We emotionally reticent Irishmen would be even worse without sport

Brianna Parkins’s GAA fella sounds like the sort of lad I would have wanted on my team

Paul Mescal: now Gucci is aping the GAA shorts that the Normal People actor has been wearing, the chances of a redesign are dead. Photograph: Enda Bowe/Element Pictures/BBC

Paul Mescal: now Gucci is aping the GAA shorts that the Normal People actor has been wearing, the chances of a redesign are dead. Photograph: Enda Bowe/Element Pictures/BBC

 

Brianna Parkins’s fella sounds like the sort of lad I would have wanted on my team. He treats a drink ban like a papal decree, has a clear tendency towards masochism if his foam-rolling routine is anything to go by and, despite the Connell comparisons, evidently has enough emotional intelligence to keep a perceptive, talented Australian woman happy.

Before finding my true love right under my nose in Dublin – a Déise girl who didn’t even know what the letters GAA stood for – I spent some years trying to juggle a series of international relationships and a playing career. So I feel empathy for Brianna and her man, and, just like the nation got behind Connell and Marianne, I’m rooting for them.

So I feel a duty to contribute to the conversation Brianna has started about GAA Man.

Nothing screams Wham! like a pair of O’Neills shorts. An Italian American once asked me whether many GAA players were fathers. She genuinely feared the shorts could affect the blood supply to the liathróidí

First things first. Let’s talk short shorts. Many elements of the GAA are stuck firmly in the 1980s, but nothing screams Wham! like a pair of O’Neills shorts stuck up the backside of a GAA player. Combine them with a pair of boxers and it’s a miracle we haven’t had more wardrobe malfunctions than Janet Jackson on Super Bowl Sunday.

Their ridiculous tininess was first pointed out to me by an Italian American from Queens who came to see me play when I lived in Boston. She asked whether many GAA players were fathers. She genuinely feared that the shorts could affect the blood supply to the liathróidí. Now that Gucci is aping the GAA shorts that Paul Mescal has been wearing out jogging, the chances of a redesign are dead. But that’s just fine, because we love short shorts.

The foam roller, a relatively recent addition to our essential kit, reflects GAA Man’s willingness to roll with the times. Wives and girlfriends should embrace this addition to their homes, for it is akin to a therapist. Trauma, we now know, resides in the body as well as the mind. And if the GAA guarantees anything, it is a multitude of traumatic experiences. Rather than lugging that baggage around in his psychological kitbag for the rest of his life, GAA Man can spend his evenings exorcising his demons as well as his knots while you watch Normal People together on the RTÉ Player. It could save you a fortune in couples counselling.

If you think the average Irishman is emotionally reticent, imagine what he would be like without sport as an enabler. The first time I remember crying, never mind publicly, I was a 13-year-old boy who had just lost the final of a soccer tournament to my brother’s fifth-year team. I burst into tears after somebody congratulated me on our achievement in reaching the final. When everyone looked at me I wanted the ground to swallow me up – every lad thought there was something wrong with me. I later discovered that every girl thought it was the sweetest, most vulnerable thing they had ever seen. Lesson learned: vulnerability can be good.

The time after he has just lost a match is the moment when GAA Man is most in touch with his emotions. Talk gently to him and he will tell you things he has never told another soul

The GAA has made me cry publicly several times since, and I’ve always been the better for it. The time after he has just lost a match is the moment when GAA Man is most in touch with his emotions. Talk gently to him and he will tell you things he has never told another soul.

But if physical and psychological trauma are the only certainties GAA Man will garner from his participation in the sport, why is his commitment to our games writ so large in his life? It comes down to two of the most fundamental human needs: the desire to belong and the sense of purpose gained by contributing to something bigger than oneself.

We also know that people who give back – to their communities, through charities – are happier people. As are those with more meaningful social connections. And who doesn’t want a happier, more content partner?

But GAA Man needs to remember it goes both ways: our other halves also need to have their fundamental needs met. I can’t honestly say my relationship with my now wife would have survived had I not already been in retirement when we met. A student of psychology, she taught me much about emotional intelligence and the importance of talking through our problems rather than simply scheduling them for a replay later in the season. Thanks to this we even survived my relapse, when I, like many a GAA Man, returned to the field of play to feel that buzz one last time.

Six life lessons for GAA Man

1 Although your involvement in the GAA can boost your sense of who you are, make sure you have other elements to your identity too. Your time as a player is finite. If you see yourself only as GAA Man, who are you when the time comes to call it a day, or if that decision is made for you through injury or deselection?

2 View your partner like you view your team physio. Athletes will open up on a treatment bench like nowhere else. So, when you’re feeling battered and bruised emotionally, don’t always head for the man cave. Learn to articulate your emotions with your other half.

3 Be aware of, and challenge, the downsides of a team-sport dynamic. Acknowledge that to excel in your sport you need to be selfish at times, and thank your partner for their support and understanding. Use your free time together wisely.

4 Another downside: the GAA is a microcosm of Irish life, so all societal ills can be found there. Call out any misogyny, homophobia or small-mindedness you encounter. Make it a better place for the GAA Man who will fill your boots.

5 And, for the love of God, socialise anywhere but Coppers.

6 When you find your tribe, and become initiated in their customs and culture, you discover you have found a second family, whether that was a conscious intention or not. I understand why, to the uninitiated, it might seem cultish (minus the good parts), but to those inside the fold the GAA is family. And, just like family, it’s imperfect and populated with the odd looper you wouldn’t say boo to if you weren’t related to them. But know, no matter where you roam, be it Sydney or Boston, Berlin or Leitrim, some of the clan will be waiting there for you, and they’ll do all they can to make you feel at home.

And, Brianna, do you know what the best thing is about GAA Man? He’s leagues ahead of AFL Man.

Colin Regan, a former Leitrim footballer, is the GAA’s community and health manager at Croke Park

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