Time now to continue De Búrca's work
On Gaelic Games:The minute’s silence in Semple Stadium to honour the memory of Marcus De Búrca reminded us that history matters, writes SEAN MORAN
THE MINUTE’S silence in Semple Stadium to honour the memory of Marcus De Búrca was one of the best observed I’ve experienced – the still quietude even outlasting the allotted time before Sunday’s Tipperary-Kilkenny match.
This was appropriate for someone who had done so much to celebrate the GAA throughout a life of researching, writing and explaining the association, its games and their place in Irish history. And also for someone with such an interest in the local history, as editor of the Tipperary Historical Journal.
A barrister by profession, Marcus De Búrca’s wide-ranging interest in historical matters and specifically those of the GAA made him a regular contributor to a variety of forums where despite his familiarity with so much of the material he managed to maintain his and the audience’s interest and still continue to come up with fresh insights.
It is easily forgotten that this was an area poorly served for much of the GAA’s history.
So little archive survives, compared to other sports, and ironically for an organisation so keen to emphasise its cultural remit and one whose formative years, indeed formation, were so influenced by journalists there was no substantial body of work built up through the decades detailing the history of the games and their role in society.
That has changed in recent years. The absorbing and well-produced histories published to mark last year’s GAA 125 anniversary are examples of how seriously the past is now treated. Historians in the years to come won’t want for material covering the second 100 years of the association.
It is generally acknowledged that the trigger for the far deeper engagement with the past was the Centenary Year of 1984 when under the prompting of then director general Liam Mulvihill, clubs were encouraged to write their histories and a concerted campaign to round up memorabilia was launched, leading to serendipitous discoveries such as All-Ireland final cine footage from the early years of the 20th century stashed in the drawer of a dresser.
The precursor of this dam-burst of material and documentation was the decision by the GAA in the 1970s to commission an official history of the association in good time for Centenary Year.
It was Marcus De Búrca who secured the commission and spent years marshalling evidence, documents and other sources for the publication of The GAA – A History in 1980 (updated 10 years later).
It’s hard to think of a more widely consulted book within the GAA.
In time to come there may well be new histories and studies of particular periods and issues but in the past 30 years and for a while to come there will remain one definitive account of the country’s most influential voluntary organisation and the sturdiest leg of the separatist cultural tripod, which it formed with the Abbey Theatre and Conradh na Gaeilge.
Sceptics might ask: what does this matter? But despite the lackadaisical attitude to the preservation of the past that prevailed for so long, the GAA is hugely influenced and at times trapped by its history. The fiery exchanges that accompanied the debates on the various bans over half a century testify to that.
If referring to Bloody Sunday during the argument over whether to open Croke Park to other sports was portrayed as fanciful – and to be fair it was more of a caricature than a reflection of one of the debate’s central concerns – the terrible events nonetheless took place out on the same piece of ground as now stages major sports occasions in the 21st century.
And for all the trappings of modernity we still had a recent example of “Blueshirt” being snapped out as a retort during a Dáil debate. It’s not just within the GAA that history continues to stretch the hand of the past into the present.
The whole issue of identity is bound up with history. There’s a reason why counties like Kerry and Kilkenny keep winning All-Irelands. Part of it concerns the hard work and application of those who coach and nurture the games but they in turn are inspired by the sense of entitlement and its obverse, the obligation to meet the demands of posterity.
It also cuts the other way. As one sports psychologist once explained: “If you’re a player with an unsuccessful county, you’ll have been reared going to matches, watching them lose and returning home in the car listening to adults slagging off the players. It’s hard to shut out the negativity.”
Again, history matters.
Among the great improvements of recent years has been the huge increase in the number of publications and the opening of the GAA museum in 1998. Under its aegis there have been lively events, tours and lectures albeit that it remains under-resourced.
The association website is due to unveil its revamp after years of dull, minimalistic presentation. It is a vehicle that should be perfect for the GAA, allowing a wealth of historical material as well as up-to-date information to be easily accessible to members and interested visitors alike.
There was talk at one stage of reacquiring rights to old newsreel footage of Gaelic games going back to nearly 100 years ago but which has remained in the possession of the companies who originally shot it. Again that would be a great resource to have on-line.
Lack of action in relation to the recording of history and historical figures has meant that much of the association’s very early history has been lost. Interviews of record with very old players should be conducted as a matter of course, simply to preserve their memories.
I remember seeing a newspaper interview from the 1960s with an old man who had played on the only Kerry team to win an All-Ireland hurling title in 1891.
A series of such interviews could have been recorded over a period from as comparatively recently as the 1950s and the whole of the GAA’s history would have been largely covered.
That wasn’t done but it’s never too late to start, as Marcus De Búrca appreciated when he rolled up his sleeves in the 1970s and produced his definitive history.
The best way to honour his work is simply to persevere with it.