Sideline Cut: World is happy to leave Gaelic games to the Irish

GAA obsession with showcasing its games to international audience is long-standing one

Dublin and Galway in action in  Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Photograph: CJ Gunther/EPA

Dublin and Galway in action in Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Photograph: CJ Gunther/EPA


Some events get lost in translation and distance and a week after the hurling extravaganza in Boston, its participants and advocates are adamant that you had to be there. As usual, the exhibition game between Galway and Dublin – and the hilarious bout of shapin’ and shovin’ that broke out in the third quarter – provided an opportunity for people to have a pop at the GPA, who are proponents of the idea of Super elevens hurling.

Dessie Farrell has long learned the truth of the old political dictum that when you are explaining, you are losing. But he made some valuable points in his defence of hurling’s version of Riverdance. For all the griping, the trip cost the old GAA nor the GPA not a single dollar because of the sponsorship of insurance giant AIG.

Farrell also pointed out that the trip was not a case of ignoring the need to promote hurling in the counties where the game is enfeebled. Rather, he reasoned, it was a question of doing something innovative. It was an attempt to bring the game to an international audience. And there is no harm in the pioneering spirit but it does demand a question: why?

Even since it was still in short pants, the GAA has harboured an obsession with showcasing its games to an international audience. From the American Invasion of 1888, the GAA has taken to staging high-profile games, particularly Stateside, not just for the delectation of its Irish-American cousins but for those as yet uninitiated as well. It is hardly a coincidence that the most celebrated of these games was one of true and lasting significance: the 1947 All-Ireland football final featuring Cavan and Kerry at the Polo Grounds.

Quixotic nature

Staging that game in the long-since disappeared Manhattan ballpark was an act of wonderful imagination. Gaelic Park hosted several league finals and many long summers of hot, bloodthirsty local league games that featured several of the brightest intercounty stars out for a quick buck and a slow brew. The link between the GAA communities that sprung up in the major American cities is vital and unforced. But the attempts to introduce the delights of Gaelic football and hurling to an international audience are of a more quixotic nature.

For the most part, that international audience has shown up with enthusiasm, oohed and aahed where appropriate and, where hurling is concerned, marvelled at the bravery/questionable sanity of those involved. Last week’s novel 11-a-side game was a photographer’s delight.

The familiar sight of Galway and Dublin hurlers in full-flow on a stretch of ground still lined for the previous evening’s gridiron encounter against the backdrop of Fenway Park – arguably the most iconic sports ground in America – was eye-catching. It was disconcerting to see the players confined to scoring goals-only and the final score – 50-47 – looked a bit daft and inadvertently managed to highlight one of the iffier aspects of hurling: that the scores can sometimes come too easily.

The organisers can point to the fact that almost 30,000 people showed up. It was a justifiable attraction in that sense. The Boston-based media outlets turned up to see what the fuss was about and tried to explain a concept that must be all but impossible to visualise. Writing in The Globe, Kevin Paul Dupont noted that hurling returned to Fenway with its traditional “speed, fury and even a healthy dollop of Donnybrook” intact since its last outing there in 1954.

“There isn’t really a US-based sport for comparison but hurling includes elements a native American would identify in lacrosse, ice-hockey, baseball, soccer and basketball. By A Yank’s eye, it’s a bit of a mongrel, one with a greyhound’s speed and a pitbull’s eye.”

That kind of chat could land a man in serious trouble around the Tipp/Kilkenny borderlands but the piece was a generous and fair appraisal of the fare on offer and was particularly smitten with the performance of the goalkeepers. It has to be the first time in the history of hurling that the shot-stoppers were praised after leaking a combined total of 97 goals.

But what could it have looked like other than a curiosity? There is no context and can be no understanding of the importance of county rivalry or of the richness of the cultural and sporting history of hurling. The idea that Americans, after seeing hurling, will be so smitten as to sideline their local obsessions for ice-hockey or basketball and devote themselves to ‘the ancient game’ seems dreamy at best.

And if that is not the aim, then why the need to promote the game internationally. Does the GAA – and by extension Ireland – need the praise of other nations?

Hurling people are regularly moved to high emotion during the arias which can elevate the championship and passionately declare it to be the best game in the world. On its day, it is hard to think of any sport that eclipses hurling for speed and finely-honed skills and unpredictability and courage. But beauty and the beholder and all of that. It is as if the GAA’s hurling advocates feel the need to hear that recognition from other sports and other places: we’ve never seen anything like it; it’s the best in the world etc etc.

Slightly mad experiment

The valorous attempts to perpetuate the relevance of the International Rules series between Ireland and Australia are an example of the same. That ‘sport’ began as a kind of ingenious and slightly mad experiment. It has had several weird and violent climaxes and it is hard to know where it can go from here except keep on keeping on. It, too, aims to give an international dimension to Gaelic games when it’s surely clear that the world is happy to leave Gaelic games to the Irish. There are visionaries out there who wonder why the Gaelic games cannot become truly international and played elsewhere.

They can’t and won’t for much the same reason as ice-hockey is bigger in Saskatchewan than in Bailieborough and why the rugby codes of league and union have their inviolable strongholds across Britain. During the scrambles and land-grabbing of the past two centuries, some sports took root and became established. Football is the world game. Basketball, still a young sport, has a global reach. Athletics – the race – is a global language. Boxing had its golden time. Cricket and rugby thrives in the countries that were formally colonised.

The miracle is that the GAA and Gaelic games has managed to survive and thrive alongside the world sports. Hurling is a national treasure – just like baseball, the summer sport of Fenway Park, is in America.

Shouldn’t that be enough? Yes, if you’re Irish, come into the parlour – or Fenway or Yankee Stadium – for there’s a welcome there for you. But remember, that’s all it is – and don’t wreck the furniture.

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