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Jennifer O’Connell: The GAA has a cultural blindspot about violence

GAA has capacity to shape and mould impressionable young minds on a scale only ever rivalled by the Catholic Church

Some linguists believe that the language we use affects how we think about reality.

This theory, called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, gave rise to the claim, now disputed, that Inuit dialects have more than 50 words for snow. There’s no such ambiguity over the size of the GAA lexicon for acts of violence. It has an entire thesaurus of euphemisms at its disposal. If the way we talk about something is an indication of our attitude to it, the GAA has a real problem with violence.

Melee. Fracas. A bit of a fracas. A bit of hotheadedness. Tussle. Brawl. Infraction. Handbags. Man-to-man stuff. Unacceptable scenes. Ugly scenes. Disgraceful scenes. Incident. Serious incident. Unsavoury incident. A very unsightly incident. Shocking incident. Not something we would condone. Then there’s “sledging”, which is now GAAspeak, but derivative of cricket, for verbal harassment. The words that are rarely used are “violence” or “alleged assault”.

If these “unacceptable scenes” happened anywhere else, at say — insert prejudice of your choice here — the Aviva stadium; a direct provision centre; the side of a road in Ballyfermot; a halting site; a private school in south Co Dublin; a premiership match or O’Connell Street on a Saturday night, there would be no such squeamishness. But the GAA has a cultural blind spot about violence, and we have a cultural blind spot about the GAA.


You’re not allowed to talk about this issue without first stressing that the GAA is a powerful force for good in communities or, as I’ve discovered in the past, you can expect to be accused of GAA bashing. Frankly, that’s fine. It’s the bashing that goes on during games I’m more concerned with. GAA supporters are invariably keen to point out that hundreds of games are played at all levels every weekend with no issues. This is true, but about as helpful an argument as interrupting a discussion on sexual violence to yell “Not all men!” Let’s take that as read. #Notallgames.

Sanctions, when they happen, involve fines — GAA money circling back to the GAA — or bans, which are difficult to enforce

It is precisely because the GAA has such an outsize influence in society that its approach to violence demands wider examination. The association has a place in the life of this country that extends way beyond what happens on the pitch. Half a million people are registered members. About 6 per cent of the adult population volunteer. Gaelic games are played in three-quarters of primary schools and two-thirds of secondaries. Every summer more than 100,000 children enrol in Cúl Camps. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we were constantly reminded of its exceptionalism. The return of Gaelic games would, we were told, “shorten the winter” and “give us all something to look forward to”.

The GAA has the capacity to shape and mould impressionable young minds on a scale that has only ever been rivalled in this country by the Catholic Church. Not unlike the church, when it comes to allegations of wrongdoing, it operates as a mini-republic with its own judicial system, involving an internecine series of applications and appeals through an ascending series of committees.

When these “melees” happen, there are invariably calls to let due process take its course. That might be fair enough, so long as due process duly led somewhere, or seemed capable of bringing about cultural change. Clearly, it doesn’t, or we wouldn’t be here again this week, expressing our collective shock at yet another alleged incident of violence, this one worse than the last, which was worse than the one before it. This time it is an alleged incident at an under-9s blitz, which is being investigated by the Garda and Munster GAA.

Last weekend, a man received a 96-match suspension for assaulting a referee at a Wexford junior football championship match. Another alleged assault on a referee in Roscommon last August is still being investigated by gardaí. Earlier in the summer, a Galway player, Damien Comer, was allegedly eye-gouged during a brawl following the All-Ireland quarter-final between Galway and Armagh. On that occasion, no complaint was made to the gardaí. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the GAA would deal with the matter “through its own procedures”.

If you want to find out where the GAA really stands on violence, then, you might assume the best place to go is its own procedures or its code of conduct for adults. The words “violence” or “assault” never appear in the seven pages of the 2019 edition, which is available for download on its website. You’ll learn that GAA members can’t use foul or abusive language, they can’t give character references in court or participate in match-fixing. Violence is referred to only with yet another euphemism — “other forms of abuse”.

Sanctions, when they happen, involve fines — GAA money circling back to the GAA — or bans, which are difficult to enforce when the assailant is a supporter rather than a player. But by the time you get to sanctions, it’s already too late. Expecting sanctions alone to address a deep-rooted tolerance of violence is like talking about throwing up a door and tacking a few walls on to the stable long after the horse has legged it.

The GAA is sometimes accused of a culture of silence around violence. A culture of tacit permission is more accurate. Violence in the sport is regarded as existing on a spectrum from an “occasionally useful tool” to something akin to a natural disaster, an unstoppable force liable to be unleashed without warning in moments of high emotion. What happened to personal agency? What happened to discipline?

So here is the required disclaimer: there’s no doubt the GAA brings unparalleled joy to hundreds of thousands of people. In return, it enjoys unparalleled power. It needs to ask itself hard questions about how that power is used. How positive a force is it really, when violence is routinely minimised, excused and normalised?