Reaching out beyond the pitch

Sat, Apr 18, 2009, 01:00

The GAA celebrates its 125th anniversary at its annual congress in Cork this weekend. The organisation - with tentacles in every parish in Ireland - continues to be a driven social phenomenon, writes TOM HUMPHRIES

THERE IS something appropriate about the thought that the GAA was founded 125 years ago not in a committee chamber, but in the billiards’ room of a hotel, by garrulous and driven men. For that is what the GAA continues to be, a garrulous and driven social phenomenon.

The club is the basic unit. Paraic Duffy, director-general of the GAA, never ceases to be amazed at the resilience, the resourcefulness, the inclusiveness of the association’s foot soldiers and volunteers.

“I am always wary about claiming we are a great community organisation and by implication downgrading anybody else because all sports play a great social role . . . but where I am from, in Co Monaghan, there are 29 separate clubs.

“Every one of them has their own ground, bar one which has a long-term lease. They have social centres, first, second and third pitches. There is this constant and unique thing in GAA clubs to keep getting better and better. That passion. I don’t understand where it comes from, to keep getting better and keep putting more in and keep drawing more people in. That is different.”

Duffy got an e-mail recently from a lad he taught in St Macartan’s College in Monaghan. In school the young fella had shown scant interest in the GAA, but he wrote to tell his old teacher that he was living in Chester now and had just founded a GAA club there.

“And that is what I would say about the social role of the GAA. So many people, when they leave home and want to replicate the feel of home, they turn to the GAA. It gives them Irishness.”

And it spreads, this sense of Irishness.

THE EMIGRANT

It used to be that you went to America. The GAA gave you a job. Depending on what club you joined that was the job you did. One club were all chippies. Another all brickies. One club ran the doorman’s union and it was said that out of habit when the ref’s whistle would blow in Gaelic Park on a Sunday afternoon the players would all run to the sideline to open the doors of the cabs which they spent all week summoning with the same whistle.

It used to be that way. Not a lot changed. Eoin Buckley learned to hurl in Tipperary in Ballyskenach hurling club and later in Roscrea hurling club. He won two county under-14 titles and then he drifted.

He emigrated to New York in May 2004 and got set up as a construction estimator. The job came with a visa. When Buckley arrived, right away he was introduced to lots of Irish people and lots of Tipperary people. And right away he was a hurler again. He was in New York a week or two when his boss at the time brought him to a Tipperary golf outing, a fundraiser for the Tipperary hurling club. So the game lured him in again.

In May 2007, Buckley’s wife talked him into moving to California and he left the weekends of hurling in the Bronx behind him. He got a job at Stanford University last summer and during his first month there he was on his way home from work when he saw two lads with hurleys hitting a ball around. Aha, he thought, Irish! He pulled in to talk to them. He was greeted by two American accents. They offered Eoin Buckley from Tipp a hurley so he could join in. He said I have one in my car here, thanks. The stick had been in the car since he’d moved from New York a year earlier.

So it grew.

Eamonn Gormley from the San Francisco GAA and now chairman of the California Collegiate GAA met Standford student, John Mulrow, in San Francisco on St Patrick’s Day about four years ago. Their conversation sowed a seed. Last September Stanford started a hurling club with six members. They met to puc around once or twice a week. Anybody walking or driving past who expressed a curiosity would be nabbed.

The main recruiting strategy, says Eoin Buckley, is to have an extra hurl on hand for people to join in.

Stanford were lucky that UC Berkeley were able to start a team this year also. Competition became possible. At Christmas a sponsor materialised. Carlow man Des Nolan, owner of Fibber Magees in Sunnyvale California, sponsored the team jerseys and also became the Stanford coach.

The first hurling game held at Stanford (a challenge game) attracted a crowd of up to 100 people. The Stanford team has two Irish guys, Buckley and Mark Jennings from Galway.

“Everyone else is American and new to the game,” says Buckley. “The Berkeley team have, I believe, two or three Irish-born players.”

Standford now train two or three times a week. They have a network of friendships and, as team captain Sam Svoboda, says “another chance at sport”.

And today Stanford play UC Berkeley in what will decide the first California Collegiate Hurling League. The big one!

THE CLUB

Early evening and an old man will come to open the dressing rooms for the evening training sessions. He might be met outside by a group of people who have gathered in the air in their suits and dark skirts for a smoke. The remnants of a funeral usually. Somebody buried in the morning with a jersey draped on the coffin and a day spent in the club that half reared him, remembering and thumbing sepia photographs.

And the youngsters will start coming. The dressing rooms will fill and the fields will be decorated with cones. The fields. The dead man once walked in front of a wheel-barrow picking up the stones as they laid those fields. And his daughter chaired the committee that raised the money for the floodlights which illuminate the same fields. And his granddaughter will play camogie there this weekend. That’s as much continuity as modern Irish life provides.

It is there and it is beautiful. And, says Paraic Duffy, “ it is there to be shared”.

A while ago somebody noticed that old men living on their own were missing from the living room of Irish society and Irish community life. So fast forward to Croke Park where 160 men from the four provinces were guests of the GAA at an occasion organised to kick-start an initiative that will see seven further events staged between here and March 2010.

The GAA feels that these men, lost in their isolation are their people. No other organisation is so central to community as the GAA and so they have engaged and taken up the responsibility.

The GAA suits are out, and Nickey Brennan whose work for inclusiveness has been one of the quiet triumphs of his presidency which ends this weekend, speaks of the GAA’s unique ability here.

“We were more than happy to get involved and to use our ready-made network of clubs in an effort to examine what can be done to help these valued members of our society to become more actively involved in local communities. All going well, this could be the foundation stone for an initiative that we believe could have a positive impact in helping society to re-evaluate the importance of these men who contributed handsomely to our country in so many ways for so long and who continue to do so to this day.”

