Visit to the GAA Museum a must

 

It's understandable that columnists find interesting trends and watersheds in the week's events more easily than other people. Such mundane imperatives aside, September will without doubt be an historic month for the GAA.

The first all-Leinster All-Ireland final will be staged on Sunday week after all those jokes about having to give away tickets to an Offaly-Kilkenny final were frazzled by Offaly in Thurles last weekend.

Two weeks later an All-Ireland football final pairing unseen since the War of Independence rounds off the season. Kildare and Galway have an accumulated hunger of over 100 years and for a change, the western famine is dwarfed by that of Leinster opponents.

But of more historical significance than either of these noteworthy events was the official opening yesterday of the GAA Museum at Croke Park.

Despite the nation's love of sport, Irish people have generally had to make do with the oral tradition. Unlike US sports with their Halls of Fame, the GAA's archive material has been either neglected or scattered and unorganised. Lar na Pairce in Thurles took the plunge some years ago and established a visitor centre for the history of Gaelic Games and the potential for a museum at headquarters was obvious.

There is a fascination with the past amongst followers of most sports. This can be seen in programme collections and the success of TnaG's screening of old All-Ireland finals last year. Yet to an extent the GAA has acted quite slowly in catering for this interest.

Better late than never and in fairness to Croke Park, the authorities didn't have a suitable premises until the New Stand was built. Anyway the Museum shows every sign of having been carefully planned. It is a hugely impressive presentation.

Spread over two floors, the museum contains 34 installations including an audio-visual theatre. For anyone visiting, give it plenty of time as there is hours of material to be seen.

Liam Mulvihill, the GAA's Director General, must be well pleased with the fruits of his labour. He has had a long-standing interest in history and archive material. A chap I knew in college pursued an MA in the history of sport and - although coming exclusively from the rugger and cricket end of things - found Mulvihill very helpful and interested in the project.

The DG has said in the past that the idea began to form as long as 14 years ago. When he and other GAA officials saw the volume of material uncovered in Centenary year, they realised that somewhere would ultimately have to be found to collate and exhibit the memorabilia of 100 years. And it came from everywhere.

Eoghan Corry, author of the much-thumbed Catch and Kick (Great moments in Gaelic football) - which incidentally contains a dedication for long assumed to command the same intangible status as Emmett's epitaph: "To the next Kildare team to win an All-Ireland" - helped in the research for the museum.

He recalled how ancient footage of the Wexford footballers playing in or around 1913 was discovered in a kitchen drawer in Gorey.

As with the design of the New Stand, inspiration for the museum comes from abroad and the US in particular. There are examples of this sort of exhibition at Old Trafford and Twickenham but neither have the sheer scope of this.

Nor could they because one of the most striking aspects of the whole museum is how much of it is more than merely a history of Gaelic games. This is a history of 20th century Ireland.

From the obvious political overlap of the movement for independence through the social history of how people travelled to matches to the role of schools in the GAA, here are both seismic events and local histories as filtered through a great, demotic sports organisation.

The use of technology is pervasive. Databanks and touchscreen access to all sorts of material, including highlights from the great All-Ireland finals, are widely available.

It's not, however, all the stuff of history. There are also interactive displays at which you can test your football and hurling skill, ability to field a high ball, reflexes and balance.

As you walk through the dimly lit spaces on the ground floor, there is a strange sense of proximity to great events. Two huge screens flash highlights of bygone football and hurling matches and all around, faint noises can be heard from various corners.

A sound booth recreates the atmosphere of the 1939 hurling final - "The thunder and lightning final", played the day the second World War began, 59 years ago tomorrow, or a film recounts the 1947 Polo Grounds final in New York.

Several visits will probably be needed before the surface is properly scratched but some things stood out immediately. There's a media presentation which celebrates (seriously) the role of journalism in spreading the popularity of the games and immediately you are reminded of the seminal influence of the Irish Press and how it slipped permanently into history itself only three years ago.

On the mezzanine level there's recognition that the GAA was greatly inspired by Cusack's desire to open up the elitist and increasingly corrupt world of Irish athletics. Exhibit 18 echoes this past by saluting great Irish athletes.

There is also a tribute to Dick Fitzgerald, the legendary Kerry footballer and administrator after whom the stadium in Killarney is named. Five times an All-Ireland medallist, he captained the team in 1913 and 1914.

Fitzgerald was credited as the first trainer to master the new 15-a-side game, introduced in 1913, and he wrote the first coaching manual of the modern era in 1914: How to Play Gaelic Football. The 10 years that followed were the longest lean spell in the county's history until the one which ended last year.

Much of the explanation lies in the Kerry GAA's involvement in the War of Independence and the Civil War. After the Easter Rising, Fitzgerald was interned in Frongoch and organised better-quality competitions in the camp than the GAA were able to run on the outside.

He died tragically and early. That was 1930. Sixty eight years later, his memory has been enshrined for posterity.

According to Liam Mulvihill, the GAA had tentatively projected the numbers of visitors at between 40,000 and 50,000. Now after only a few weeks of unofficial opening, they are doubling that estimate.

If there's one quibble worth mentioning, it's that of accessibility. Installation number three places the GAA in the broader context of European sport. Yet English and Irish are the only languages used throughout. Given the museum's potential to attract tourists, efforts should be made to add a French, Spanish or German - or all three - translations.

This is too good to be kept to ourselves.