GAA wary of starting on rocky road to change

Wed, Mar 23, 2011, 00:00

GAELIC GAMES:Amateurism has been a central tenet of the GAA since its foundation – even if it is now breached on an industrial scale, writes SEAN MORAN

TRADITION SURVIVES and thrives if it enshrines timeless and worthwhile ideas but there is always a school of thought that what has endured for a long time is of itself valuable and that’s not always the case.

That the GAA has been poorly served by the culture it was established to try to preserve is indisputable at this stage. As part of that culture the association deserves to share the blame.

For an organisation that has always expressly identified itself as more than a sporting body, it hasn’t inspired much in the way of great literature nor has it acted to preserve its unfolding history until relatively recent times with the exponential increase in media outlets and technologies and actual investment projects like the Croke Park Museum.

Last week the Dublin journalist Peter Lennon passed away at the age of 81. His career was largely spent in the print media in London and Paris but he will be best remembered in this country for the one film he made. He may not have intended it but that work is also one of the earliest and most thought-provoking snapshots of the GAA.

The Rocky Road to Dublin was intended to be provocative, a riposte to the comfortable assertions of Lennon’s friends that Ireland had changed radically by the late 1960s. It was shot in 16 days on a budget of £20,000. Cinematography in black and white was by Raoul Coutard, famous as a collaborator with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.

The film simply challenges the monochrome orthodoxies of Ireland in 1967, working to a loose theme of what had become of the independence originally envisioned by the poets and radicals of the revolution. Principally it assessed church influence on the country but also explored other areas.

Lennon described the substance of the film and its interviews: “Brainwashed school kids admit casually that their ‘intellect was darkened, their will weakened and their passions inclined them to evil’; patriotic sportsmen confirm that any member of their organisation, the GAA, who plays or even looks at a ‘foreign’ game such as soccer or cricket will be expelled; university students of the newish republic tell how they are not allowed to discuss politics on campus.

“We counted up the modern writers who had works banned in Ireland: Truman Capote, Andre Gide, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, Wells. And Irish writers from Beckett to O’Casey to Shaw.”

Despite being selected for Cannes in 1968, a festival that took place against the backdrop of that year’s protests in Paris – where the film was taken to be shown to students in the Sorbonne; striking Renault workers also requested a screening – The Rocky Road to Dublin didn’t go down well in Ireland where it struggled to be screened.

Lennon recalls the Cork Film Festival reluctantly showed it but at lunchtime on a day when most of the media were away on an oysters-and-Guinness jaunt. In Dublin, where it ran for a few weeks at the old IFC, it went through the familiar protocols of controversy at the time, dismissed and disparaged and was used to fuel a row on The Late Late Show.

The director got on with his life abroad and the film disappeared, surfacing only in the middle of the last decade together with a documentary on its making. By then it had box office value and not just as an interesting social look at an Ireland that was about to change dramatically with the outbreak of the Troubles.

There was also the comic onslaught of seeing a young Fr Michael Cleary – artfully produced by then Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid who according to Lennon “agreed to give me a ‘swinging priest’ to follow for two days” – unctuously declaring his celibacy as “a gift to God” and during one deathless scene in what looks like a maternity ward he “entertains” the bemused women under the gimlet-eyed stare of a formidable looking matron.

He sings The Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy: “I’m a great big bundle of joy/ I’m the Chattanooga shoeshine boy,” as he shuffles across the floor.

If the trick here was to suggest the Church was softening in its ministry through the promotion of younger, groovier, more “with-it” priests, the fascinating passage on the GAA was quite different.

Although the international audience is clearly meant to be appalled by the old ban on “playing or attending foreign games” an official in the GAA (unidentified but possibly Breandán Mac Lua former association executive officer and founder of the Irish Post, whose pamphlet The Steadfast Rule defending the Ban was published the same year) calmly and lucidly justifies the prohibition.

“The Gaelic Athletic Association has a ban on foreign games,” he says, “but it is unusual only when taken in the context of pure sport. The rule aims at preventing members of the association from taking an active part in English games, which are soccer, rugby, cricket and hockey.

“The association has a democratic system, which is even more democratic than the normal parliamentary system. This rule could be changed any time that the majority of the members of the association wish to have it changed.

“The Gaelic Athletic Association is of course something much wider than a sports organisation,” he continues. “It was founded for the purpose of utilising sport to inject manhood and nationalism into Irish manhood at a period when the spirit of the Irish people was very low and very weak after the famine and centuries of persecution.

“All the movements which have led to the establishment of the state, which we have, have drawn their members – be they fighting members or active political members – from the ranks of the Gaelic Athletic Association and as such it has been the reservoir of Irish manhood, who have played their part in the evolution of the state.”

Within a few years the old certainties were gone. The Ban was abolished in 1971 and paramilitary violence eventually undermined even the GAA’s appetite for overt nationalism. Neither of these developments weakened the games.

At present the association is getting ready, however cautiously, to address the issue of amateurism. It’s been a tenet of the GAA since foundation even if now breached on an industrial scale. It’s clear the discussion document of director general Páraic Duffy will not be released as the starting point of a national debate but rather absorbed by the inner councils of the GAA before a position is declared.

The argument, when it eventually happens, will however weigh up the practical consequences for bedrock values like volunteerism and the issue of whether it can be afforded – even on the partial basis of paying coaches and managers.

If and when the official guide’s amateurism and common practice are properly aligned, will future generations look back and wonder what all of the fuss was about?