Last weekend Dublin beat Kerry (just) in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Ahead of the game I'd written the following piece for The Herald tying in with my book. The GAA story is, outside Ireland, the least-known sporting story of The Troubles but one of the most politicised and tragic. It's also a story that I didn't know much about growing up as I did a Northern Irish Protestant. All of these things are reflected in what follows:
Everything Hunky Dory in GAA as sport emerges from turbulent past
Published in The Herald on 17 September, 2011
Earlier this month an Irish snack company earned itself a lot of complaints and a lot of publicity with its latest advertising campaign for Hunky Dory crisps.
The ads feature two teams of scantily clad young women (from the looks of it none of whom are big crisp eaters) dressed in crop tops and bikini bottoms playing Gaelic football.
The heat and noise the ads have generated (they started airing just before the women’s camogie final earlier this month; perfectly timed for maximum outrage) shows that some things are eternal. That sex sells. And that in Ireland so do Gaelic sports.
This weekend there are a couple of sporting events that might catch the Irish eye. The Old Firm meeting should attract some attention and there will no doubt be a few who will be getting up early to watch Ireland take on Australia in the Rugby World Cup. But come tomorrow afternoon all eyes will be on Croke Park where Dublin take on Kerry in Gaelic football’s All-Ireland final.
More than 80,000 people will be at the game. It’s said the Gaelic Athletic Association could have sold three times that number and tickets are on sale on eBay for bids in the region of €800. It helps of course that this year Dublin are in their first final for 15 years (though Kerry are favourites). Unlike the Celtic Tiger, the GAA remains on the up.
This, it should be remembered, is still an amateur sport. Imagine today’s Camanachd Cup final was being played in front of a sell-out crowd at Hampden and subject to the same amount of hot air as the Old Firm game and you’ll have some idea as to the centrality of the All-Ireland final across the Irish Sea.
For a long time, of course, that centrality was a problem for some of us. I went to my first Gaelic football game, Donegal against Down, some 16 months ago in Ballybofey as part of my research for a book I’ve been working on about sport and the Troubles.
Growing up in a Northern Irish protestant family in the 1970s and 1980s, Gaelic games effectively didn’t exist for me. It wasn’t reported or broadcast in the north and so it only registered with us when it made the news pages – if an IRA arms cache was found at a Gaelic ground or, in the wake of the Republican Hunger Strikes at the start of the 1980s, when black flag parades and messages of sympathy for hunger strikers were placed by GAA clubs in the north.
No wonder then that Unionist MPs and, tragically, loyalist terrorists, were of the opinion that Gaelic football and hurling were just "the IRA at play". No sport suffered more during the Troubles. Grounds were attacked. Clubs were burnt down. One, Crossmaglen Rangers, was largely occupied by the British army. The sport suffered as a result. More than that, people suffered.
It is estimated that some 40 people with associations to the GAA were killed in that time (although the greatest number of casualties occurred not at the hands of the UVF or the UDA but because of the Omagh bombing carried out by the Real IRA).
The fact is the GAA struggled to square its avowedly nationalist self-identity with its rules on non-sectarianism and in the north a fight raged for the heart and soul of the game.
What is striking now is how far distant that time now seems. The GAA has, despite some foolish trip-ups and wrongfooted clumsiness, largely embraced the post-Good Friday Agreement political landscape. It has done away with rules banning the playing of "foreign games" and the ban on members of the security forces playing the game. (That has had its own consequences. Earlier this year Ronan Kerr, a PSNI officer and a GAA man was killed by IRA dissidents).
More than that, the game is ubiquitous north and south of the border. It’s in the papers and on TV. There’s even a ground just a few miles from where I grew up – something I could never have imagined as a child.
That’s not to say that the GAA has been embraced by Northern Irish Protestants. It remains a target of pointscoring by unionist politicians (although at least one Democratic Unionist minister for sport, Edwin Poots, did attend a game – although he made sure to delay his entrance until after the playing of the Irish National Anthem) and when Down got to the final last year it’s unlikely too many Protestant fans wearing red and black headed to Dublin to see them lose by a single point.
Tomorrow’s game is a huge event. But not everyone will be paying attention. Sport on the island remains both a uniting and a dividing force. And not even scantily clad girls in cutdown Gaelic shirts are likely to change that any time soon.