Nation breathes a sigh of relief as the GAA returns to centre stage
April proved nothing short of a living hell. The void was enough to turn fans to drink. Or even yoga
Gaelic Park in New York: With delightful perversity, the GAA chooses to start its revered competition just a puck of the ball from Buckingham Palace and 3,000 miles away, in New York City. Photograph: Andy Marlin/Inpho
It’s been seven hours and 30 days since the GAA took its love away. And how we’ve felt it. April is the cruelest month? Hold my beer, said the GAA. I’ll give yiz cruel.
We all know what the GAA is: the most Byzantine and perverse and brilliant social organisation ever dreamed up; at once revolutionary and comically conservative; the beating pulse of the country, ingenious at building stadiums and organising tens of thousands under-age competitions but chaotic when it comes to parking cars; fetishistic about the hidden pleasures of the ham sandwich; obsessed with the military running of local lotto draws; the chief sight and sound of the Irish summer; a nationally easy and safe conversation; the eruption of colour in towns like Thurles and Clones on a given Sunday; an escape; a day out; a million cups of tea.
It’s Ciarán Carey and Michael Donnellan running from the half-back line and into Irish folklore; it’s an organisation that almost demands uniformity but therefore reveres the few who dare to stand out and damn what the world thinks (Nazdarovya, wherever you are, Ciarán McDonald); the reassuring sense of all being okay with the world whenever the 40- year old theme tune to the Sunday Game comes on television
It’s Ó Muircheartaigh’s timeless rhapsodies and the never-failing awkwardness – the sternness – of a debut player accepting his man of the match award on television, it’s an Association that becomes unapologetically aroused by the clauses and subclauses and by-rules of its own rule book; it’s the pride of the parish, the soul of the county.
The GAA is a riot of contradictions.
If you could package the GAA as a human being and present that being before the combined minds of Freud and Lacan for psychoanalysis, then the great minds would be babbling and wailing for their mammies by lunchtime.
The GAA, meantime, would be sitting whistling on the couch, leafing through his dialann and organising a local fund-raiser, utterly content in his own headspace. You can love the GAA or it can do your head in – and most people feel both ways about it. But it is always There.
Until it isn’t.
Everyone has a vague idea as to why the GAA essentially disappears from Irish life for the month of April. It has something to do with “the clubs” and “the calendar”. But what it means is that its people have to go cold turkey for a full month and then some. It’s the Central Council’s own version of Lent.
There are men and women who have been suffering the bends out there for the last month. It’s all right for “that crowd up in Croke Park”. They’ve got all the archives. They can watch Limerick-Clare ’96 on repeat.
Hell, if they want, they can head down to the famous pitch itself at lunchtime and have a bit of an auld game on the q. t.. But what about everyone else? Where have you gone, Joe Canning; a nation turns its lonely eyes to you? Try and remember the last meaningful GAA inter-county action.
It was the league final and Mayo’s dogs of war overcame a fancied young Kerry team in an old-fashioned thriller. And the Mayo boys might be veterans of a few classic All-Ireland finals but they’re not so jumped up that they won’t celebrate what was a breakthrough national title. The day made everyone feel good, even the losers, because league titles are to Kerry what hit singles are to Britney. Too many to count.
The league left the country signing. What next, everyone wondered. Nothing, was the answer. The GAA took the ball and went home
The fact that Dublin had been served up a number of significant defeats in the league meant the country was actually talking about the football championship with optimism.
In hurling, Limerick had the class and temerity to double-down on their historic All-Ireland by jauntily making easy work of a 12th ever league title. The league left the country signing. What next, everyone wondered.
Nothing, was the answer. The GAA took the ball and went home. There would be no games for April! Remember? The calendar needs clearing. So the grounds were shuttered. The floodlights turned off. A great silence fell across the land. There was no news. Marty Morrissey was suddenly a rumour. Sunday afternoons were for the movies, for the dogs.
For the generations of Irish people whose circadian rhythms beat in time with Ye Olde GAA calendar, April became nothing short of a living hell. The void was enough to turn them to drink or even yoga. For decades, people idly wondered what Ireland would be like if the GAA didn’t exist. Now we had the answer: like Buckinghamshire, but with the Angeles, more speed cops and posters for the local county council elections.
So in typically contrary fashion, the GAA’s sprawling, epic summer competition begins this weekend with virtually no fanfare. With delightful perversity, Ireland’s biggest national sports organisation chooses to start its revered competition just a puck of the ball from Buckingham Palace and 3,000 miles away, in New York City.
They say thousands and possibly tens thereof are travelling from Mayo across the Atlantic for New York. You can bet on it. For the Mayo crowd, seeing the green and red on the field again, after being starved of everything for the last month, will be like a mirage. We all know what happened a year ago, when Leitrim got the show on the road over in New York. For a start, half the county decamped to the five boroughs.
And because there was nothing else happening in Ireland on that serene May evening, tens of thousands of homes went old-school and tuned into the wireless to catch the first championship game of the year. And it turned out to be a cracker; extra-time, New York on the brink of something historic; Leitrim eventually enjoying a precious championship win.
Back home, people were riveted to RTÉ radio and to Shannonside radio: the excitement was transported across the ocean on the airwaves. It was the next best thing to being there and it whet the appetite for the months ahead. It will be the same this Sunday.
It’s both absurd and wonderful that the All-Ireland football championship starts elsewhere; that it begins invisibly. So’ll they be turning the dials in the GAA-starved houses of the country, the people, just to reassure themselves. Just to make sure that, like the water or the electricity after a long outage, it’s back. It’s really back.