Why Gaelic games bring out my patriotism anxiety


I played a single football match as a teen. It ended with me being ambushed by a punch in the face as I walked to the changing room

THE GAA SEASON kicks off in earnest this weekend.

Does it? Actually, I don’t really know. I’ll have to go and look that up.

Oh, yes, there it is in the paper. League. Dublin against Kerry. Croke Park.

Rubberbandits. And so we begin the 38th season running in which I will make occasional but doomed attempts to sound as if (a) I know what’s going on from week to week, (b) I can make small talk about with some degree of competency, (c) I care.

For some years, I have approached Gaelic games a little like someone who decides he wants to learn how to appreciate modern art, only to find that he visits gallery after gallery and still can’t tell if one splashed canvas is better than the next.

I have been to more football matches in the past three years than I had in the previous three decades. Although, now I think about it, this amounts to a total of just two football matches. Add one hurling match (one-and-a-half, in fact: it was a double-header) and that is the sum total of my experience as a spectator. I played a single football match as a teen. It ended with me being ambushed by a punch in the face as I walked to the changing room. I don’t consider this further evidence of the GAA’s disciplinary issues, only of that guy’s dedication to punching people in the face.

I’ve also been to two International Rules matches but appreciate that these don’t count, especially because I enjoyed them. Perhaps this was because they appealed to a more general and easily tapped connection with country than sentiment for county.

All of which nags at me on a few levels. First, that it runs contrary to my genuine interest in sport. It contrasts in particular to how rugby will dictate my mood from tomorrow afternoon on – through a combination of Ireland, Leinster and, in particular, my home team’s bid for Leinster League glory.

But while I don’t expect a similarly intense relationship with the GAA, it would be nice at least to go for casual walks in the park, with the possibility of a long-term friendship. Yet the chemistry is missing.

This unconscious resistance to the GAA – an inability to retain even the most basic information, such as who’s playing whom in what round of the championship, and who any of the players are – also makes it the only hold-out in my otherwise indiscriminate bandwagon jumping. That was tested to the full this year when my local team not only won the intermediate Dublin Championship but provided the winning Dublin captain, Bryan Cullen.

This gave me the added incentive of actually recognising a player when I brought my son to see them play Tyrone. (Actually, I thoroughly enjoyed that match, and how brilliant Dublin were, and it offered temporary hope for the kindling of a deeper relationship with the sport. But then the cycling or tennis or something else came along, and I couldn’t resist a tempestuous fling with them.)

For the town, all this success meant months of celebration, with everyone coming out in the rain to greet the Dublin team to the clubhouse. It was, by all accounts, a wonderful night, and I felt a pang of loss when hearing about it while away in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup. And yet there was a sense of relief, too, that I wasn’t there to play the imposter by dancing in delight on a pitch on which I’d never seen a single match.

Before I conclude, I should stress that I have no particular hang-ups about the GAA as an organisation, or a culture, or its members or anything else that occasionally causes people to bristle against it.

My young son plays, and I admire the set-up and will be very proud when he plays his first match and I shout at my first GAA referee.

Yet there is a particular disappointment about being unable to plug in to a current that supposedly runs through the core of Irishness.

The result, every All-Ireland final weekend, is a chronic, unshakeable case of generalised patriotism anxiety.