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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.