Provincial contests at heart of GAA’s enduring appeal
Attraction of provincial championships is based in both history and geography
Kerry footballers celebrate their Munster final victory over Cork. The success of a small number of teams in provincial championships has sparked calls for a two-tier system. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
After Kerry’s victory over Tyrone, one feature of the All-Ireland final has been confirmed: despite the back-door system, once again two provincial champions will go head-to-head for the Sam Maguire Cup. However, there has been a lot of discussion over recent weeks (as there is almost annually at this point) over the viability of provincial championships given the gap between the country’s top football teams and the rest.
The increasing differential between Dublin and the rest in recent Leinster championships has led to cries for the splitting of Dublin, reallocation of resources and introduction of a two-tier system that would end provincial championships. This call has been reinforced by the continued strength of Mayo in Connacht and Cork/Kerry in Munster.
Sports geographer John Bale discusses how, apart from war, sport provides one of the few opportunities for territories to pit themselves against one another in open conflict. Other geographers have examined the role played by place-based sports teams in creating and evolving attachment to local places.
Success by those teams increase supporters’ pride in their locality, and lead to the creation of place-based memories that form part of the social, collective memory of local areas.
The success of the GAA has been pitting places against places, be they clubs, counties or provinces. An open draw or tiered competition would still allow for that – this is what happens in the National League and back-door qualifiers – but one only has to compare attendances at the final rounds of either of the aforementioned competitions and the provincial championship finals to establish where the heart of the average GAA supporter lies.
The 2015 Division One and Two finals of the National Football League took place as a double-header in Croke Park, watched by 31,548 people, while the final round of the 2015 qualifiers saw just 25,665 watch Tyrone play Sligo and Donegal take on Galway. In comparison, the lowest attendance at any 2015 provincial final was in Connacht, where a questionable choice of venue saw Dr Hyde Park sell out its 23,000 capacity well in advance. The Ulster final also saw a sell-out of Clones, with an official attendance just shy of 32,000.
The attraction of the provincial championships is based in both history and geography – rivalries that have evolved as teams in specific territories repeatedly meet and play one another, the memory of feted one-off upsets that have become part of the collective and social memory within and between counties and Irish people’s strong identification with their province.
People identify as being from Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster, albeit to differing degrees, and with the exception of the bitterest of local rivalries, people support their fellow provincial teams once their own team has been knocked out of the championship.
The demise of the Railway Cup competitions has been utilised as a rod with which to beat provincial loyalty – this is an unfair comparison. Interviewing participants in the GAA oral history project it became clear the reasons for the demise of the Railway Cup’s appeal were twofold. First, it lost its key St Patrick’s Day date to the club championships and second, technology rendered it less attractive.
In bygone days the Railway Cup was one of the few opportunities for spectators to see top players from counties outside their own province and in particular to see the best players from the weaker counties. Today, we can watch our heroes at any time of the day or year thanks to the development of both television and the internet.
No set location
So when it comes to the football championship place- based loyalties and rivalries have been key to its continued success and ability to enthral.
Rivalries increase where borders or territories are shared. Similarly, the province is sufficiently small to offer the opportunity for shocks, surprises and turnarounds in fortunes that can lead to coveted silverware that is simply beyond reach in a national context.
As a result each new championship season is greeted with excitement and anticipation by players and supporters across the country. Would reaching the final of a two- or three tier competition have the same sense of pride or achievement? Would it engender the same excitement among spectators or the players themselves?
These place-based considerations are at the heart of the GAA and are also the reason why splitting Dublin into two smaller entities has been so staunchly resisted to date.
If the powers that then existed had decided to end the provincial championships, we would never have had victories for Sligo in 1975 and 2007 and Leitrim in 1994, nor would Longford have won their only title in 1968.
How would these unpredictable, unique results ever occur if teams were seeded before the championship starts? Would Donegal have ever won the 2012 All-Ireland if they were seeded based on their population, access to resources and form in 2010 or if they had not had their 2011 Ulster title to build on? Would Offaly have derailed the Kerry five-in-a-row bid if they had not had the boost and belief brought by successive provincial championship victories?
The provincial championship is by no means perfect, but it is doubtful that any form-based championship could really engender the excitement, anticipation and sheer interest that the start of each provincial championship does in the media, players and spectators alike.
It is on the field of play that place-based rivalries bred through generations re-emerge in the quest for that elusive provincial title and glory for an entire county. Dr Arlene Crampsie lectures in UCD school of geography