Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: William Murphy on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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From inflexible nationalism to Sky Sports: Ireland’s Gaelic games have come a long way

In 2014, Gaelic Athletic Association games are being broadcast by Sky Sports for the first time. Oliver Farry looks at the history of two sports that have deep connections with Ireland’s identity.

Fans of other sports will quibble but the biggest events in the Irish sporting calendar take place on the first and third Sunday of September every year – the All-Ireland hurling and football* finals respectively. On each day 30 amateur sportsmen will face off against each other in front of 82,000 people at Croke Park, Europe’s third biggest stadium (only the Camp Nou in Barcelona and Wembley are bigger). The event in each case is like the Superbowl shorn of the bells and whistles or the FA Cup final before the expansion of the Champions League reduced it to an unwanted consolation prize. No Irish domestic sporting occasion draws so many spectators and all manner of horse-trading is involved, with favours often asked of casual acquaintances in distant parts of the country to secure tickets for the matches. 

Ireland is not unique in having its own sports that few people in other countries play or care for. The Americans and Australians have theirs too, but Gaelic games, as the two sports are collectively known, are unparalleled in being administered by an organisation that has been intricately related to the country’s history and even its national identity. Founded in 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has from the beginning been at the forefront of Irish nationalism, both before and since independence. It was long notorious for its bans on its members playing “foreign” (ie British) games and its facilities being used for the same and, most notably, for a ban on British servicemen or Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers playing its sports. In 2014 the GAA has mellowed somewhat, with hurling and Gaelic football being carried for the first time by that quintessential example of contemporary British broadcasting, Sky. This, predictably enough, drew outcry in Ireland, though not so much on nationalistic grounds as for depriving ordinary Irish people of matches that were previously free-to-air. (Sky, in reality, has exclusivity only on a select number of championship games, with most, including the latter stages, still carried by the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ.) 

Irish people have spent this summer being amused by the (mostly enthusiastic) reactions of British viewers to the sports, which, to the uninitiated, must look like insanely violent free-for-alls. Gaelic games may not be loved by everyone in Ireland but there is a national pride in the fact that the sports are played by amateurs (still the case today though in recent years players have been allowed to benefit from endorsements). It is an Irish cliché to say it but the same players you cheered on in a championship match on a Sunday you are liable to meet in the street in your local town the next day. Unlike in other sports, players play practically their whole career with their native county, with transfers rare and hardly ever solicited. The elite level in both sports is the county one but all players must also play for a club, which are mostly organised on parish lines (here, transfers are common, with many players playing outside their home county). 

Many Irish people will have known personally at least one top-level county player in their lifetime. My father and my uncle both played inter-county football for Sligo. My dad still draws about a dozen plaudits a year from people in the street for a starry performance he gave as a 20-year-old at corner-forward in the 1965 Connacht final (one of the four provincial championships through which all contenders must pass). When people of a certain age in Sligo find out who I am, they often remind me of it too. Sligo that year narrowly failed to beat the reigning All-Ireland champions Galway, who were on their way to completing a three-in-a-row and cementing their reputation as one of the greatest teams ever. Sligo gave their best and the highlight of my dad’s game was setting up a goal in the second half. The mists of time have since attributed the goal to him in the minds of well-wishers. A less glorious incident befell him a year later when he missed out on the opportunity to play at Wembley (against Cavan in a long-defunct tournament called the Cúchullain Cup) because he cut up his hand instinctively catching a falling straight razor while shaving. This was a couple of weeks before Geoff Hurst won England the World Cup at the same venue.

The Galway three-in-a-row side

Kevin Moran playing for Dublin v Kerry, 1976

The demands of the inter-county game on amateur players force many to step down, as my father did shortly after his time in the sun. Professional sport also tempts others away, such as Kevin Moran – winner of two FA Cups with Manchester United and one All-Ireland football title with Dublin – or Jim Stynes, Tadhg Kennelly and Setanta Ó hAilpín, among the many who moved to Australian Rules. Still, there are some players that manage to combine both hurling and football, and, if they are lucky to be born in the right county, they can be successful at each. Jack Lynch, Taoiseach in the 1960s and 1970s, was one of the greatest hurlers of all time, winning seven All-Irelands, and he also added one football title to that haul. The two sports, though played on identical fields and each with fifteen players, are quite different spectacles and even occupy different places in the imagination of the Irish public. Hurling is the sport revered by all – even those who profess to hate the GAA – whereas football is very much the poor relation, less dynamic, less graceful and at times more barbarous. It’s not hard to understand why hurling is so loved – its athleticism, speed and basic skill levels are frankly awesome (in the literal sense of the word). There are few things in sport as stunning as seeing a player pluck the ball from the sky, amid a sea of hurls (as the sticks are known) and then land it with unerring accuracy over the bar from seventy yards out. Hurling is also ancient, with a direct link to Cúchullain (Setanta), the hero from Celtic mythology, who, along with George Best, shares the unique status of being the only man idolised by both Ulster Nationalists and Unionists. It is also uniquely Irish (though the Scots do have their own related version, shinty, in which handling the ball is prohibited). An Irish person eager to show the best of the country to a visitor will most likely bring them along to a hurling match.

