The GAA isn’t the only sporting context where politics matters

Seán Moran: GAA Summer School on ‘Sport and Politics’ promises to be fascinating

In the promotional video for the Centra #WeAreHurling campaign, launched on Monday, Cork All-Ireland-winning captain Séan Óg Ó hAilpín recalls how the family relocated from Australia when he was a young boy.

It was a culture shock – to say nothing of the weather – for a family whose background made it into legend thanks to Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh's ingenious reference to neither Fermanagh nor Fiji being a hurling stronghold.

In the video Ó hAilpín, speaking with his mother Emelie, outlines the importance of the GAA in making the family an integral part of their new community.

“There was probably very few other avenues for us to integrate into the community than being involved in the GAA club. I probably never said it to you, Mam, but it was probably the best decision you ever made – to get us involved – because It has become a welcome irony that the association, whose origins were in cultural and political separatism, has been able to play such a significant role in helping to accommodate diversity and provide an access point into society for the new Irish and a means of integration.

So it is timely that the GAA will be staging an event of major cultural significance in Croke Park on the first weekend in July – not a reference to the first Leinster hurling final between Galway and Wexford although that may in time come into such a category but the GAA Museum Summer School on 'Sport and Politics'.

It would be difficult to engage fully with the GAA and remain unaware of its politics and history.

Unfortunately that interface was for a long time bound up in what the GAA was against and its Official Guide’s most enduring controversies were about bans whether of British and Northern Irish security forces from membership or on playing other sports or latterly allowing them be staged at association venues.

The latter is still partially in force although it has been diluted to the point where the IRFU bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup would not be possible but for the availability of various GAA grounds around the country.

Other sports

Last year the first summer school was staged by the GAA Museum and focused on the association in the revolutionary period. As a history it was notable for its breadth, for instance the work done on the previously little regarded area of Gaelic athletes' involvement in World War One, as former Dublin hurler and Kilmacud All-Ireland club winner Ross O'Carroll remarked.

“The scale of enlistment of GAA members into the British army highlights the importance of looking beyond traditional interpretations of the GAA’s relationship with Irish nationalism.”

This year the focus has broadened to an even greater extent. GAA Museum Archivist Mark Reynolds explained that the impetus to open up the summer school from an exclusively GAA focus came from speakers and audience at last year's event, who expressed a desire to hear more about other sports.

When he and other historians sat down to compile a wish list, Dr Harry Edwards was one of those mentioned. A pioneering academic sociologist, he is particularly busy at present, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of both his seminal publication The Revolt of the Black Athlete and the foundation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the body that inspired the famous Black Power salutes of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico games of 1968.

Through a combination of good fortune and scheduling – “this year and next year he’s going to be either on a flight or giving a speech or back on a flight,” according to Reynolds – he was available and will deliver the keynote address on ‘Sport and Racial Segregation in America’.

Attracting such an internationally renowned figure has also expanded the profile of the GAA Museum, according to Reynolds.

“The museum was always in the museum sphere and this has propelled it into the sports history sphere, moving from a traditional museum into research, sports history, lectures, talks and so on.”

He also pointed out that the summer school was an easy sell to someone whose life has been built on the importance of sport in culture and society.

Speaking three years ago in the University of Texas, Edwards outlined the struggle he had in getting his doctoral thesis accepted in Cornell University.

Serious student

“My scholar-activist identity and proclivities arose out of a confluence of my experiences as a black athlete in all but totally alien and sometimes alienating academic environments in high school through college, my serious study of society and culture in becoming a serious student and my struggle to get my PhD committee at Cornell to sign off on me writing my dissertation on something that theretofore did not exist, something that I termed ‘the sociology of sport’.”

The struggle of black athletes as a reflection of wider social conflict may appear a more dramatic contemporary context than that afforded by modern Gaelic sports but it's interesting to compare the motivations that inspired Edwards's evolution into a scholar-activist with those of Michael Cusack in setting up the GAA.

Edwards has written about the relationship between race and society through the prism of sport and how he was influenced by his experiences as a black athlete in the predominantly white world of university athletics.

Coincidentally the universities exercised a similar grip on the world of athletics in late 19th century Ireland and Britain. The elitism of this dispensation was one of Cusack’s biggest motivations in establishing a sporting body for ordinary people.

Hosting Edwards and a number of other distinguished speakers at the end of the month on a range of topics from Gaelic games and politics to the Hillsborough disaster marks a fascinating opening up of the GAA internationally.

If Ireland and Irish identity is a crucial context for the association, its role in the universal interaction between sport and society is equally important.

‘Sport and Politics’ at the 2017 GAA Museum Summer School takes place from Thursday 29th to Saturday 30th June. Tickets cost €45 per day or €120 for a three-day pass. Lunch and tea/coffee are included in the price. Advance booking is required and can be accessed together with details of the talks at