GAA impresses with clear-eyed view of future

 

THE setting might at first glance have been surreally incongruous, but Lancaster Gate and the leafy environs of Hyde Park played host to what may well prove a seminal GAA congress.

Both major votes on the hurling reforms and the presidency generated an excited sense of optimism for the future. Not alone Joe McDonagh's election but also the calibre of the defeated candidate, Sean McCague, and the expectation that he may in future succeed to the office, created a feeling that the GAA will be well served by the presidencies to come.

There are still apprehensions about the hurling proposals and even their strongest advocates have been careful not to present them as guaranteed solutions. But, in general, delegates were happy with the decision to experiment in the face of the challenges facing the game. It was a mood most urgently expressed by former president Pat Fanning of Waterford

Marking time is the inevitable prelude to decline," he said, before adding.

If change is needed, resistance to change is unacceptable".

The location also proved a success despite the inconvenience and the extravagance of central London hotel prices. In recognising the work of overseas units in the centenary year of the London and also the Lancashire boards the association was paying tribute to a remarkable history.

Maintaining the sense of Irish identity amongst emigrant communities can be stereotyped by reference to its kitschier excesses but it has for more frequently been a source of comfort and belonging for homesick people whose emigration was rarely a matter of choice.

It is a heritage fully deserving of the recognition bestowed last weekend the organisation of which did further credit to PJ McGinley and his colleagues in London.

The election of Joe McDonagh was enthusiastically received, as was the confident and exuberant oratory which marked his acceptance. McDonagh comes to the presidency with a number of recommendations his belief in and activity on behalf of coaching and promotion can be an engine for the progress of hurling, and his communications' skills and comparative youth make him an ideal front man for the GAA as it heads towards the new century.

Having been elected, he is now freed from the constraints imposed by candidacy and it will be surprising if, having disengaged from the various committees he currently serves, McDonagh does not use the year as president elect to lay the groundwork for an effective term of office.

There is one further area in which he promises a great deal. The sense of showmanship that brought him most famously to public attention when singing The West's Awake after Galway's memorable All Ireland triumph was much in evidence in the style of his acceptance speech.

More than that, in his sense of history pride of place and command of language, he portrays a cultural joie de vivre that is sometimes lacking within the GAA. Joe McDonagh's love of Irish language, sport and music came naturally and unselfconsciously to him. He is a great spokesperson for the culture because his embrace of it is unforced and presents itself as a celebration of his identity rather than as an assertion of what he isn't. His enjoyment of that culture makes him what he is he's not pursuing it to prove a point.

A great deal has been written about the hurling reforms perhaps sufficient, but one or two points arose from the debate.

The first, as has already been remarked on, was the sterility of the arguments against the proposals. In addition to the anomalous assertion that any dilution of sudden death diminishes a championship when their own county title is so arranged, Offaly made the paranoid claim that all the talk of decline in hurling was as a result of the rise of Offaly, Galway and Clare.

The signs of decline are all around, and Offaly will soon know all about it if they don't start winning minor titles to create a generation fit to succeed the remarkably talented current crop.

There is also the position of Ulster. Even those who generally reach for the grog when the northern province claims that this, that or the other will leave them feeling betrayed, should look carefully at the difficulties of Down and Ant rim.

Talking to Ant rim delegates, it was impossible not to be concerned by their sense of isolation in the face of the new proposals. They see a championship being tailed up and streamlined at their expense. In Oliver Kelly's speech against the proposals he said that there were other ways of assisting minor hurling and that senior hurling would most benefit from the open draw.

He was probably correct but the open draw is a pony that won't run through the GAA congress for a while. It is, however, vital that the other point he recognised when the increased revenue from the reformed season is disbursed.

Overall, it was an encouraging weekend for the GAA and for hurling in particular.