Uncommon images of common GAA people

Sat, Oct 3, 2009, 01:00

BOOK THE GAA: A PEOPLE'S HISTORY: KEITH DUGGANis enthralled as he peruses a judicious selection of photographs and articles representing the inestimable crowds drawn to 125 years of Gaelic Games

TOWARDS THE end of The GAA: A People’s History, the authors make this observation: “Much of the fun in being involved in the GAA is its capacity for controversy”. How true. The GAA always seems to be either recovering its dignity after an unholy row or heading into the kind of flash squabble that perpetually distracts all Irish families.

The notion of the association as a vast, imperfect, wonderful family seems central to the soul of this beautifully-compiled anniversary ode to the GAA. Researched and written by Mike Cronin, academic director of Boston College-Ireland, Mark Duncan, director of Inquest Research, and Paul Rouse, lecturer at the School of History and Archives at UCD, A People’s History takes a leisurely gambol through the century and a quarter since the foundation of the GAA and presents its legacy not from the perspective of championships won and lost but from the long since disbanded and silenced crowds that were enchanted by those games and the players who starred in them.

“My beginnings in the GAA are associated very much with a kind of what I would call a fidelity comparable to a religious fundamentalism, which I think is the life blood of the GAA and that was expressed for us in the Tipperary hurling teams of the 1950s and 1960s,” Prof William Nolan told an audience at the GAA 125 History conference in April of this year, one of the many quotes which decorate the pages here.

The sometimes humorous and sometimes haunting photographs that light the pages of this book are so unguarded and off-the-cuff they suggest an easily worn affiliation but presented here as a testimony, it seems reasonable to equate the loyalty the GAA has commanded with the stuff of fundamental belief.

Individually, the photographs collected here have a clarity and depth that render them as striking as the celebrated Depression era photographs of Dorothea Lange.

This is particularly true of those taken from the Kennelly collection – on page 226, for instance, a group of peaked-capped men and six schoolboys idle outside John Dowling’s shoe shop in Tralee as he places the Sam Maguire in the window. Everyone is aware of the lens, the young boys meeting it with unabashed curiosity, the men more guarded but Mr Dowling himself is pre-occupied with the task at hand. Any one of the photographs is a story in its own right.

Page 186 is another double spread, this a dreamy gathering around an ornate wireless in Christy O’Riordan’s garden – the leaves in full bloom – for the occasion of the 1933 All-Ireland hurling final between Limerick and Kilkenny.

Two women sit smiling on a leather settee in a Belfast GAA club in 1981. In front of them a scattering of pints of beer and Coke bottles on the table and behind them a dance floor crowded with couples slow-dancing, care-free for a few hours.

On page 89, four Kerry men, including Mick O’Dwyer, are in contented mood as they journey south after another victorious September, leafing through the match programmes.

Here, the Sam Maguire cup, placed on the table across from them is caught in ghostly reflection in the carriage window. On page 288, the Army brass band plays as the coffin of John Joe O’Reilly is carried along a narrow road in Killeshandra. Getty Images own the rights to the stunning crowd photograph taken at Tuam Stadium in September 1950, in the decade when, they say, nothing happened.

Several spectators are incandescent with delight at being the focus of the photographer: dozens more are beaming in the background. On page 245, the clergy are seated on soft cushioned seats and a sofa on the sideline at opening day in Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney. Dignitaries – the VIPS of the day – are placed around them and everyone is suited and booted in their best. But in the very right of the frame, a young boy scout, tired of all the pageantry, is lost in the art of biting his nails.

These are just a random selection from a series of judiciously chosen images. The photographs provide the voice of the people, the inestimable crowds drawn to 125 years of games, gathered here through the labours of the authors.

From the beginning of the association and through the formation of the State, these images make it clear the power of the games was, as Nolan attests, an investment of fidelity for the majority of Irish people.

Chapter one – Beginnings – opens with a quotation from PJ Devlin’s Our Native Games: “They had loosed an avalanche on its natural course and were helpless to recall it”.

This book retraces that irrevocable course of events. The narrative is clear and concise and illuminates the nature and character of the GAA from oblique angles – with chapters entitled Travel, Hats Flags and Rosettes, Exile, Places to Play. The matches, for all their importance, are still only one part of the carnival.

This is a book to keep. As with Diarmuid Ferriter’s Judging Dev, history has rarely scrubbed up as well and this publication – a great showcase for the Collins Press – ought to be a similar success.

The publication was commissioned by the GAA and they have been handsomely rewarded for their investment, not just through sourcing of fabulous photographs but through the reproduction of documents and old publications as well.

Take this journal entry from a 1926 publication by Thomas J Kenny, Tour of the Tipperary Hurling Team in America, 1926: “Saturday May 15th: ‘Not much sleep last night when Nealon and Kennedy called on their rounds with notebook and pencil, asked if we jazzed with the Germans, thereby suspending ourselves from the GAA and if we took the meat sandwiches, thereby excommunicating ourselves from the Catholic Church’.” That there has always been a slight divide between the GAA central council and its body politic is one of the delicious tensions that run within the association.

Some of the most feted players and characters – most notably O’Dwyer – rarely see eye to eye with the establishment. It is significant that The People’s History pays almost as much attention to the rich and arcane administrative history of the GAA as it does to the feats in Croke Park.

For countless members, the GAA was about correct minutes taking as much as anything else. The late John McGahern, who is referenced here, famously described Ireland as being made of families, “each family a kind of independent republic”.

That definition seems applicable to the GAA as represented in this book, unique and special because rather than shine yet another torch on the famous names and faces of the playing fields, it acknowledges the role and the importance of the nameless, cheering public who watched on under the hood of the stands.