GAA has tapped into growth of sport as substitute for religion

Mon, Aug 24, 2009, 01:00

OPINION:The GAA better defines who we are now than the Catholic Church, writes TOM INGLIS

The GAA has good reason to celebrate. After 125 years, it has not just survived but thrived in a world of globalised sport. Back in the 1970s many would have thought that, as Ireland became urbanised, the GAA would sink under waves of soccer and rugby.

What is the story behind the success? I have three suggestions: in the West sport has replaced institutional religion as the main form of identity and social bonding. Secondly, in Ireland, the GAA has taken over from the Catholic Church. Finally, in a world of global sameness, the GAA has become the key marker of national cultural difference.

It is important to say from the outset that I write more as detached outsider than involved insider. I grew up in south Dublin “on the wrong side of the sport track” with parents who were closer to London than Galway and who sent me to the local rugby-playing Catholic school. For me, gaelic football and hurling were foreign sports.

From a long-term perspective, the main reason the GAA has thrived is that it benefited from the exponential growth in sport throughout western society during the last century. At the same time there has been a steady decline in participation in religious rituals and activities.

But something else is happening. Sport is gradually replacing religion as the main form of personal identity, first among men, but, increasingly among women. People relate to others talking about sport. Sport provides a key mechanism through which people develop a sense of bonding and belonging. It used to be said that a family that prayed together, stayed together. It may now be that the family that stays together is the one that participates in, watches and talks about sport.

The rituals of coming together to watch and play sport help create a sense of community. The excitement of the game creates a collective effervescence which, in turn, creates a collective consciousness. Sport helps people transcend the material conditions of their existence. In this sense, sport is spiritual. For many people, being completely subsumed within a game is as close to a religious experience as they will ever have. It brings people into another world.

Sport helps build bridges. It allows people to relate and reach out to strangers who may be divided by ethnic, racial, political or religious differences. In a globalised world, sport has become one of the key languages of cosmopolitanism. Through creating a sense of identity and belonging, sport gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives. In a world where God and salvation have moved backstage, into the realm of the personal and the private, sport has moved to the front of social life. It has become one of the main mechanisms through which people create a sense of shared understanding.

Sport is a metaphor for life. It may not answer the big questions of death, illness and tragedy. But it has become a major distraction, a major form of comfort and consolation.

But the success of the GAA was not just based on being lifted by the rising tide of sport. While the Catholic Church has had enormous difficulty in adapting to the modern world, particularly in dealing with the media, the market and advertising, the GAA managed to embrace them successfully, but without losing its soul, its attachment to the local.

The GAA is founded on a deep belief and commitment to the family and community. Its strength during most of its history has been its strong link to the parish and the local Catholic Church. The same voluntary commitment that maintained the church maintained the local GAA.

But things have changed. The GAA is no longer dependent on the church. It does not need its blessing. It may well be that the clubhouse is gradually replacing the church as the core of the parish. It has become the focal point for networking, where children, parents and the youth of the parish meet and interact.

This commitment to family and community can also be linked to local honour, pride and respect. Involvement in the local club not only connects people within the local parish, it links people to other parishes.

In a globalised world the GAA’s success is the passionate attachment it creates to the local. This can lead to bitter conflict and sometimes violent outbursts. But what distinguishes the GAA is the absence of hooliganism. Games are family occasions and, as in most Irish families, emotions are quelled through teasing and banter.

The GAA has become central to what makes the Irish different. When visitors come to Ireland, particularly during the summer, and see the county colours paraded and listen to the chat, they soon understand that it is the GAA rather than the Irish language, traditional music or devotion to the Catholic Church which makes the Irish different.

Cultural difference is becoming a major factor not just in surviving but succeeding in a globalised world. Genuine cultural difference depends on immersion in local culture. But this has to be balanced with a cosmopolitan outlook which respects diversity.

The future success of the GAA will depend, then, on how it embraces diversity, promotes women and expands into cities, particularly in working-class areas. If it can, then it may well be that it will become a more globalised sport and that in 50 years’ time All-Ireland finals will be replaced by World Cups.

Tom Inglis is professor of sociology at University College Dublin

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