The Gaelic Athletic Association 1884–2009

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

73_small_1252855420The Gaelic Athletic Association 1884–2009
Mike Cronin, Paul Rouse and William Murphy (eds)
(Irish Academic Press, E29.95)
ISBN 9780716530282


This collection of fourteen articles spanning the history of Gaelic games from the medieval period onwards has been issued to mark the 125th anniversary of the GAA, a pivotal force in Irish life about which little of any distinction has ever been written by cultural historians. The writing of Irish cultural history has focused excessively on high culture, usually from a political perspective. Historians mesmerised by high politics and literary scholars preoccupied by the high deeds of Yeats and Joyce have spared little time for researching the broader cultural dynamic of sport within Irish culture. And while thousands of acres of rainforest have been sacrificed for hundreds of books chronicling the sporting ups and downs of counties and clubs, written by the unflagging legion of fans with laptops, one could quickly itemise the few books of real distinction. The best known—and paradoxically also least read because it is written in Irish—is Liam Ó Caithnia’s baggy monster Sceal na hIomana (1980): 826 tightly printed pages packed to the brim with archival research of an astonishing intensity and range. For any of us who write on hurling pre-GAA, this is a sustainable resource of enduring value. It is hard to think of any new material that has been unearthed since this publication: for example, Eoin Kinsella’s very competent survey in this volume on football and hurling in early modern Ireland quotes hardly a source that had not already been identified by Ó Caithnia. By contrast, Ó Caithnia’s later slim book on football, Bairí Cois in Éirinn (1984), is a disappointing out-take—or, with only a quarter of the pages devoted to his hurling book, a well-judged verdict on the relative merits of the two games!
A rather different book is Breandán Ó hEithir’s Over the bar (1984)—short, readable, affectionate and unfailingly insightful. The outstanding journalist Tom Humphries’s Green fields: Gaelic sport in Ireland (1996) offers a series of case-studies of what the games mean to Irish people. I have also enjoyed two more recent books—Christy O’Connor’s insights into the toughest job in sport, Last man standing: hurling goalkeepers (2005), and the American Andy Mendlowitz’s Ireland’s professional amateurs: a sports season at its purest (2007), a fine treatment of the community ethos of the games and how that differentiates these games from professional sport. There is also a plethora of studies of the institutional history of the GAA—tending to the worthy but dull side, like all institutional history—and a few on the dangerous intersection between nationalism and the GAA, none of them hugely persuasive and all verging on the polemical. If this quick survey brings out the anorexic quantity of good writing on Gaelic games, perhaps we should not be surprised. If one broadens the horizons beyond our little island, there are equally slim pickings. C. L. R. James’s classic on cricket, Beyond a boundary, and David Peace’s The damned United come to mind.
It is also striking that Gaelic games—or, indeed, any other sports—hardly feature in serious Irish literature. I once asked  John McGahern why that was the case and he suggested that it was because, like literary genres, sport already occupies an artificial universe (why can’t you just pick the bloody ball up off the ground anyway?) and that the double artifice makes it impossible to infuse the necessary life into creative writing on the subject. Sport accordingly tends to live in the now, which renders it the natural domain of journalists and broadcasters rather than poets, novelists or historians. If we look back, the most important discourse on the games has been produced by journalists—ranging from Michael Cusack himself to ‘Carbery’ (P. D. Mehigan, whose little book Hurling: Ireland’s national game (1940) is still well worth reading) and to Con Houlihan and Tom Humphries in our own time. Equally striking is the importance of broadcasters; as with cricket and baseball, radio commentators were the most important agents in making Gaelic games a truly national force. And the games have been elevated since the 1940s by possessing in unbroken succession two of the world’s greatest exponents of the radio broadcast—Michael O’Hehir and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. The volume under review errs, perhaps, by including long—and well-researched—chapters on Gaelic games and ‘the movies’ and a less successful one on early photography: the really important medium for the GAA was the radio. How many people even now prefer to watch the TV broadcasts with the sound off and Ó Muircheartaigh’s inimitable radio voice on?
