In this season of spiritual renewal there remains the mystery of the interprovincial championships. Philosophers, GAA fixture makers and all who wrestle with the challenges of the infinite have long striven to determine the place of things in the natural order.
That was the case even before this year's fixtures got washed into oblivion at the weekend. In the universe of the fixtures calendar the interprovincials or as they were in another dimension, the Railway Cup, have been tumbling through time and space since losing their fixed point of 17th March all of 30 years ago.
During the interim the competition has become the most valuable item of evidence in Eugene McGee’s great immutable theory of the GAA – that the association can’t bear to abolish competitions.
Several attempts have been made to abolish the interprovincials but a combination of kind hearts – and the kind of promises to do better in the future that are generally heard only on sentencing day in the courts – has spared the competition when any observer of GAA Congress thought it must surely be gone this time.
Kerry’s Ger McKenna, whose phrase making enlivened many a torpid meeting, declared one year when accepting the latest reprieve that even though he thought the interprovincials were dead, in Kerry they believed in a decent wake.
In this state of living but only partly living, the interprovincials have continued to exist, tricks of the light in the dark days after Samhain and rumoured to be playing out in venues around the country – but glimpsed by few.
On one level it’s easy to understand the pleas to let it live. Nearly a century (89 years) has passed since the Railway Cups were first contested so there’s a lot of history around them. Some of that history has been significant, as with the 1950s heyday and the substantial crowds – although not as substantial as often maintained; for instance there was never an attendance of 50,000 – that turned up on St Patrick’s Day to see the top players.
That twin justification no longer applies, as the crowds aren’t interested these days. Competitions can be intense and worthwhile without attracting large attendances as is evident from much of the club championships and the CAO competitions – but whatever about supporters, players need to be engaged.
The ritual response is that players are indeed interested and committed but there's scant evidence. Before the cancellations, the selected Leinster panel was missing all of the Dublin players. That was for a straightforward reason – the All-Ireland champions' team holiday is scheduled for these weeks. John Tobin in Connacht reported the same thing when it came to Mayo players taking breaks at the one time of the year when county, club and country schedules are winding down.
Tobin pointed out that it is a time of the year when inter-county players can actually find time to take off but, as page 53 of the now nearly obsolete GAA Dialann 2015 will testify, the interprovincials were down for last weekend for a long time. At best the competitions aren’t worth bearing in mind when arranging your holidays.
Just two current football All Stars – Kerry goalkeeper Brendan Kealy and Mattie Donnelly of Tyrone – were available for the tournament in panels that also featured a scattering of non-first-choice county players.
Over the past 25 years the other provinces have struggled to cope with Ulster’s unity of purpose in this competition, which has seen the northern province claim more than half the titles on offer.
The hurling counterpart has tended to be better supported by players but not by much; there were for instance four All Stars in this year’s provincial panels.
Perhaps it is, as has been argued by those recommending abolition, just impossible to find an annual date, given the number of interests involved in drawing up the GAA’s fixtures calendar.
Since losing the St Patrick’s Day date after 1984, the interprovincials have been shunted to different dates in the year on 15 occasions – more than once every two years given that three times (1990, 2010 and 2011) they just didn’t take place at all whether by accident or design.
This year makes four, as there are simply no dates left between now and the end of 2015. February, March, April, October, November and December have all been tried as calendar windows since 1985 without a fixed date emerging.
Ironically just as the interprovincials fail to happen in December, the GAA is considering bringing the old Railway Cup nemesis, the All-Ireland club championships – which took away the inter-pros’ date and became more important for players and supporters than – forward to the end of the year, which would leave St Patrick’s Day vacant again.
In all likelihood it’s too late to switch. Public interest won’t be revived at this stage and county managers mightn’t be too relaxed about letting such players as are interested take part in representative matches in the middle of the league.
And the existential angst goes on. In 2009 Wicklow's Jimmy Dunne, then chair of the CCCC, shook his head when trying to figure out how everything would fit into the GAA calendar. "Interest in the interprovincials – outside of Ulster – is limited unless there's a trip overseas. There is a certain justification to criticisms and you'd have to ask whether the general interest warrants this type of competition."
Answers haven’t changed much in the last seven years.