Some classic hurling scores

Joe Canning backward handpass

The Best of DJ Carey

The reality is though that even within Ireland hurling is a regional speciality. North of a line drawn from Galway to Dublin, it is a marginal sport (one theory for this is that the ancient game survived as a team sport in the south because the farmland was better and more favourable to playing). Football, on the other hand, is played all over the country, though not, it must be said, by every community. If hurling is the Irish language – beautiful, ancient, noble, irreducibly Irish and the envy of many not proficient in it – the more widely-played football is Hiberno-English: a native twist on an international theme, less ornate but with its own considerable qualities, and in which far more Irish people are fluent. Not that the popularity of either sport suffers – TV figures for both finals will be more or less the same throughout the country.

Offaly v Kerry, 1982 All-Ireland football final

Kerry Gaelic football golden years

For all the popularity of the two sports though, the GAA is a divisive organisation. For many well-heeled rugby-supporting urbanites, who dismissively refer to it as “gah”, it is identified with flat-cap rural Ireland. Many of the soccer-playing working-class in provincial towns are also scornful of the GAA (though not in Dublin, where both its sports are big among the working class). North of the border, it is seen by Unionists as a Republican association and Protestant GAA players in Ulster are rare, despite recent cross-community efforts by the association.

A history of inflexible nationalism has also coloured the perception of the GAA (even among many of its own members). The association was founded in 1884 to help preserve Irish sports in the face of the British ones being popularised through army garrisons throughout the country. Founder Michael Cusack, a County Clare-born schoolteacher, became the basis for The Citizen in James Joyce’s Ulysses, though Joyce’s portrayal of him bordered on the libellous – Cusack, however conservative and obdurate he might have been, was no anti-semite, unlike his fictional avatar. From 1902 to 1971, its members would be banned from playing  or even attending “foreign” games (soccer, rugby, hockey, cricket) and hostility to them remained among hardliners for long after that, even as many footballers or hurlers grew up playing at least one of them. A similar ban existed on those sports being played in GAA grounds until it was relaxed in 2006, opening the way for rugby and soccer at Croke Park while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped. Both those rules were defended on the grounds of protecting Gaelic games though “The Ban” did give rise to the ridiculous scenario of GAA spies – a parish-pump Stasi, if you will – attending soccer and rugby games to catch any offending members and it generated a fair amount of needless ill feeling in small towns. 

Another ban, Rule 21, was more contentious. It prohibited members of the British Army and the RUC from playing Gaelic games. The ban long predated the Troubles though it appeared to be flouted often enough without punishment by Irishmen who served in Second World War. Late however, it contributed to the perception, especially in Northern Ireland, that the GAA was arm-in-arm with the IRA, which was not entirely true though many active Republicans were members. The British Army, which made few efforts to win the hearts and minds of northern Nationalists, hardly helped things either, with a 28-year occupation of part of Crossmaglen Rangers’ GAA ground in South Armagh, and harassment of GAA fans, which included the shooting dead of Aiden McAnespie in 1988. The rule was repealed in 2001, a result of the slowly unfolding peace process.

For an organisation that was for much of its existence a conservative one, the GAA adapted quickly to the social changes of the past twenty years. The opposition to foreign games died out largely because the GAA realised that, despite the inroads soccer and rugby made in non-traditional areas, they weren’t really a threat. Gaelic games, like many other sports, got a media makeover in the 1990s and emerged all the stronger and more confident. The GAA has also done much to combat racism and sectarianism as more people of immigrant backgrounds have taken up the sport. When Cork hurling goalkeeper Dónal Óg Cusack came out as gay in 2009, he got widespread support and what homophobic chanting that existed was rapidly shouted down. Women have become increasingly involved in the games too (though hurling’s female sibling camogie has been around for decades). Another thing to be said in the GAA’s favour is that, for an Irish institution, it is a model of administrative competence and is largely untainted by corruption. The latter is all the more remarkable given its historically close ties to three institutions that have been found to be riddled with corruption – the Catholic Church, the Fianna Fáil party and the banks. Such scandals as afflict the GAA these days usually involve the moving of football games to unpopular venues or antagonising residents with loud concerts, which is not exactly on a FIFA scale of nefariousness.

Clare v Cork, 2013 All-Ireland hurling final replay

Donegal v Dublin, 2014 All-Ireland football semi-final

This year’s finals are, as they say, mouthwatering affairs. The hurling final will be hard-pushed to match last year’s monumental battle between Clare and Cork but it features the sport’s fiercest rivalry with Kilkenny (a record 34 titles to their name) facing neighbours and 26-time winners Tipperary. In the football, 36-time champions Kerry find themselves in the unusual position of being underdogs, facing Donegal. The Ulstermen have a mere two championships to their name but are masterminded by Jimmy McGuinness, a marginally less urbane José Mourinho, a rustic silver fox with a similar knack for mind games and tactical pragmatism. The finals for the first time will reach a UK audience wider than the Irish community and, who knows, may even be watched in the Palace itself – the Queen is believed to have taken a liking to hurling. The GAA has indeed come a long way.

*For the purposes of this piece, “football” is Gaelic football and “soccer” is the international sport. People in Ireland use “football”, “soccer” and “Gaelic” interchangeably depending on the context and it’s generally clear which one they’re talking about. Few get animated by the asinine “it’s football, not soccer” debate.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.