Three years ago this week, the GAA released its Safe Return to Gaelic Games plan for restarting the season hugely disrupted in 2020 by the pandemic restrictions.
It was detailed and phased for clubs, due back in July, and counties to follow in October. Protocols were exhaustive and the whole structure of what was required to facilitate the return extraordinarily complex.
The structure that would frame the return to play became a template for the future, as the GAA adopted the split season, which has seen the All-Irelands played off by the end of July.
It feels like a different world – largely because it was – but also strangely distant from now, as we prepare for the knockout stages of the championship with no restrictions apart from the episodic reluctance of spectators.
Next Wednesday, June 14th, at the Royal Irish Academy, there is a one-day event organised by the RIA Culture and Heritage Working Group, on the theme of Ireland and the Covid-19 pandemic. The final panel, dealing with sport, features a presentation by Dr Seán Crosson and Dr Marcus Free on “Covid, Irish Media and the GAA”.
The presentation is based on two papers by the authors, This Too Shall Pass, which looked at the early months of the pandemic in Ireland and its impact on the GAA and media, and Celebrate this Victory in a Responsible Manner, which extends the frame of reference to cover the whole year of 2020, which culminated in All-Ireland finals a week before Christmas in an empty Croke Park.
Speaking to The Irish Times remotely, both authors explained how the project came about.
“I was coming up to a research sabbatical during that period and when you go on research leave you usually have plans for international travel. With everything going into lockdown I just had to reorientate, and it became a huge opportunity for researchers interested in sport to look at how the pandemic in Ireland was affecting it,” said Dr Crosson, a senior lecturer at the University of Galway.
He is also author of the book, Gaelic Games on Film (2019), detailing the interaction of football and hurling with the cinema.
Dr Free, a lecturer at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, specialises in media and politics and has written extensively on issues such as gender, race, class, migration and national identity in sport.
Wednesday’s presentation will include some new material from an upcoming publication, currently under review, he says.
“I’ve been working on a third paper with Maedhbh Ní Chumhaill of the University of Galway focusing on how women’s sport was disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. That was something the media had an important role in drawing attention to.”
The original paper was published in Sport & Society in the spring of 2021, an issue dedicated to the Covid experiences of global sport. Free says that the comparisons were instructive.
“The GAA is more broadly representative of social impact and change than professional sports like soccer – and in the publication it was sport in the plural so it was valuable to see how GAA compared to others.”
This Too Shall Pass dealt with the early months of the pandemic and is largely a positive survey of the GAA’s media treatment, covering matters such as community involvement in maintaining contact with older people and running shopping errands as well as fundraising initiatives and the safe return of the games.
The paper outlined unique characteristics. “In the Irish context, the rhetoric of shared sacrifice and collective discipline that was evident during the early months of the Covid-19 crisis signifies the GAA’s unique role as an amateur organisation touching every part of Irish society through its players’, administrators’, volunteers’ and supporters’ family and social connections.
“The strangely anachronistic status [by international comparison] of the GAA as a largely nationally, geographically bounded amateur organisation is such that national broadcaster RTÉ still broadcasts most of its major events and became the logical outlet for policy announcements during the lockdown.”
Those announcements, by association president John Horan, were generally well received: sensible and cautious, not rushing back to play and giving a rational assessment of when that might be likely.
The GAA’s image ran into trouble in the autumn over heedless celebrations which took place in some parishes after county final victories. Croke Park did move to halt the whole process in October and as a result some championships remained incomplete but some reputational damage had been done.
In the event, the very public association of club and parish successes with coronavirus outbreaks became an unhelpful counter to the earlier image of the GAA and its communities being at one with the national interest.
Celebrate this Victory in a Responsible Manner looks at the fuller picture for 2020. It does so through the prism of local media coverage in Crosson’s own county.
“I’m from Cavan. There’s only one sport and that’s football. When I was reading in the Anglo-Celt was a different discourse to what was appearing in national media: much more outspoken and contesting the national narrative as to how the State was responding to Covid.
“It expressed a very strong concern that the State was infringing on the rights and traditions of these groups gathering for sport. How do we define local community if we don’t have the opportunity to gather together? Within rural Ireland, Gaelic games are so central and critical to how communities define and connect.
“When that opportunity is being denied – that was the perception – this caused unease and discontent.”
This was despite infection rates that were among the biggest in the country in the aftermath of the county final, a pattern that also occurred elsewhere. Unfortunately, this was the other side of local enthusiasms: keen to look after the vulnerable in society, but throwing caution to the wind when celebrating their successes. It’s a dichotomy with which the GAA is familiar.
Celebrate this Victory in a Responsible Manner also focuses on an event that undoubtedly benefited the public perception of the GAA: the commemoration of the centenary of Bloody Sunday on the evening of the Leinster football final at the end of November 2020.
The monologue by Brendan Gleeson, scripted by Michael Foley, journalist and author of The Bloodied Field, memorialised the dead of 1920, lighting a torch on Hill 16 for each of the 14 killed.
The ceremony was watched live on television and resonated with the events of a century earlier, the eerie emptiness of the stadium adding to the atmosphere.
“One of the sporting rituals if a prominent personality has died is to hold a minute’s silence before a game,” says Free. “It’s a moment for contemplation. The darkness and absence of people probably did add to the poignancy of the occasion and we quote the commentary that refers to those who had died in 2020.
“That connection both between the event and 1920 but also the contemporary resonance proved the enduring significance of national public service broadcasting television. People were confined to their homes. It created a kind of secularisation of the religious ritual you find played out in sport. The spiritual experience without religious trappings.”
In Celebrate This Victory in a Sensible Manner, the authors conclude by observing: “The intercounty championships thus ultimately involved a series of staged performances of national inclusivity that somewhat eclipsed the fractiousness and recriminations over local celebrations in early autumn.”
Ireland and the Covid-19 Pandemic runs from 9am until 5.30pm next Wednesday, June 14th, in the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin 2. Admission is free but must be booked in advance. Details at ria.ie