It has been a shambolic week for poor old Ireland. In addition to lurching from calamity to travesty over a golf game, the Government has managed to demoralise pretty much everyone involved in sport in the country. But there was no harm intended! This week was just the final irrefutable proof that the political class is somehow inherently schooled in never taking sport seriously: in forever categorising it in that rusty, bulging filing cabinet in some unlit room in Leinster house, marked "Sure It'll Be Grand".
And that’s the problem. There have always been enough fools and innocents out there – the enthusiasts, the lunatic volunteers, the coaches who persevere through thick and thin and the brilliant athletes who make light of sport’s second class role in Ireland’s political vision to somehow triumph on the national and world stage.
The GAA has the loudest megaphone in this country and therefore their voice dominated in the hours after this week’s contradictory pandemic measures were announced. And the GAA is one of the reasons why Ireland’s political class has never had to take sport seriously.
Since the beginning of the State, the good old GAA has done that for them, indoctrinating the youngsters in its values and dreams, dominating the playing landscape and running its operation with a clear-eyed parsimony and efficiency which must have made the boys in the IMF wonder why the Irish people didn’t just allow the GAA to run the whole show and be done with it.
Equip the financial wing of the GAA with a sharp pencil, a clean ledger and permission to run a lotto and they’d turn around any basket case economy within a year – and sign the youngsters up for Cúl Camps. Ireland’s political leaders have always been closely aligned with the GAA and as Conor McMorrow’s book Dáil Stars illuminates, several figures have starred on its playing fields. And the GAA has enjoyed generous funding from the several governments over the years.
So when you have such thriving native sports that miraculously combine thrilling, elite-level amateur competition with intense local and social engagement, it is easy to tell yourself you are getting things right. And when you have a private school system allied to Irish rugby’s smart reinvention with the advent of professionalism producing players capable of competing with and beating the best sides in the world, it’s easy to conclude that all is rosy.
And because the Irish schools system has a tradition of teachers volunteering their after-school time to coach football and basketball and hurling and athletics, children in this country have prospered. And when you have Irish international football teams that somehow compete for places at European championships despite the limited financial resources available to local clubs and players, it is tempting to conclude that this is some country for sports.
Throw in the Olympic boxers or the comet streak career of Sonia O’Sullivan or Barry McGuigan or the Ireland cricket team and the proof is irrefutable: Ireland is a terrific little country for sport.
Except it's not. Or at least if it is, then it is in spite of rather than because of the prevailing political system. The political class have always mistaken 'sport' for that afternoon of high theatre they enjoy when they turn up at Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
Amid the cries of outrage and disappointment this week, the mind turned to that long ago day in Paris when Stephen Roche enjoyed his coronation as Tour de France victor. It was, of course, absurd that Ireland managed to produce Roche and Kelly and Kimmage and Earley in the same generation. Cycling in Ireland exists in the same realm as all sports outside of the big three ball sports: it has a tradition that is deep and cherished but narrow and utterly ignored by the political class.
If you want to find cycling, it is there. But you have to find it. To see an Irish quartet blaze across the stage; to see an Irish cyclist actually win the Tour was a literal form of magic because everyone watching knew that it shouldn’t be happening: that the Irish boys had got there on their own insane work ethic and ambition and the limitless dedication of those around them. They got there in spite of coming from Ireland.
And of course there were knowing winks and smirks when then taoiseach Charles Haughey shimmered into being at the Champs Élysées – a Charles de Gall, if you will – for a brazen photo opportunity. But at least Charlie had the grace to look as though he knew he was chancing his arm. And it was the moment that best captures what sport means in the Irish political system: it's a prop, a visual backdrop or a bit of feel-good momentum to milk when the time is right.
In the run-up to the last election, the nation grew tired of hearing various politicians warn that this was "senior hurling" making it clear that they saw themselves as uncompromising custodians in the mould of John Doyle and his Hell's Kitchen companions. It was just election hot air, intended to appeal to the common ear. It sounded forced and phony and unconvincing. Because when the Cabinet was formed, there was no real surprise when the sport portfolio was included in a blitz of other responsibilities. It sent out a clear message – a rarity, so far, for this administration – of where sport ranked in the midst of priorities.
The current Government has been tasked with steering the country through a time of unprecedented economic and societal fragility. The challenges are immense. Nobody is suggesting that the Leinster v Munster should be high on their agenda. But again, that is not what is meant by 'sport'. The sport that really matters is the games and activities that everyday people can access, whether to pursue serious goals or for enjoyment or a sense of belonging.
It’s the sport – the five-a-side, the badminton class – that contributes to physical and psychological wellbeing. As all the old certainties were torn apart by the pandemic, the importance of sport as a function of society has become more and more apparent. Watching and playing sport provides a huge consolation and distraction and escape through the stress of this surreal global episode.
And it’s not that the political class is against sport. After all, the past 24 hours has seen the destruction of several political careers over a game of golf and, of course, that question which Irish politicians must mull over more deeply than any other – “beef or salmon?”
The humour, both dark and lame, is all over the social media sphere and the anger is palpable this weekend. Talk to people involved in healthcare or policing or social work and you will get a glimpse of the horrendous levels of stress and worry entire sectors of the society are operating under right now, in late summer 2020. And wait until the darkness comes.
Sport – the simple act of showing up or bringing children along to chase a ball – at least provides the pretence of normality. It provides an escape. All sports organisations in this country are doing their level best to provide those opportunities. The usual suspects – the volunteers, the coaches, the supporters – are doing their bit. Next week, the schools will return in surreal and strained circumstances. And the students will soon wonder when the football or the basketball training is starting up again. And the teachers will do their best.
At the weekends, the volunteer coaches will do their best. They’ll follow the advice from Government to the letter of the law – until the next setback or restriction causes another hasty announcement and mass confusion and disappointment and turmoil. And the politicians will wash their hands of it. Because sport – all your efforts, all your time – does not matter.