GAA should be thanked for performing a national service
This year people ‘need’ the All-Irelands in a way they’ve never needed the games before
Running the football and hurling championships this year would at least offer an escape, a distraction, the illusion of normality in a dark time. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Into the strangest and coldest GAA season ever – if it happens. Into the year of the silent championship – if it goes ahead.
On the eve of the resumption of the inter-county GAA year, the players are still in the dark as to what will happen on Sunday. It’s a small disgrace in the midst of the pandemic crisis but it won’t be forgotten.
And if Ireland’s political class is ever to show up at Croke Park in the future – on that far-off glistening Sunday when the crowds are back and the brass bands play and the corporate luncheons are all systems go – then this Government needs to let the players know where they stand right now.
For right now is a good time to bring up an old question. What is the GAA for? Why does it thrive in this country? Ireland’s biggest sports competitions – the All-Ireland senior football and hurling championships – have always been about fantasy and make-believe.
It’s the one childhood enchantment that doesn’t fade and that has somehow made it undamaged from the Hollywood age of Christy Ring to the Instagram age: the idea of playing for your county, of maybe ‘getting’ to Croke Park and of perhaps being part of a bunch that remains unbeaten and becomes champions of the land. All for the right to parade a big silver cup through your hometown!
But the backdrop for the 2020 All-Ireland championship is like something never seen before: its Cavan v Monaghan as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. The co-ordinates are the same but it is asking extreme faith from the players to fully believe in a competition where the famous theatres – Killarney or Clones or Castlebar – will remain desolate and wintry and the crowd locked indoors, in front of their televisions.
For the competing teams, the next few months would, at best, feel like a shadow championship, played in cold and dark rather than heat and light and big games played in front of a ghost crowd and returning with the totemic cups to no barnstorming tour of the towns and taverns but to silence and empty streets - like something from the Upside Down inverted world of Stranger Things. For one year only, RTÉ might consider replacing James Galway’s jubilant theme tune of the Sunday Game with the Moonlight Sonata.
That’s if it ever happens.
The ‘season’ is due to resume this weekend with the closing stages of the league in an atmosphere of muted excitement and growing unease with the prospect of a new six-week national lockdown looming. Covid case numbers are spiralling. Many livelihoods – and lives – are in ruins. The national morale is flagging. This, then, is the hugely challenging backdrop against which the GAA season comes into view.
Is there a point? Is it worth the risk to the players and to their families? Isn’t there something ridiculous about even pretending that games mean anything in this climate and in this year of living dangerously?
There’s no question that the behaviour of socialising and celebrating after several club championship finals reflected badly on the GAA and contributed to a public perception that the auld gah’ couldn’t give a toss about guidelines or restrictions. Croke Park responded by pulling the plug on its remaining club fixtures.
But the intercounty championship is a world apart. It is serious. It is elite. The players have been training in blind faith through an atmosphere of ifs, buts and maybes. The GAA has, from the outset, set its course to follow Government advice. It has no choice. On Thursday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was asked whether the championship would go ahead if Ireland returned to Level 5 five restrictions. He replied with one word: No.
In an interview with this newspaper, the GAA’s head of games administration Feargal McGill confirmed that it was always the association’s understanding the games would stop in the event of Level 5: that “it would be amazing if we were an exception in those circumstances”.
Those are crucial words. The All-Ireland championship is amazing. It is, in the truest sense, an exception. It is an elite competition played by amateurs and it generates an extraordinary level of interest and enthusiasm and – that scarcest of emotions nowadays –- national joy. It’s a kind of miracle.
When the GAA sets its mind to things, it can run events with military precision and ruthlessness at inter-county level. It is capable of running off an All-Ireland championship devoid of the social elements that compromised the club season.
If the whole thing is scrapped this weekend, then the Government will have a long winter in which to regret that absence.
It’s the weekend of Saturday October 17th and the early autumn has been balmy and gorgeous. There are still people swimming the waters, walking the evenings. Winter, in other words, hasn’t bared its teeth.
Soon, it will be dark and wet and stormy – the usual. At the very least, the prospect of a national championship with virtually all the games televised will do something to alleviate the loneliness and the monotony and manifold stresses inflicted on people by the virus.
And on paper, it’s a thrilling schedule. You could pick any weekend but look, for instance, at the weekend of November 21st: the All-Ireland hurling quarter finals take place on Saturday followed by a Bloody Sunday commemoration in Croke Park and a Saturday night Leinster final. The Munster and Ulster football finals take place the next day.
It’s impossible to know what state the country will be in, in terms of the virus, at that stage but it seems safe to assume: not great. Those games would at least offer an escape, a distraction, the illusion of normality.
If the Government declares a return to Level 5 restrictions, then as things stand, the GAA will be forced to cancel the upcoming season This despite the recommendation from chief medical officer Tony Holohan that elite sport, including inter-county games, could go ahead through level five.
There is no question that there is a ‘risk’ in persevering with the championship. But then, there is a risk right now in heading out to the shop or in sending your children to school. There is a chance that if the season goes ahead, the championship could be a disaster and even left incomplete. Perhaps the pragmatic thing would be for the GAA to draw the curtains on the year now.
But: there’s also a small, plausible chance that the 2020 All-Ireland championship could become something miraculous and wonderful and, for reasons that will have little to do with the quality of play, unforgettable. There’s an implicit understanding, in all intercounty dressing rooms just now, that people ‘need’ this All-Ireland in a way they’ve never needed the games before.
But the intercounty season can go ahead only if the Government has the courage to publicly state the obvious; that the All-Ireland championship holds a rare and irreplaceable role in the soul of Irish life; that there is a recognition that as a life-force it is arguably more important this year than any other year and that it will be giving the GAA every assistance possible to make sure that the games can go ahead safely through the national emergency.
And the players and officials and volunteers need and deserve to hear that kind of public and official recognition that what they are entering into is nothing as light and escapist as staging an All-Ireland championship.
They need a public acknowledgement from the Taoiseach down that what they are signing up for is a form of national service and they need to be thanked before a ball is thrown in.