County footballers aiming to help Carlow forge a new identity
Counties in Ireland usually associated with a stereotype linked to their GAA fortunes
Carlow fans in Croke Park for the Leinster semi-final against Laois. Turlough O’Brien believes improving the fortunes of the football team will inject some much needed pride and self-confidence into the county. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Romantics will want only one winner when Carlow play Tyrone in this Saturday’s All-Ireland football qualifier. So might sociologists. Maybe even a few psychologists. Because there’s a fascinating experiment in Gaelic athletic word association going on in Carlow right now.
It’s rooted in there being scarcely a county in Ireland without a stereotype inextricably tied to its GAA fortunes.
No other 32,000 square miles in the world can have put so much identity and self-image into arbitrary scrawls on a map and how those divisions play out on a pitch.
Hurling is the first thing most of us picture about Kilkenny. It’s the same with Kerry in football. Cork’s cocky and Mayo’s God help us. Down have aristocratic notions, Tipp crave them and Clare are just wild. Galway are sweet, Meath hard as f--k and the Dubs KNOW everyone else is jealous.
Such cartoon depictions are as childish as they are illogical and proof that sentiment trumps rationality every time when it comes to people choosing how to see themselves. But that doesn’t dilute their power.
It’s why Tyrone, with all their bolshy, puke-football defiance, will expect to roll over Carlow at the weekend. They won’t say it but they’ll believe it, even if they fell over the line against Meath in their last match.
Such spit-in-your-eye is part of the Tyrone package. And these packages can burrow far beyond football and hurling into places’ very perception of themselves. So what, if anything, comes to mind about their opponents?
Sadly, a lot of people, if they think about Carlow at all, do so in terms of a bit to drive through on the way to somewhere else. Its mountains aren’t very big, there are no beaches and its claim to some of Saoirse Ronan’s stardust faded a bit after her emigration to Wicklow.
In GAA terms there’s no convenient cartoon. There’s a single Leinster championship in 1944, one more than Saoirse’s new home but hardly a hook to hang an identity on. So Carlow’s stereotype might just be that there isn’t one. It’s citizens really are that low-key.
None of which matters a damn really. In many ways it’s admirable. No one ever accuses Carlow of getting all Cork and trying too hard. So getting into a sweat about games doesn’t really matter – until of course it does. And Carlow’s football manager believes it matters a lot.
Turlough O’Brien has declared the people of Carlow to have an unfortunate low opinion of themselves and feels that improving the fortunes of the football team will inject some much needed pride and self-confidence into the county.
He’s not just talking the talk either. This spring the Carlow team gained promotion out of the bottom division of the league for the first time in 33 years. Last month they wiped the floor with neighbouring Thoroughbred County, Kildare.
It was tight against Laois in Croke Park last week and now one of the modern aristocrats of the game are coming to visit. These are exciting times for Ireland’s very own little understated Belgium.
Sure enough, just as O’Brien hoped, tentative shoots of assertiveness seem to be emerging in some of its self-effacing citizens.
One horse racing worthy with no relationship to the ancient game is even thinking of gracing Dr Cullen Park this Saturday, even asking if ‘we’ have a chance. This is a man who until recently might have believed Carlow’s red, yellow and green colours belonged to some exotic racehorse owner.
And of course it’s an indulgent thing and fundamentally trivial. But just because something is trivial doesn’t make it irrelevant. And there are few things more intoxicating in Irish sport than one of the GAA’s supposed minnows raising some steam of momentum. The hard part always is maintaining it.
Because the thing with stereotypes is that they can be self-perpetuating. How many games have Kerry won over the years simply because they’re Kerry. How many have Mayo lost. Retreating to convention is often a self-fulfilling exercise.
It’s interesting to ponder which comes first, the belief or the outcome. But the broad scale of O’Brien’s ambitions for modest Carlow is sure to be closely examined all over the country since it’s vital to keep in mind how stereotypes are flexible.
How often do we hear that even the weakest counties can get their hands on 15 players with comparable quality to the big guns only for them lacking one vital thing, that perpetual GAA trope – belief.
Carlow stalwarts will maintain the standard of club competition there is comparable to most anywhere else. But transferring it to the county set-up kept running up against problems, perhaps the biggest of which has been the perception of Carlow as little more than a football punch-line.
It’s tempting to reheat the old Bob Monkhouse gag about nobody laughing now at his comedic ambitions.
Certainly if they can get the better of Tyrone no one in the game will be laughing. Most important of all though would be an absence of laughter in diffident Carlow itself. Illogical and indulgent it may be, but that is the power of Gaelic games when it comes to identity.
There’s no accurate barometer for sentiment but it would be fascinating to measure the impact of this championship run on the people of Carlow generally.
And if it’s just the start of something the absence of a stereotype can be a plus. It means the road’s wide open for Turlough O’Brien & Co to create one. That really would be something for anyplace to throw its shoulders back and crow about.
Best of all it could encourage a view throughout the rest of the country that if unpresuming ‘Carla’ can buck tradition by conjuring a new association it mightn’t be the worst idea to ‘folly’ them up.