Field Studies — Frank McNally on GAA pitches, gaps of danger, and the decline of the liquid lunch

Sober analysis

Manchán Magan wrote a very entertaining treatise a couple of years ago entitled Thirty-two Words for Field. And I thought of that again recently when another book on the theme of fields landed on my desk.

This one is called A Place to Play: The People and Stories behind 101 GAA grounds, by Humphrey Kelleher. It’s a lovely, aerial-picture-led survey of a random selection of Gaelic stadiums in Ireland and abroad. Thus, the similarities with Magan’s exploration of language are minor.

But one of the first things I did on opening it was tick off the number of Kelleher’s fields I have watched games in over the years. And guess what? My count came to 32 as well. I wonder if there is a word for that? (GAA critics might suggest three: “A wasted life”).

I was also delighted to see that of the 1,745 grounds he could have chosen in Ireland, Kelleher included my home-town pitch of Emmet Park, Carrickmacross, a Rory Beggan kickout from which I grew up.


Among the accompanying textual vignettes, he mentions that in 1928, on a predecessor of our current pitch, the inaugural throw-in was by Col James Fitzmaurice, who had recently made the world’s first east-west transatlantic flight.

This may have been apt. According to Patrick Kavanagh and others, attempts to navigate the length of a Monaghan GAA pitch in the 1920s and 30s were also perilous, hard on fuel and with no guarantee you’d reach the other end in one piece.

Kelleher also mentions that the previous pitch in Carrick had a bad “slope” – a common problem in Drumlin Country. But I seem to recall from my short-lived GAA career that Emmet Park had a slope too: 12 feet from end to end, according to rumour. Then again, even after changing ends, I was always playing uphill.


Thirty-two is an almost mystical number for many Irish people, especially those who support a united Ireland. But reading John FitzGerald’s sober analysis (Business, December 1st) of the likely cost of that project, I was struck by his use of a certain three-letter-word, also popular in republican balladry: “gap”.

Our national anthem speaks of the bearna bhaoil or “gap of danger” (Which, by the way, also features in Kelleher’s book, or near enough: his grounds include O’Kennedy Park New Ross, visited 60 years ago by JFK and just up the road from the original bearna bhaoil of 1798.

One also hears of “the man in the gap”, a metaphor beloved of GAA reporters. And of course there is the “Gap of the North”, an ancient passageway from the Dublin Pale into Ulster.

But in FitzGerald’s case, it was Northern Ireland’s “fiscal gap” – and the cost it would take the Republic to assume responsibility for it – that made a 32-county state unlikely in his lifetime.

This, clearly, is the new challenge for nationalist balladeers. On which note, I was at a reception on Wednesday night in the French ambassador’s residence to mark the end of the 225th anniversary commemorations of 1798.

Entertainment there included a medley of republican ballads, The West’s Awake, The Shan Van Vocht, and A Nation once again – performed by former Late Late Show band leader and occasional songwriter Paddy Cullivan.

Perhaps he or other United Irelanders now need to work “bearna fhioscach” into a catchy song that would persuade the next generation to vote for unity. It might be a struggle to find rhymes for fioscach. But changing languages and updating the medium, the “Fiscal Gap Rap” has a ring to it.


The French event was described as a “cocktail” reception, which had me expecting Black Russians and Bloody Marys. In fact, we were served the more usual wine and champagne, with canapés. And an expert on Gallic etiquette has since explained to me that the word “cocktail” in this context signifies only that the event will be over in time for – and not include – dinner.

By contrast, I also attended a European Parliament media lunch just now, in a Dublin restaurant. And there was a time when journalistic etiquette signified that a Friday lunch near Christmas, paid for by the EU, could well merge with dinner, cocktails or not in between.

As it happened, thanks to the early start (noon), I was still in the middle of my column, so couldn’t drink anyway. But I needn’t have worried, because the event was even more sobering than a John FitzGerald economic analysis. Staff took away the pre-set wine glasses as we sat down and the fine three-course meal that followed was accompanied only by water.

Maybe this is the new norm on mainland Europe. And perhaps it’s also a glimpse of the future here, when we’re all paying for a united Ireland (although a national move towards teetotalism might worsen the fiscal gap more than it would improve our ability to pay for it).

Anyway, each table had an MEP in attendance. And just as I left, for the record, Deirdre Clune was proposing to buy those remaining at ours a post-lunch round of drinks. The motion was hastily seconded and passed without a vote.