Fascinating account of GAA's evolution in groves of academe

Wed, Dec 12, 2012, 00:00

On Gaelic Games:The irony surrounding the GAA’s most prestigious higher education competitions, the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups, is that as they become less elitist and more inclusive, the controversy attaching to them and their place in Gaelic games has intensified.

This is largely because of the way the games have developed and the greater overlap between college players and inter-county panels and the consequent turf wars between managers, intensified by the alternating demands of the games calendar and close season and the entry of colleges into the pre-season inter-county competitions.

Away from the stresses of the present, however, there will be an historical ambience at this evening’s launch of The Cups That Cheered: A History of the Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Gaelic Games by Dónal McAnallen.

Being associated with such a welcome development in a week when he also attended the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo will be something of an oasis of positivity for Taoiseach Enda Kenny, guest of honour at the launch and who has a personal interest in the subject matter.

His father Henry won six Sigerson medals with UCG back in the 1930s, days when the competition was a largely private affair between the NUI colleges in Cork, Dublin and Galway.

The author is also well connected, being a brother of the late, lamented Cormac but more pertinently, an eminent GAA historian, footballer and veteran of Sigerson organising committees in Queen’s and NUI Galway and a former member of the Comhairle Árdoideachais, the GAA’s third-level administrative body.

Early evolution

His forensic attention to archive sources and historical detail fleshes out the early evolution of GAA activity in the groves of academe and places it in the context of sporting development in general and of the onset of revolutionary separatism (but one of the many interesting asides tells us that Sigerson and Fitzgibbon players included combatants in the Great War as well as revolutionaries).

The presence of students committed to evangelising the national games in the colleges was hugely important in giving the GAA a foothold amongst the future professional classes of the emerging state. The author points out that Trinity College Dublin was the most important third-level institution for organised sport in the late 19th century but obviously was not culturally sympathetic to Gaelic games and so it is interesting to note how periodically, the college tried to get a hurling club up and running – having its application to play in the 1931 Fitzgibbon approved by UCC and Dr Edwin Fitzgibbon, donor of the eponymous cup but objected to by UCD and rejected.

The narrative moves from the battle for recognition within the colleges through the growth in interest to the eminent position held by the third-level teams in the modern game. There are intriguing details of squabbles, outrages and storied matches and personalities.

Talking about the boom in the competitions, brought about by the expansion of third-level to include new colleges and accommodate the 50 per cent growth in student numbers during the 1990s, the author sums up succinctly the dynamics that were to characterise the new century.

Coming of age

“For some of the newer and more arriviste colleges, the acquisition of silverware represented their public coming of age; all the more so since the nationwide popularity of Gaelic games escalated in this period and the GAA got a general makeover from the redevelopment and corporate embrace of Croke Park. (Having said that some people in traditional universities believed their governing bodies undervalued sport.)”

[Note: that parenthesis was certainly true of Gaelic games in Queen’s 20 years ago. James McCartan, then an undergraduate, contrasted the hoops he had to jump through to travel to Australia with the 1990 International Rules team with what he believed would be the case were he chosen for an international rugby tour – being waved off at the airport.]

“In an increasingly aggressive educational marketplace, sporting success strengthened institutional identities and made them more enticing to prospective students. With the ever-swelling body of blue-chip talent on student teams – it was now the case that a majority of inter-county senior players had a grounding in university Gaelic games – the unestablished player who succeeded in this realm enhanced his claim to wear his county jersey at some level.

“Not everyone saw the benefits, however. Inter-county managers, with some notable exceptions, intensified their regimes of training and discipline from the start of the calendar, ordering student players to attend their sessions as well as those of their colleges and even issuing directives not to play in certain matches.”

This is a terrific book: rigorous enough to satisfy anyone interested in the games and their social history but amusingly embellished with anecdotes of the matches and players that contributed to the folklore of these iconic competitions.

On a sadder note, it’s poignant to see pictures of the all-conquering UCC team of the 1980s featuring the college’s late coach Paul O’Connor, who would surely have been pleased to see one of his abiding passions so fittingly memorialised.

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