‘So-called weaker counties’ deserve more respect from pundits
Former players are forever ‘alluding’ to inequality without addressing what causes it
Long-time Sunday Game panellists Pat Spillane, Des Cahill and Ger Loughnane. ‘It’s unlikely that either oratorical maestro could deliver the word manly with the same semantic and emotional freight as Loughnane in full flow.’ File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
There are certain words and phrases that never go out of fashion in the GAA lexicon. It’s only a matter of hours now before some wild-eyed hurling manager will talk in rapturous terms about the “savage intensity” of the hurling encounter before which the entire country is still genuflecting, thanking their Lord that they were alive to witness it. In fact, he won’t talk about it. He’ll allude to it because – as was alluded to recently – the use of the word “allude” is one of the phenomena of the All-Ireland championships. You could safely travel the English-speaking world without ever hearing anyone “allude” to anything but as soon as the All-Irelands come around, the broadcast airwaves are thick with allusions to this, that and the other.
That’s because the GAA pundit has never been afraid of a touch of hokey, formal legalese to reinforce his/her points of debate. They’ll say things like: “As X rightly alluded to a moment ago, there was a right bit of pokin’ and draggin’ goin’ on and they left the referee no choice really. He had to go.”
The word can shift the tone of the debate from the realm of the pub, with half-sunk pints of Smithwicks and dry roasted peanuts scattered across the counter top, to the sort of mahogany-clad courtroom where the briefs are required to wear grey curled wigs. You can best observe this in the way the Former Greats use their pens on The Sunday Game. They rarely seem to write with the damn things but you’ll often find a panellist airily waving a Parker around the studio like Prospero or holding his instrument parallel between both fore-fingers and thumbs. It’s a brilliant pose, like that of an ace defence lawyer in a mid-1980s Saturday television matinee movie, probably starring Angela Lansbury, who has just nailed the prosecution with a devastating counterargument.
Another GAA championship word which seems to have navigated the torrential river of political correctness unscathed is that redoubtable nugget, “manly”.
“He goes about his business in a manly way.” “There was nothing manly about it.” “It was a manly performance.” All of these phrases are derivatives of the time-honoured assertion that “it’s a man’s game”, an observation which blithely ignores the fact that it simply is not and hasn’t been for many, many decades.
Now, he has many imitators but it is generally acknowledged that nobody has used the word “manly” with as much authority and panache as former Clare supremo Ger Loughnane. That Loughnane has decided to end his time as a television pundit already means that this All-Ireland summer has lost one of its most magnetic presences. Even if you could resurrect John Gielgud or Jimmy Stewart and give them six months’ practice, it’s unlikely that either oratorical maestro could deliver the word “manly” with the same semantic and emotional freight as Loughnane in full flow: when he’d define a certain team or tackle as “manly”, provoking his co-presenters with those piercing blue eyes of his, then the television set would fairly throb with a frisson, the significance of which is best left to be explored on another day.
If there is an unofficial GAA credo, it has always been that All Counties Are Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others
But perhaps the most contentious phrase in the GAA lexicon – and it has an unspoken connection with “manly” – is that bogey-man reference to “the weaker counties”. It is common practice for GAA pundits to lower their voices when they speak these words, to acknowledge that they are in some way blaspheming. There is a tendency to preface their phrase with the distancing “so-called”, as if to acknowledge that an unknown voice – not theirs – is out there defaming and slandering an unnamed number of counties as watery, ineffectual kinds of places. It’s a thorny subject among Gaels but this is the time of year when the airwaves become evangelical with the burning need to “do something about the weaker counties”. Nobody is ever prepared to state which among the 32 should actually be ranked as weak. Nobody wants to go on the record either to detail what exactly it means to be weak. After all, one of the chief fuels of the GAA – the main reason it continues to thrive – is that everyone has an inherent pride in their own county . . . an unreasonable and immovable belief that their patch of land is better than the other 31 just because.
The truth is that no county likes to think of itself weak, so-called or otherwise. It’s a kind of shaming: the equivalent of erecting a sign along the road stating You Are Now Entering A Weaker County. Imagine the dismay of American visitors in search of their ancestral homeland arriving to discover that they hail from a stock that has, according to the native games, been classified as inherently weak.
So it’s a tricky issue for the Gaels, a fraternity has always prided itself as upholders of democratic principles. But if there is an unofficial GAA credo, it has always been that All Counties Are Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others. And over the past decade, that inequality has become more problematic, particularly when it comes to Gaelic football, the sport through which most counties express themselves. Because of that, there has been increasingly emboldened talk of officially acknowledging this inequality: of breaking up the old system whereby the counties in each province would do battle and the strongest – the best, the most manly – would emerge to take the national stage and wave fists and pens and allusions at one another until it was time to hand out the big silver cups. There is a growing belief that this tradition has reached its end point: that is time now to corral the weaker counties into an official category and give them a separate competition and maybe their own little cup; of giving them something to play for and relieving the so-called stronger counties of the nuisance of having to beat them summer in, summer out.
All of this is very well and well-intentioned. The danger is that when the word “weaker” is used, the word “lesser” is what is really meant. The danger is that by essentially relieving the “so-called weaker counties” of the right to compete for the All-Ireland championship will remove the make-believe element that has always been an essential part of the GAA: the vague, childlike hope that something magical might happen – because you never know. The provincial football championships plough on this weekend, largely untelevised and increasingly unloved. If they are going to be scrapped, then it is absolutely essential that one of the most derogatory phrases in the GAA lexicon be scrapped with them and that the people within the so-called weaker counties never have to hear it again.