Poetry, and the Gaelic Athletic Association


CONNECTIONS:YES, THERE IS A connection. And this beautiful girl may help us to reach an understanding of the links. Beautiful girls tend to help us in many such endeavours.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, arguably the most successful of independent Ireland’s institutions, is a phenomenal organisation. Unmatched in its depth of penetration of society, its efficiency, its identification with people on every level, its ability to involve communities and to entertain, it makes every other national endeavour appear like . . . well . . . like the HSE.

And how has this come about? We must look to its origins and its intrinsic appeal.

The organisation obviously originated from the whole national awakening of the 19th century, an awakening of political activity, land agitation, language renewal and general cultural searching. And its appeal lay in its central purpose of undertaking fairly robust sporting activities. In a people prone to localism, faction fighting and tribalism, these sports were a handy substitute for cattle raiding (without the cattle) and tribal war and general mayhem (without the use of lethal weaponry).

But where does the poetry come in? Yes, of course there is poetry in the spectacle of fit young men and women running madly around muddy fields with clubs and balls, the roars of crowds and the interlocking emotions of joy and despair, and suchlike metaphysical stuff, but we are dealing here with something much more concrete. Or, in fact, something much more metallic and silver, namely the Sigerson Cup.

This is one of the many (perhaps slightly too many) competitions organised by the GAA. It is played among institutions of third-level education, and competitors are vying for a cup donated by one George Sigerson. Granted, it has to be suspected that the average GAA player knows as much about George as the average commuter knows about Con Colbert of the traffic-clogged road at Islandbridge, or indeed that the average resident of Dublin’s south quays knows about Oliver Bond of the flats.

So, to elaborate. George Sigerson (1836-1925) was a noted medical teacher and Gaelic scholar. As “Erionnach” he wrote on politics in the Freeman’s Journal. He had fingers in every slice of the national pie, his home in Dublin’s Clare Street being a gathering place for intellectuals of every hue, foreign and Irish. Through that door went all the nationalist notables of the day. These included the older Fenian generation such as Charles Kickham and John O’Leary, and the up-and-coming youngsters such as Maud Gonne and WB Yeats.

Indeed, it was in Clare Street that Yeats met that ancient Fenian, O’Leary, now perhaps best known for his cameo appearance in Yeats’s great poem September 1913. (A poem which might very well be reissued for post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, fumbling in greasy tills and all that.)

In Clare Street, Yeats would also have met two remarkable women, Sigerson’s daughters. Both poets, one major, one minor, these were Dora and Hester. Their mother was a Varian, of a once well-known Dublin brush manufacturing concern. Dora was the major poet, being Dora Sigerson Shorter, while Hester (though gorgeous) was more modestly talented. Yes, this is Hester pictured here. Her aptly entitled Mad Songappeared in Padraic Colum’s anthology of Irish verse.

“I hear the wind a-blowing,

I hear the corn a-growing,

I hear the Virgin praying,

I hear what she is saying!”

And we can’t say fairer than that.

Dora died in 1918, her heart broken (it is said) by the 1916 executions, though it must be said the same heart had survived pretty well many years of being married to an Englishman.

Sister Hester lived on until 1939. She married an American journalist, Donn Piatt, and their daughter Eibhlín was to be mother of the noted republican Emmet Humphreys.

But who remembers any of these people now? Perhaps best only to remember the point, and that point being that in that house in Clare Street there was a oneness of purpose and unity, the regeneration of Ireland. There was poetry and chatter and argument and an interest in politics and literature and sport, all no doubt lubricated with a reasonable amount of drink. With origins like that, it’s no wonder the GAA is so successful. It has all the right connections.

  • Conan Kennedy is a writer whose most recent books include the novel Ogulla Well, and (as editor) the recently published five-volume edition of The Diaries of Mary Hayden.