GAA's 'dedication and often lonely work' praised


The President relived old sporting memories on Saturday when he became the first Irish head of state to visit a GAA grounds in Britain

OUTSIDE, DOZENS of children played on the Emerald Grounds pitch in Ruislip in west London, the GAA’s headquarters in the city while, inside, President Michael D Higgins mused about his own sporting past.

Born in Limerick, he followed the Mackey brothers’ fortunes. Raised in Clare he, like so many, admired the hurling skills of Jimmy Smyth, regarded by many as the greatest hurler never to have won an All-Ireland.

By the time he moved to Galway “the Sammons were still playing”, the President recalled at a reception to honour his visit, where he was presented with a jersey from the GAA’s forthcoming All-Britain competition.

He had often been asked, “Who do you shout for?” he told the gathering: “It’s more important than any other ideological question. I satisfied it for a very long time by saying that I shout for Clare in the hurling, Galway in the football.”

Later, he said, during the era of the Connolly brothers’ starring roles with Galway, he had shifted his loyalties in both codes to Galway: “I decided to affiliate fully to Galway and I haven’t disaffiliated since.”

During his emigrant years in Britain, he said he had once played handball against Pat Kirby, later to be world champion, in a 30-minute game: “It is a memory that will stay with me, wondering when it would end.”

Writer John B Keane had once said that the GAA was “not only prowess”, he said. “I already acknowledge my defects as a handballer, but I was really well gone by the time I reached minor stage and had a dreadful outing in Junior B – a grade made up of over-age minors and broken-down seniors.”

So many of “the significant steps that led to our achieving our independence and Ireland being a sovereign State were taken by people who were living here and who were Irish and were Irish to the core”, said Higgins, who was accompanied by his wife, Sabina.

Paying tribute to those involved in the GAA at Ruislip and elsewhere in Britain, he said: “Some people think it all falls out of the sky – it happens because of dedication and often lonely work by those who keep going when all of the circumstances seem against them.

“The migrant experience is a special experience. We can see the legacy that the generations have handed on and how their Irishness was important to them. In choosing to accentuate their Irishness they weren’t denying the essence of culture to anyone else.”

Later, the President, accompanied by chairman of the GAA’s Provincial Council of Britain Brendie Brien, mingled with children playing seven-a-sides, before posing with them for team photographs.

Emigration is having effects, said the President, pointing to the difficulties clubs in Ireland are facing with team members leaving, while Brien spoke about their arrival in Britain.

“The new arrivals help to raise the standards, but some of the local lads here would be struggling to keep up with the home-grown fellows that are coming, but you have to give fellows games if they are going to stay around,” he said.