There is no place for cowardly violence in GAA club scene
Club games offer very best of GAA culture, but occasionally rivalry becomes poisoned
Laois captain Ross King received a serious facial injury playing for his club Rathdowney-Erril against Camross earlier this month. Photograph: Paul Dargan
It is tempting to believe that the GAA season ends when the gold streamers fall across the field at Croke Park, the Sam Maguire is hoisted and a thousand earnest thank yous issued by the victorious captain with due humility. But the All-Ireland championship is just the GAA’s matinee production of glossy fantasy and its money making machine.
The real stuff takes place on these unpromising Sundays of autumn and winter, in grounds never lit by television cameras, featuring the obscure clubs, the towns and villages and teams between whom relationships and friendships and hatreds can often turn intense and sometimes claustrophobic during games that, while meaning nothing to the wider public, contain an unknowable significance to all involved.
It’s those occasions that have been filmed on shaky camera phones – as if John Cassavetes was moonlighting as a documentarian of the intermediate scene – whenever the action escalates from typical on-the-edge intensity to the brutally graphic and shameful episodes of violence from which the GAA seemingly cannot escape. It’s in those arenas that people are left hurt and damaged, physically and psychologically.
And it’s as old as the hills. When he sat down with Tommy Conlon to write his biography a few years ago, the former Roscommon goalkeeper Shane Curran had the courage not to disguise the scenes he encountered in the local championship.
“The atmosphere in those games was often toxic,” he recalls in a chapter titled Crime and Punishment. “There was little or no control of the sideline. You’d have subs, mentors and supporters all congregating there, shouting vicious abuse at the referee and his linesmen. You’d have incursions on the field of play. You’d have fellas squaring up to each other, you’d have the supporters roaring from the stand, you’d have women screaming like demons. You were often just a hair’s breadth away from a fracas or a melee of some sort.”
Curran was referencing the club game of the late 1990s but the description of that edgy atmosphere is also relevant to the contemporary club championship scene. And the fact that these games are often played on wild afternoons of wind and rain, with the surface treacherous and the light fading and the ground packed, and the occasion fuelled by the knowledge that a loss means there is nothing to look forward to but winter can all contribute to the sometimes ominous undercurrent at club games. When matches are close and rivalries fierce, then a strangeness can fall over the ground.
The cheap thrill of seeing GAA players – and sometimes mentors and supporters – whaling into each other, thrashing wildly and inexpertly with both eyes and fists closed through the confusion of an isolated bust-up-turned-riot is just a quick Google search away. There have been several high-profile incidents during the last few weeks, with the battered face of Tyrone star Sean Cavanagh, sustained while playing for his club Moy, becoming an unofficial image of a violent impulse apparently running through the core of Gaelic games.
Violence holds a long and sometimes glorified chapter in Gaelic games. One of the instinctive appeals of both hurling and football is that they combine high skill with relentless physical exchange: that at their best they exist in the realm of controlled wildness. It has always been a high-wire act, hence the GAA obsession with the influence of the football referee in particular, who for decades has been tasked with the near-impossible task of officiating in a sport where the tackle – the physical challenge – has always been subject to interpretation and debate.
His role – the missed calls, the wild challenge unpunished, the cowardly blow unseen – means that he effectively becomes the conductor of the mood both on and off the field. Anyone who goes to club games has seen those days when a referee falls into a horribly isolated position: when a general wildness takes a grip on players from both teams, when the sidelines are suddenly busy with mentors going berserk, when the atmosphere in the crowd is baying and frantic and dark and when it is now in the lap of the gods as to whether or not someone gets seriously hurt.
One of those who got seriously hurt recently was Ross King, the Laois hurling captain, while playing for his club Rathdowney-Errill against Camross in the county hurling final. Again, anyone who cares to can see the film of the moment when King, caught up a general brawl, suddenly stumbles away from the engagement having received the butt of an opponent’s hurl straight into his mouth. It takes courage to speak out and this week, persuaded by his friend and journalist Shane Keegan, he sat down for an interview that appeared in the Times Ireland.
The assault has left King facing about €5,000 in dental work: two front teeth hammered straight through his gums; root canal treatment to come, dead nerves which will mean the teeth will blacken over time, scars and a stone dropped in weight because he hasn’t been able to eat solid food. Plus, the incident has left him with a deep internal questioning over whether he wants to continue doing the one thing in life he has always loved: hurling for Laois.
His recollection of what happened is particularly harrowing in the aftermath as he observed how everyone reacted to his injury on seeing it. He was walking towards the ambulance at half-time, when people were out having a smoke. One guy from his club came over to shake hands but turned pale as soon as he saw King’s face.
The shame in all of this is that the club games are where you get to see the very best of GAA culture: the volunteerism, the ingenious parking arrangements, the blazing community spirit, the pride of families, the elemental sound of a scratchy recording of the Soldier’s Song on a sodden afternoon, the lifesaving warmth of a Styrofoam tea, the thrill of seeing a bona fide county star going supernova in his club colours. It’s all there. And when all of that energy is gathered into one place, then people forget themselves. Reasonable people can turn irrational; mild people become incensed.
“They were completely different people to people I maybe saw on the football field,” Sean Cavanagh remarked recently, of finally getting to know long-time adversaries on the field. “That’s what sport does to people. The longer you are in the game the more you realise there are different personalities. There’s a split personality in people.”
That’s at the heart of it. The GAA club scene is the opposite of sport as business. It isn’t really even about sport as entertainment. Instead, it’s an affirmation of your sense of identity and of place and of what might be achieved if you work hard enough and become good enough and stick together fiercely enough. At its best, it leads to contests which create demonic energy. Thousands of games, at all grades, are completed in an atmosphere of fierce and pure sporting rivalry.
But once in a while that gets poisoned and at its worst, crosses into a grim theatre of cowardly violence – and the real danger of someone being left with a life-changing injury. The dilemma for the GAA is that for all the threats of sanctions and repercussions, club teams are more committed and driven than ever and that there is no real wish within the GAA constituency to dilute or regulate the intensity and emotion of their big games.
So it’s always going to come down to individuals to be responsible and, most of all, brave enough to remember who they are during those flashpoints of violence and madness – and not afterwards, when it is too late.