‘GAA ensures we don’t enjoy life too much by reminding us of our inadequacies’
An Irishman’s Diary: We despair about Gaelic football and romanticise hurling. It's a national sport
Michael Fitzsimons of Dublin and Peter Harte of Tyrone in action on Sunday’s All-Ireland final. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
If there’s a rival to Gaelic football as Ireland’s national sport, it’s certainly not hurling. No. For sheer popularity, and the depth of feeling it generates, the related pastime of complaining about Gaelic football may just about edge the game itself as the nation’s favourite.
I was still in short trousers the first time I heard local elders lamenting that the standard of football had gone to the dogs. Ever since then, the supposedly dire condition of the sport has been one of the few constants of Irish life, almost reassuring in a world where everything else changes.
When not expressing despair about football, the other thing we love to do is romanticise hurling. Where the former is overcriticised, the latter is overpraised. This is a habit that unites both the few counties that can actually play the small-ball game, and the great majority that can’t or don’t.
Where I grew up, we admired hurling as something vaguely heroic. We even watched it sometimes, on All-Ireland final day. But the truth was we were not emotionally involved. It was something they did down the country, probably soil or climate-related, like growing Golden Wonder potatoes. It wasn’t meant for us.
In all its grubbiness, meanwhile, football continued to be the thing people cared about, even as we deplored its current state. Maybe the game has enjoyed short golden eras in my lifetime, periods when people stopped complaining about it for a while. I just don’t recall any.
To jog my memory recently, I entered the phrase “standard of Gaelic football” into this newspaper’s archive search engine. Among the hits was a column from September 1981, just as a great Kerry team was about to complete the last four-in-a-row before Dublin’s.
Seán Kilfeather’s grim assessment began as follows: “For many people, the standard of Gaelic football in recent years has been very depressing”.
That indeed is what I was hearing from the elders then, about a game I had, in youthful enthusiasm, mistakenly regarded as a fast, skilful spectacle (despising the reliance of Pat Spillane & Co on hand passing, old-timers called it “basketball”).
So I delved further into the archive and found another columnist lamenting the poor standard to which football had sunk in his time. In his review of the season in question, he even suggested there had been only two games worth watching all year: one involving Mayo, the other Kerry.
Those apart, football had been dominated by referees, “whistle after whistle with broken and scrappy play”. The art of shooting had been lost.
And to make sure it wasn’t found again, “even seasoned defenders resort to the body tackle, foot trip, or arm-hold to stop hand-passing forwards”.
Yes, Gaelic football fans were complaining about the hand-pass, and the ruination of the game, even then. They were also harking back to a better age. “One sighed for the days of Larry Stanley. ” wrote the same columnist.
In most commentaries on the decline of football, the writer will also genuflect in passing at the side-altar of hurling.
Another 1981 piece has the GAA’s general secretary contrasting the poor standard of football with “the many fine, enthralling hurling games during the year”. That was from his annual report. Maybe the association could save time by reprinting it for 2018.
It’s the peculiar genius of the GAA that, in creating the world’s greatest amateur sports, they also ensured the results would leave us miserable. We must prefer it that way. Perhaps they took on the role of the Catholic Church in reminding us that the world was a vale of tears, from which we should expect little.
The aim is achieved partly by the pre-eminence of championships over league.
In normal sports, the league dominates, allowing graduated levels of achievement.
Even if they can’t win, a team may celebrate a top-four finish, or mid-table respectability, or avoiding relegation. The All-Irelands, by contrast, ensure that all but one county finishes every season with a defeat, usually bitter.
The other way the GAA ensures we don’t enjoy life too much is by constantly reminding us of our inadequacies. It gives us a sport most of us admire but can’t play. And it gives us one we do play, but despise.
It’s like the thing Richard Nixon said about himself and JFK. When Irish people look at hurling, they see what they want to be. When they look at football they see what they are.