Minute's silence is short shrift
A Jewish critic once said that after the Holocaust "all poetry was now impossible" because it represented an unacceptable link with ordinary life. The practicalities of this job meant we had to be at Croke Park on Sunday but it was very difficult to countenance that sporting life could be continuing on such a black day.
The two-hour journey from Belfast, to the doleful accompaniment of rolling radio news coverage of the bomb in Omagh, had an abrupt and disorienting ending as we were confronted with 50,000 people thronging the streets on what was to all intents and purposes a "normal" Sunday in Dublin. The All-Ireland hurling semi-final should not have been played last Sunday and to do so was an affront to the people of the North. This is not a knee-jerk, emotional reaction. The names of those killed emerged over a painfully protracted period of time but it was clear almost immediately that there had been a terrible loss of life and that should have been enough. A trawl through the list of the dead reveals that it was a tragedy for the GAA and that it required a more fitting response than a minute's silence.
Seventeen-year-old Brenda Logue was a goalkeeper. She played women's Gaelic football for the Loughmacrory club, a few miles outside Omagh, and for her county. Her brother is a committee member of the club and two brothers are also players.
Jolene Marlowe, from Eskra, was also 17. Her father, Joe, is chairman of the Eskra Emmetts club. Gareth Conway played Gaelic football for the Tattyreagh club. Loughmacrory, Eskra and Tattyreagh are small, parish-based, archetypal GAA clubs, the building blocks of the association.
The list goes on. Kevin Skelton is a prominent referee at club and inter-county level and a member of the Games Administration Committee of the Tyrone County Board. He was shopping with his family on Saturday afternoon when his wife, Philomena, was killed and his daughter was seriously injured.
The Tyrone senior football championship had reached the semi-final stage last weekend and for the first time in a while Omagh had made it through. They were due, just a few hours after the bomb went off, to face Donaghmore in the biggest game of the year so far. Instead, one of their best players spent Saturday night in hospital receiving treatment for leg injuries sustained in the blast.
Across the town, the women's All-Ireland junior football quarter-final was being played when the bomb exploded. One of the Tyrone players, Joanne Poyntz, is a nurse and she left to offer her help at the nearby Tyrone County Hospital.
The Tyrone County Board of the GAA reacted with admirable haste, postponing Saturday evening's championship game and all other fixtures until further notice. In the circumstances they could do little else, but why wasn't their action mirrored at national level?
Incredibly, there does not even seem to have been any agonising over the decision. Danny Lynch, the PRO of the GAA, confirmed that the Management Committee had discussed the bombing but postponement was not an issue because everything was "too advanced".
Teams would have been on their way, he is reported as saying, and with supporters staying in Dublin "it wouldn't have been feasible" to do anything.
This ignores the fact that there was a full 24 hours between news of the bomb filtering through and yesterday's throw-in. By 6 p.m. on Saturday it was clear we were looking at an incident of catastrophic proportions, with 21 people confirmed dead. That surely was sufficient notice to postpone the game as a mark of respect and regret, not only to the members of the GAA community affected, but the community at large.
Imagine, for example, that a bomb exploded on Friday afternoon in London, killing 20 people. Is it too unrealistic to imagine that the following day's Premiership programme might be affected? Imagined comparisons are obviously trite in the face of something so terrible, but the basic, inescapable point remains.
How would the symbolic gesture of postponement have affected the GAA? Of course some travel plans would have been disrupted and of course it would have created one more fixture problem in an already congested season. But all of that would have been irrelevant compared to what would have been gained in terms of the positive, compassionate signals. It would have said in an eloquent and dignified way that the Omagh community is suffering and that the GAA was playing its own small part in that suffering and in the grieving process.
The GAA purports to be a national organisation, yet when its members in County Tyrone were directly affected by the worst atrocity of the Troubles it failed to recognise the national dimension. It has been suggested that the situation might have been different had it been Ulster counties who were playing at Croke Park last Sunday, as will be the case this Sunday, when Derry seniors and Tyrone minors play in football semi-finals.
But that is thinking born of a mindset which holds that terrorist violence is purely an Ulster issue and that counties outside the province can continue pretty much as normal. The counties of Kilkenny and Waterford are just about as far away on this island from Omagh and Tyrone as you can get but surely nobody would hold that this means they are less affected by the bombing than, say, members of the GAA in Derry, Donegal or Monaghan.
In a poem called Punishment, Seamus Heaney wrote witheringly about those "who would connive/in civilised outrage" in their response to violence here. Gesture politics are traditionally viewed with scepticism but postponement of Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final would have been a courageous, far-seeing thing for the GAA to do. A flag flying at half-mast and a minute's silence smacks of something close to lip service.