GAA needs to ask if it could be doing more in the case of diversity

Flags are not the only things that need to disappear in Ireland’s reckoning


It was a summer sight for many years; the vivid Confederate flag mingling with the red and white on balmy championship days and passed off as nothing more than a symbol of the quirks of personality that made Cork different.

It looked exotic because it belonged to a different world – the past of the southern states of America. The only other place you’d ever see that flag, in Ireland at least, was when the Dukes of Hazard was shown on repeat through those yawning Saturday afternoons of the 1980s.

But just this week, the adventures of Bo and Luke Duke and Boss Hogg, still to be found in the obscurer reaches of Amazon Prime, look set to be cancelled for good. It has occurred to the big brains that maybe the theme of the show – two good ole boys giving Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane the slip on the dusty back roads of Duke county (!) in the General Lee – their souped up Dodge Charger decorated in the emblem of Dixie – might not be to everyone’s taste. That maybe its time has come. And so too has the sight of the Confederate flag in GAA summers. Friday’s confirmation from Cork GAA was unequivocal: any such flag will be confiscated from supporters attending games.

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the massacre of nine people attending a service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The shooter was a 21-year-old self-avowed white supremacist named Dylann Roof. Photographs of Roof draping himself in a Confederate flag quickly circulated the world.

The flag was removed from the statehouse in South Carolina afterwards. It wasn’t as though there wasn’t already an explicit awareness that the flag was an enduring and stubborn symbol of the slave-era south – of white heritage and white history.

It took a massacre to shame the state’s officials into removing it. In the days afterwards, Nascar organisers asked their fans to refrain from flying the flag at the racetrack. Dale Earnhardt, the figurehead for the culture, pushed harder, saying at the time that the flag was offensive to an entire race. “It belongs in the history books and that’s about it.” His plea went largely unheeded.

Donald Trump was elected to the presidency of the United States the following November and in just four years he has gripped America in his paw and shaken it like a snow globe so that past, present and future are colliding and culminating in a startling, fiery summer of protest. In this unforgettable summer, the generational frustrations and slights and injustices and casual killings – the essential monstrous unfairness that comes with being born African-American – has spilled onto the streets.

And with that the confederate flag lovers will fly their flag more stubbornly. This week, spurred on by Bubba Wallace, its only African-American race driver, Nascar announced that the Dixie flag is banned from their racetracks. It’s a radical move in a sport that has always been steeped in southern values – at the Darlington track, Daniel Decatur Emmett’s Dixie (Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton/Old times are not forgotten) was habitually played as a victory salute.

It is clear that all of America and the southern states in particular are setting out on what will be a massive and complex internal reckoning. The old sights and emblems have become intolerable to many Americans. Where it stops – do the Civil War re-enactments stop? Do they close to visitors the battle grounds at Gettysburg or Manassas? – are questions be decided slowly and painfully in the months and years ahead.

But the events in that country have had a ripple effect. The past week in Ireland has been distinguished by a series of powerful and important testimonies on what it is like to live as a person of colour in this country. It has made for uncomfortable listening. It is clear that for many Irish people of colour, to live here is to live alongside a separating line made apparent sometimes through explicitly racist experiences but also through ignorant humour and a lack of thought and a presumptiveness that is offensive.

Ireland is only a few decades into moving away from centuries as a rigorously homogenous society. That’s because it’s only in the past few decades that people from other countries have been even remotely interested in the idea of living here.

The decision by Cork GAA to put an end to the sight of the Confederate flag in any GAA ground is a small positive step. This week there have been calls for GAA clubs named after John Mitchel to consider changing the name of their club. The Derry man was a nationalist and packed a lot into his 60 years but he was in thought and written word proudly racist and unabashed in his belief that African-Americans were inferior. Irrespective of hindsight, his views are repugnant.

The traditional teaching of history in Irish schools was deep but narrow. (And this year surely confirms the insanity of removing history as a core subject from our secondary schools). None of us were taught very much – if anything – about American history. Music and books were the only way in. What little I know is down to the good fortune that Thomas Bartlett and Nicholas Canny were both in the NUIG history department in the early 1990s. Anyone who took their courses on colonial and civil war America couldn’t but come away with a better understanding of how on-going complexities of race and the sin of slavery continues to govern that country.

For years, the sight of the Dixie flag at GAA grounds was dismissed as a bit of mischief, which was almost certainly what was intended. The excuse is that nobody really knew any better. That’s no longer true if it ever was. The GAA will do the right thing, too, on the matter of John Mitchel. At the very least, the members of those clubs which were probably hastily named after a dead patriot will sit down and discuss what the man behind the name actually stood for. And they’ll take a decision as to whether they want to go on with that name as their banner head.

When the millennium started, there was an optimistic hope that Ireland’s divergent culture would, over the next couple of decades, be reflected in the composition of GAA teams. That has happened but only to a limited degree. Several of the more prominent black players have spoken out about racist experiences while playing. These incidents are arguably more reflective of Irish society rather than of the GAA.

It seems to me that the GAA has undergone an internal revolution over the past two decades in presenting itself as proactive and welcoming of all cultures. But there is still a kind of invisible block: it’s so deeply Irish and traditional that just showing up can be intimidating. Basketball Ireland, for instance, largely urban and promoting a world game, has had much more success in attracting youngsters from varied ethnic backgrounds into its clubs.

But in a surreal year when the world has pressed pause, this could be a moment for the GAA, which is Ireland’s predominant sporting and cultural force, to ask if they could be doing more. It’s the first necessary step in becoming properly inclusive and developing truly diverse GAA clubs – the kind of club that would make John Mitchel turn in his grave.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.