THE IMMIGRANT

Tony Watene grew up in New Zealand loving what normal Kiwi men are reared to love – rugby. Somewhere along the way a rogue gene interfered with his development, however, and he found himself playing a little Gaelic football. He liked the game. It wasn’t All Black rugby but he liked it. Tipped away. One year a coach came over from Athlone to train Watene’s team for the Australian games. Watene got on well with the coach and by now had decided to supplement his teacher training with a one-year sabbatical in Ireland. He asked the departing coach if he could sort a contact in Croke Park as he might like to play football when he got to Ireland.

That was 10 years ago. Now he is a fully-fledged member of Na Fianna and part of the administration staff in Croke Park.

“It’s probably about three to five years late but our target is the non-Irish nationals who came here with families and who will remain in the community. Nickey Brennan, in particular, recognised the demographic changes. We had a forum here two years ago for a lot of new Irish kids and they stayed on for the Donnelly finals. We moved from that to a task force which had the entire family of Gaelic games on it – football, hurling, ladies’ football, camogie, handball, rounders – and we sat down and looked at the best way to bring in newcomers through a strategic plan. And we appointed an inclusion officer. That’s me!”

Which sounds dull and worthy. But you have to see a social inclusion day in a sprawling suburb like Lucan or Blanchardstown to feel the fun of it, the thrill of the GAA going over the edge of a new frontier and changing its shape and complexion once more.

“What they do at the top they can do,” says Watene, “but at the bottom as long as we are inclusive we all benefit. Kids see no colour. Go into a Cumann na mBunscoil game and the interest among kids is huge. We need to be out there sharing information.

“Lucan were one of the first clubs to go out and recruit people from different areas and they produced information leaflets in the various languages. You have that at one end. Then in Gort there is a huge Brazilian community and we have lots of kids playing hurling in the club. In Louth and Monaghan they find that the Lithuanians and Latvians who have come are keen on handball.”

The next challenge is the adults. Watene thinks language is a barrier. So on Saturday mornings, if he can get agreement, he is looking at a scheme he calls Pal or Play and Learn, where the children will come and learn to play Gaelic games with their friends, and parents will come to the club and learn English or Irish.

And beyond that a five-year strategy aims to encourage people of all nationalities and religious backgrounds living here to get involved with the GAA. The GAA is working on a communications strategy and will assist in the development of integration modules for schools. A welcome pack including a DVD will be produced giving basic instructions in Gaelic games in Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Chinese and French.

In the meantime, it is that magical time of the year when the Cumann na mBunscoil finals take place in Dublin. If you want to see the face of modern Ireland, the joyous recession-free face, just go along some morning.

THE PEACEMAKER

PJ O’Grady played a little hurling himself but that isn’t the contribution to the game for which he will be remembered. When he was involved in the game at Queen’s University, the college were never that good but every second year they played with Glasgow or Edinburgh or St Andrews. He enjoyed that.

Now O’Grady, principal of St Patrick’s College on the Antrim Road, stands in front of you, showing a photograph of a young fella with long hair receiving a trophy after a hurling game. The young lad is wearing a jersey with the names of his team’s sponsors, the Belfast News Letter, the Irish News and the Royal Bank of Scotland. One newspaper from each side of the divided house up North and a bank. The young lad’s name is Alan Alexander. He is receiving an award for being man of the match. He goes to Ashfield School which is in east Belfast, under the shadow of the Harland and Wolfe cranes.

“I always felt,” says O’Grady, who can’t stop smiling, “that it was a travesty and an anomaly in history that you had Protestant boys and girls here in the North who were essentially excluded from the ancient game of hurling. From this great game!”

To cut a long and interesting story down to feasible length, Alexander is playing for Belfast Cuchullains, a cross-community inter-school hurling team of 20 boys, all of whom are under 16, with players from four schools – Corpus Christi College and St Patrick’s College, Bearnageeha (where you might expect to find hurlers), and Belfast Boys’ Model School in the upper Shankill near the Highfield Estate and Ashfield Boys’ School in east Belfast.

Last summer the team travelled to the US, where they won the Intercontinental Youth Games under-16 hurling championships, defeating New York 3-12 to 1-5 in the final of the competition in Philadelphia. They had previously beaten sides from San Francisco and Boston as well as a north American combined side.

O’Grady hates violence but in the final as the Belfast boys pulled away there was some blackguard- ing on the pitch. A fight broke out. All 20 of the Cuchullains piled in on behalf of each other. “I’m not saying it was right,” says O’Grady, “ but it made me smile.”

It has taken four very enlightened principals, a lot of support from places as disparate as Croke Park, Áras an Uachtaráin, Buckingham Palace (another long story – suffice to say that each of the schools has a cheery and supportive letter about hurling from Prince Edward on its walls).

Putting a hurley into the hands of a young fella from the Highfield Estate in the Shankill is a thing of joy. Subtract everything else, every received idea and notion and just leave him with the stick and the ball and the beauty of hurling and you have something.

The idea is expanding. A four- team tournament involving other regions of Ulster is planned soon. O’Grady is still showing the photos. “The big man,” he says and you gape down at a picture of him standing beside Ian Paisley. The big man has a hurley in his hands. Good grip, too.

THE GAA

One hundred and 25 years and growing in every direction conceivable. From a billiards’ room in Thurles to a sense of inclusion which reaches to the furthest shores of Irishness to the top of the Shankill Road. “It just seems to suit the organisation we are,” says Paraic Duffy. “A club is never happier than when it is in debt, fundraising furiously and working toward some project that draws everyone in and puts the club right at the centre of things. I don’t understand it really, but it is the way we are!”