ireland, he wrote, was succumbing to the "effeminate follies" of the English, with all their "degenerate dandies", and therefore it was high time that Irish manhood embraced her "racy of the soil" native games.

Happily, as a consequence, for the next 100 years we had the Christian Brothers batin' hurling and Gaelic football into young fellas up and down the country. We had bishops throwing in the ball at All-Ireland finals. We had the GAA rowing in behind the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. We had crowds at matches singing 'Faith of our Fathers' and we had clergy in county boards and in clubs, and swearing like sailors on the sideline. And of course the entire grassroots network of clubs was built on the parish structure already long established by the Church.

Naturally, there had to be a few tensions between the two institutions along the way. In the very beginning, and notwithstanding Croke's support, many of his peers in the hierarchy saw the GAA as a militant nationalist movement masquerading as a wholesome sporting organisation. "There were numerous disputes," according to The GAA - A People's History, "the most dramatic of which was at the GAA's annual convention in November 1887 when priests and IRB men wrestled each other for control of the top table. Sticks were brandished, punches thrown and an IRB man was reported to have roared: 'We'll pulverise the priests.'"

One also recalls an anecdote involving a parish priest who was chairman of a county board in the late 1960s. A fracas in a club game had led to the suspension of a leading player. The club appealed his suspension to the county board. The chairman took a hard line in the heated argument that ensued. One of the furious club delegates suggested to said cathaoirleach that perhaps his judicial wisdom in these matters was compromised by his well-known fondness for whiskey. The affronted party, drawing upon his full dignity as a man of the cloth, retorted that if the delegate couldn't respect him personally, then at least he might show some respect for the collar he was wearing. To which came the rejoinder: "Ah sure Paisley has one of them too."

No, it hasn't all been sweet incense and harmonious hymns between the holy, Catholic and apostolic GAA, and Rome's Ard Comhairle in Ireland. But they both share a sacred vocation afforded to few other movements in the history of humanity. They can call upon their supreme authority to teach the truth to mankind; they can call upon the Magisterium of their respective missions - their divinely-ordained mandate to spread the good word of both God and Gael.

The deal for the land, we suspect, will get the blessings of both hierarchies in the fullness of time.

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