And so to the book in hand. It is a creditable survey with some fine contributions. By far the best is Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s ‘The GAA as a force in Irish society’. In twenty pages, this consistently balanced, thoughtful and concise study offers the best single survey of the GAA that I have ever read. The editors should have used this as the introduction—by contrast, Diarmuid Ferriter’s piece is superficial and impressionistic. Another welcome chapter is A. B. Gleason’s on ‘Hurling in medieval Ireland’, which breaks new ground. Paul Rouse’s brief treatment of Michael Cusack is incisive and fair; surely no one has attracted so much ill-informed commentary as Cusack, largely on the basis of the Cyclops episode in Ulysses. It requires one type of personality to inspire a new movement, another type to institutionalise it. Joyce’s focus on Cusack’s Cyclopean fixity relates to the later and embittered man, when his initial creativity had necessarily hardened into the sclerotic institutional structures of the GAA, overseen by its first, and competent, generation of professional administrators, James Nowlan (after whom Nowlan Park in Kilkenny is named), J. J. Walsh and Luke O’Toole. Rouse offers a balanced assessment.
The chapter by Donal MacAnallen on ‘The GAA and amateurism’ is well argued. My tuppence-ha’pennyworth here would be that the GAA should ban all mention of the word ‘amateur’ and substitute ‘community’ instead. The word ‘amateur’ carries negative connotations and is outmoded. The joy and core strength of the GAA is precisely that it is a community game—played by communities, owned by communities, and central to the expression of community in Ireland.
A surprising omission from the volume is any treatment of developments in the games themselves, and the current challenges facing them. GAA people are weaned on the sentimental idea that current players are never as good as the previous generations. A salutary corrective to that fond notion was the re-showing of old matches on TG4 over the last decade, which to this viewer established conclusively that the modern games and players are in general a demonstrable improvement on what went before. This has to do with rule and competition changes, speed and skill levels. Gaelic games have done a remarkable job of updating themselves without sacrificing their essence. Innovations like the ‘backdoor’ (even the way the unofficial name took hold so quickly is redolent of the GAA) have certainly improved football, and counties like Fermanagh, Sligo and Wicklow have enjoyed their days in the sun. Ironically, although it was ‘sold’ on the basis of improving the chances of weaker counties, the same innovation in hurling has indubitably strengthened the ever more suffocating grip of the ‘big two’, Kilkenny and Cork—and maybe soon the ‘big one’—with real peril for the vitality of hurling. Unpredictability is the lifeblood of sport, and Kilkenny’s relentless excellence at every level has already laid waste to Leinster and threatens to do the same to Munster. It is hard to see why hurling should not quickly embrace the open draw and a league-style championship when only a handful of competitive counties play the game at a high standard. Hurling enjoyed a golden decade in the 1990s but the ‘noughties’ have seen a fall-off. The rise of Munster rugby is inflicting serious damage in the hurling heartland, and the welcome urban upswing in Dublin is more than wiped out by the precarious state of the game in Limerick and even—whisper it—in Cork city.
Again ironically, this dilemma arises when hurling has never enjoyed more approval in wider Irish culture. The game has become so iconically Irish that even Ronaldo has to be photographed with a hurl, J. P. McManus wants to insert a Limerick-shaped lake in his demesne, and when Pat Falvey crested Everest he brandished a hurl up there on the roof of the world. This is a big turn around from Italia ’90, when a lot of commentary focused on how soccer as a global game would wipe the floor with the GAA. That didn’t happen—for many reasons. First, one should acknowledge the excellence and integrity of the management of the GAA—no financial scandals, utter competence: look at the delivery of the Croke Park project, or Peter McKenna’s handling of the U2 situation. Second, globalisation inevitably brings with it localisation. The more we Irish travelled to big sporting international events, the more we realised that our own vernacular games are as good as anything offered anywhere in the world. And third, the games themselves have continued to evolve rather than stagnate. The GAA as custodian of these community games has managed to modulate effectively between tradition and modernisation, in a way that other Irish institutions—the Catholic Church, Fianna Fáil and the banks—have failed to do. It has done so literally without selling its soul. Where would we be without it?
A parting shot: perhaps ‘the craic’ associated with Gaelic games doesn’t get enough of a showing in this volume. I was coming back once on the train from a rainy Thurles after yet another defeat for Wexford, but my dampened spirits were lifted by a fellow passenger who kept shouting, for no good reason at regular intervals, ‘Up Wickla—the biggest county in Ireland if it was flattened out!’. I was in Semple Stadium recently for the hurling quarter finals on another wettish day, but the good humour, chattiness, common sense and sheer humanity of the ‘amateur’ stewards stood in such sharp contrast to those surly stone-faces who man so many global sports events these days.  HI

Kevin Whelan is Director of the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre in Dublin.


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