GAA's real genius is in local identity


On Gaelic Games:It's a while back now and then GAA president Peter Quinn may be a little bewildered at the durability of his throwaway remark. During an interview that took place over 17 years ago Quinn said that whereas the GAA could never compete with huge international sporting events, such things by their nature didn't take place that often and Ireland's involvement in them was even less frequent.

This was from Quinn a characteristically analytical response to the feverish excitement which pervaded the entire country during Italia 90 and indeed he could have gone farther.

Because success in international sport is never guaranteed, Gaelic games are protected from its vagaries and each year the provincial and All-Ireland championships generate their own excitement. The quality of the games may fluctuate and some summers are more compelling than others but there's always a show.

In other words sport, no less than all politics in Tip O'Neill's famous dictum, is local. In Paris at the weekend Ireland might have been our locality but at home the county and the club are more so.

The differing theatres of competition are clearly enough defined but the sense of identity remains complicated.

Ironically whereas the GAA is the most avowedly nationalist of the three big field sport associations it never gets to project that into the arena of international competition. The national celebration is internalised, a matter for private congratulation rather than taking on the world in that narrow sporting sense.

And that absence is exacerbated by the strange circumstances of the island's political and cultural identity - which makes some in the GAA community hostile towards the international rugby and soccer teams.

It used to be the case - and still is - that the GAA felt more comfortable dealing with the IRFU than they did with the FAI. This made itself felt in the debate over the use of Croke Park for soccer and rugby. For some, the argument ran, the IRFU was a 32-county organisation and not truncated and partitionist like the FAI.

That would have been well and good but for the Phil Coulter issue. Coulter's made-to-order rugby anthem Ireland's Call has stirred irrational antagonisms, scarcely believable in their scale.

What else can the rugby authorities do? They send out the only team in international rugby that crosses state frontiers. It's not homogenous so it can't subscribe to Amhrán na bhFiann as a representative anthem.

This leaves those who are outraged by the failure to play it in the peculiar position of approving the team's 32-county status but wanting to impose on it a partitionist anthem.

Then the soccer team run foul of similar sensibilities because although they are more than happy to grind out the Irish anthem in saloon bars all around the globe and advertise their faraway locals on the national flag, they are a partitioned team.

Little notice is paid to the fact that as a conference centre Croke Park takes in lots of business from the Irish government - itself as unwitting a creature of partition as the soccer team - without arousing anti-partitionist feeling.

Looking around Paris on Sunday it was remarkable how far and wide the spatter marks of green jerseys could be found late into the evening.

It's a big statement of identity for individuals to mark themselves out as 'belonging' to a larger community, whatever that may be.

But it's also a very general statement. There were even French people wearing Ireland jerseys as a - wholly self interested - gesture of support, maybe hoping to inspire a miracle from their moribund guests.

But by its nature identity is most closely felt when it's at its most local: the sense of ourselves radiates out in concentric circles.

Which brings us to another story from a different aspect of the Ireland-France interface last week: some teenage girls joined a drama group in south Dublin and at their first meeting the teacher tells them gravely that someone very important has just died.

Spontaneously the girls react.

"Oh yeah," they cry in unison, "Mick Holden." And in a jumble of addressing each other as well as the teacher, they rattle on: "It was terrible, really sad." "My sister is friends with his daughter." "She's in our school." The teacher looks on in incomprehension. "No girls, Marcel Marceau." But the girls were right. They knew who was more important - and more expressive - in this part of the world.

For all the GAA's at times heavy-handed protestations of nationalism, the association's real genius is in local identity.

Despite the great sadness last weekend in his home and church in Dun Laoghaire, in the Cuala club in Dalkey and in the graveyard by Shanganagh cliffs where he was laid to rest, Mick Holden's life - even more than his passing - bore dedicated and exuberant testimony to the importance of that local identity in Irish life and the GAA's central role in its maintenance.