Seán Moran: A century on, the Border is still making its presence felt

May have been a case for more at final only for low vaccination rate in the North

Could the GAA could have pressed ahead with plans for 75 per cent capacity this Saturday? Probably.  Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Could the GAA could have pressed ahead with plans for 75 per cent capacity this Saturday? Probably. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Armagh came first, back in 1953, pioneering a way to the All-Ireland football final from across the Border.

Their match with Kerry drew a then record attendance of 86,155. They lost, missing a penalty in the process – as they would do again when finally avenging the defeat 49 years later.

PD Mehigan, formerly Pat O in this newspaper and Carbery in other publications,painted a picture of the day of that final, cheery but dropping a tone to note the undercurrents in the latest county to reach its first All-Ireland.

“I do not think I ever saw so many motor cars in Dublin – not even in Eucharistic Congress year. All Ulster seemed to be here; ‘saffron and white’ favours still dominated. The Gaels from the hotbed of bitterness – Portadown – had an outstanding banner and the groups of young men carrying raucous rattles were the highest spirits of the early arrivals at Croke Park.”

As can be seen elsewhere on this page, Antrim made the 1943 hurling final only to be were walloped by Cork but brought with them a huge, enthusiastic support that ended up in a record attendance at the event, 48,843.

In football finals, where Ulster teams have traditionally had the greater chance of success, three of the top five all-time attendances, including the standing record of 90,556, featured teams from north of the Border.

For a 32-county organisation, talk of the Border has always been a delicate matter. When Down were returning from Dublin with Sam Maguire in 1991 – pretty much an All-Ireland out of the blue – Down chair, the late Danny Murphy, announced at a stopover in Dundalk that the Sam Maguire would soon cross the “ancient and historic border . . . .”

Ears pricked up. “Between Leinster and Ulster.”

That bus journey 30 years ago was the first All-Ireland homecoming of the Troubles. Down had won the last one before then, back in 1968, but this was slightly edgy – raucous for sure and celebrated by crowds right into the night but also slightly apprehensive, for instance when approaching Clough where the 1987 All-Ireland-winning minors had their bus stoned.

The mystifyingly low rate of vaccination in the North has had more impact than simply the Tyrone outbreak and its impact on the championship

The idea that the Ulster counties failed to thrive for that quarter of a century because of the Troubles overlooks the presence of a consistently great Kerry, an at that stage unusually successful Dublin as well as Offaly and Meath teams who won back-to-back titles.

Connacht football was also in the doldrums, suggesting a strong period for the Munster and Leinster counties.

But those years certainly didn’t improve Ulster football. This was demonstrated as Northern Ireland edged towards peace in the early 1990s and suddenly there was a resurgence with Down, Donegal and Derry winning successive All-Irelands. In 1994, the year of the first ceasefire, Down won again.

Best practice

In the years since, Ulster runs second only to Leinster in titles won and in 2003, the All-Ireland was contested between two counties from the same province for the first time, Tyrone and Armagh.

The peace dividend paid out for the GAA. Increased funding to boost the peace process was made for strong community organisations like GAA clubs and sports grants assisted games development in Northern Ireland to the point where Ulster GAA became best practice in coaching and innovation.

Jack O’Connor when managing Kerry the first time detailed in his book – Keys to the Kingdom – how he found the tackling drills on the Ulster website so instructive that he downloaded them.

There were, of course, terrible tensions created during the Troubles, most imposingly during the 1980-81 H-Block hunger strikes, a period Liam Mulvihill described on his retirement as DG as the “unhappiest” of his tenure and when consensus among the membership was hardest to establish given the feelings of isolation in the Ulster GAA.

This is such a bleak memory from 40 years ago that it’s almost trivial to reference the difficulties created by the pandemic in Northern Ireland at present but again the Border has had an impact.

The mystifyingly low rate of vaccination in the North has had more impact than simply the Tyrone outbreak and its impact on the championship. It must also have fed into the choice by the GAA to stick with a permitted attendance of 50 per cent of capacity, regardless of vaccination rather than 75 per cent, restricted to those who have been vaccinated.

Could the GAA could have pressed ahead with plans for 75 per cent capacity this Saturday? Probably

Tickets had already been distributed but it’s unlikely that was the main issue. For Tyrone and other counties across the Border the environment is different. Infections rates are staggeringly high and vaccine take-up remains pitifully low. This is partly because there aren’t the same restraints on the unvaccinated as exist south of the Border.

Asked was there a community profile to vaccine-hesitancy in Northern Ireland, one Ulster GAA activist cheerfully said: “No. Vaccine hesitancy could win a Nobel Peace Prize up here”.

Could the GAA could have pressed ahead with plans for 75 per cent capacity this Saturday? Probably. GAA President Larry McCarthy’s assessment that checking vaccine certs would take up to three minutes on the turnstiles in all likelihood wouldn’t survive rigorous testing.

But how could they with one of the counties so low on take-up and the non-existence of vaccine passports in the North?

Given the positive experience of the hurling final three weeks ago – no major clusters of infection appear to have arisen – there may have been a case for a 50,000 capacity regardless of vaccination given the progress made since the original date of the final.

The hopes of the joint working party on “Guidelines for reopening sports grounds” are after all that there’ll be a full house for rugby’s Autumn internationals but the GAA decided to move more cautiously.

A century on, the Border is still making its presence felt.

e: smoran@irishtimes.com

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