By some industry estimates, around 140,000 adult tourists crushed their way into Dublin on Tuesday, looking to entangle themselves with anything Irish – be it as ludicrous as leprechauns, obvious as Guinness or downright unfunny as Brendan O’Carroll. That same day, a 20-minute walk away, 52,548 places remained vacant and windswept in Croke Park as the most quintessentially Irish event across the globe played out. The disconnect and disinterest in bridging that gap between the missed potential of the All Ireland club finals and maximised potential of the St Patrick’s festival has been frustrating for some years now, but in a way it sums up the disconnect within the GAA itself.
There was a time when the top of the association had its finger jarred against a gentle pulse. Sure enough, once there were empty words about grassroots and building blocks but by 1993 the decider between O’Donovan Rossa and Éire Óg turned rhetoric into reality and by the millennium’s end, the finals were an institution. As president, Seán Kelly went further and opened it up to everyone with the junior and intermediate club All Irelands and his opening of headquarters to those title games was a greater if less pronounced legacy than the opening of those same doors to soccer and rugby.
But while the GAA hierarchy brought the club game so far with positivity, now it’s helping it via its own negative attitude towards what funds and fuels it as its values switched, direction altered, priorities changed and commerce shouldered community off the ball. Aided but not driven by TG4s inclusivity and AIB’s marketing, all the while the club game encroaches on high-value intercounty interest, within limitations, because people feel a connection and feel it still belongs to them.
Of course the two are symbiotic. Counties need clubs to produce players, clubs need counties to inspire kids. But interdependence should involve a fair division of profit and loss and as of now the intercounty scene, for all it gets, isn’t giving a fair return. There’s the much-publicised hold up in thousands of fixtures each year, the best players rarely released, the GPA acting solely on behalf of the few, the levies and lottos shunted on clubs so they can fund stars they can’t select and facilities they don’t use. Even the placing of finals in March reeks of elitism as it means successful clubs are penalised twice with training over Christmas while heading with no break into their title defence.
But while clubs in some respects act as a mini-me of their bigger brothers – sometimes aping tactics, mimicking over-the-top training or paying mercenary managers – they’ve also become the refugee camp for many of the traits that had made the intercounty scene so enjoyable for so many for so long.
As the top-level has become the preserve of the few to the point in recent seasons three of the four provincial titles could only be won by just four teams and they didn’t even care all that much as the ultimate was their only aim, the club game has had a refreshing inclusivity. In the last 10 years in senior football alone, 149 different sides have won county titles and 243 have reached finals. In that same time 21 different teams from 14 different counties have won provincial senior football titles while seven teams from five counties have gone all the way. But most crucially here are the counties that have popped up and challenged. It’s open to everyone therefore it’s truly the peoples’ game.
Fermanagh and Monaghan had All Ireland intermediate football winners while at junior, Kildare produced a champion and even Lancashire were a score away. In hurling, Tyrone and Roscommon were in finals at junior, London won an intermediate crown, Carlow and Armagh sides contested a decider together with sticks, Antrim had a senior champion and Mount Leinster Rangers were the most remarkable GAA story of a generation. There’s a wonderful diversity too of little meeting large, rural clashing with urban, long-standing tradition running head on into careless one-off dreamers.
Then there are the specific stories that represent what we once knew and thought we knew. Achill and Aran leaving old-world islands by boat and coach for a Connacht final. Ballymun, where U2 saw seven towers but only one way out, bussing groups of kids across Leinster to a title that allowed them to see not just countryside but hope. Slaughneil, where even a bad mug of tea takes longer than the census, not letting quantity hold back quality. It’s catered for a balance too because as much as there’ve been fresh names, there’ve been dynasties too like Crossmaglen and Nemo, Birr and Ballyhale, while the lost-and-found nature of some like St Vincent’s produced continuity in the narrative.
Amidst all this, there’s an accessibility that has lingered into an era of bolted gates. There used to be a time in intercounty where a glance at the teamsheet would throw up pride as you saw a player from your club, but given the restricted access to him, it’s now hard to muster as he is theirs, not yours; there were names on there too of friends and family but a cloistered lifestyle removed much of the connection; and as for the characters that once graced and sold the game from Paidí O’Sé and Dinny Allen to Vinny Murphy and Shane Curran and Conor Mortimer, where are they now? They may exist but they’re hidden away amidst early-morning press conferences or five-minute conversation slots shadowed by public relations people, talking about products we don’t want or need.
Indeed on a Newstalk panel not long ago listening to Conor Deegan and Colm Parkinson fill the air with brilliant yarns, it made you wonder what’s next and who would you really want to listen to from today’s market? In GAA, good interviews used to be about real life, now they’ve been reduced to simply not being all that bad. As trite as that may seem, that’s what intercounty hurling and football once was. Now it’s soulless and in a self-created vacuum but dip back down to the club game and you can still get those stories and that real life. And you can still get near them as post-Celtic Tiger, where people look to community to compensate, it’s one of the best ways to volunteer and contribute. That’s crucial as it’s all that’s left in the GAA with a genuine earthiness and purity to it.
But it’s not just those on the outside either. Sure enough, players want to be the best, but in this column not so long ago the likes of Paddy Keenan of Louth talked about walking away because he’d given enough to a county that no longer has a chance. Even an All Ireland-winner liked Philip Jordan mentioned it was all too much. It made sense when hearing tales from the Clare hurling camp recently of sticking players in the bold corner for training because they were seen in a bar, not drinking, while injured. As Jordan says, “There’s also an element of people becoming frustrated with the dominance of the county game, they feel clubs are secondary and the commercial side of the county game is the priority. Certainly I’ve noticed a shift.” Perhaps that’s the most crucial element in what remains an amateur sport. That shift has been back towards simple enjoyment and fun.
Home is usually where the heart is anyway. But the hierarchy of the GAA’s priorities are leaving no doubt.
Sunday Business Post
22 March, 2015