We must preserve the freedom to be ourselves


Tom Humphries LockerRoom: Saturday was one of those satisfying days. I awoke with an itch. I went to bed with it scratched. Don't ever tell me that this column lacks for erotic content.

Anyway, you'll be wanting the explicit detail. And you'll get it. Not for nothing does LockerRoom consider himself the Jackie Collins of the sports world.

Got up (lithe body sheened by a gossamer sweat which glistened when the sunlight played on his taut abdomen, etc, etc, etc). Cracked open the letters page of The Irish Times (with surprising tenderness for a big man). There, skulking low on the page was one of those letters which kill any good mood: A Man in Howth marking the opening of the new stand in Croke Park with an attack on the GAA.

People just love attacking the GAA.

You see, the GAA, by and large, keeps Croke Park for itself and for the games it promotes. Only in such an insecure, self-hating culture as ours could this be considered a crime, but there you go. The Government, which, the Man in Howth (MIH) may have noticed, can't even take a stand against big illegal wars, was encouraged by the MIH to take "a stand against attitudes that have no place in modern Ireland and to establish proper and transparent principles of equality and inclusiveness for all in the use of public funds".

Bah! Humbug! Feeling the sudden urge to be sick, I pushed my breakfast away. I went and picked some kids up from the club in Marino. The pitches there were just teeming with youngsters. We crossed the city to play a camogie match in Kilmacud, where the pitches were equally teeming with youngsters. All this under the auspices of an organisation guilty of attitudes "which have no place in modern Ireland".

I wanted to drag the MIH by the ear. Explain to him that Croke Park belongs to these kids.

The letter stuck in my craw till evening time, when I came back to Marino for the club's annual GAA dinner. The formula for club dinners is well established and most enjoyable. Some grub, some awards, a guest speaker, some drink. This year the guest speaker was David Hickey, the Dublin wing forward of the 1970s and the man who perhaps best personifies the once-off, idiosyncratic nature of that great team.

Hickey is his own self. A once-off. The formula for speaking at GAA dinners is well defined. You work the room. Joke about rough games, ho, ho. Yank the tails of the club grandees. Deliver a few yarns from the Good Old Days. Wrap up with some nice words about the club that's serving you the free dinner and then, "but seriously folks", make a little show of your passion for the game, for your hosts and for the ghreat lithle counthry.

Hickey, a man who played in six All-Ireland finals but says that he "was never really a GAA person", chose to make a long, heartfelt speech about values. I've seen him speak before and he can be a very funny man, but on Saturday he was as serious as some of those ailments he treats. The licence for both comedy and high seriousness comes from knowing the value of human life. Hickey knows.

Afterwards, the verdict was great speech but wrong time and wrong place. On Saturday night, as the background hum formed its own dissent, I was inclined to agree. Yet, thinking about the speech since then I realise that I didn't quite get it. A GAA club was precisely the venue where David Hickey should have made his speech.

He was talking about us after all. What we are. What we have become. He was talking about the GAA and "modern Ireland".

He began with Orwell and his relevance to a world where people are fighting for peace, censoring for knowledge, invading for liberty, sanctioning for freedom, etc. He spoke about America, Iraq, media, Cuba, war, distribution of wealth and resources. The one-liners of mass hilarity were never launched.

He linked it all to Ireland. The global picture reduced to one small freedom. He spoke about wealth and its vulgarisation of Irish society, about the depressing globalisation of culture, the tyranny of the worldwide franchise, the homogenisation of the entire planet, the shamrock becoming a little star tacked onto the American flag.

And it came back to us, a GAA crowd waiting for some jokes and the chance to finish dinner. A GAA man who's not really a GAA man pointing out the uniqueness of this culture which survives and even thrives in this arid world. We heard a medical genius isolating the antidote to what's happening today, defining freedom as the right to be what you want to be. And the GAA club and all the people who do things there because they just love doing them became the answer to the sugar-coated fascism of a modern world which presumes to know what's best for everyone.

And the letter from the man in Howth flashed back into my mind as David Hickey's voice grew angry and he pulled the first applause of the evening out of us. How dare the Government be mealy-mouthed about the €38 million it promised the GAA and now hides behind its back? What if the GAA presented a bill for the social work it has done since 1884, the gaps it's filled, the culture it has preserved, the facilities it has provided, the sense of identity it has helped this country foster?

The GAA club, its contribution to community and culture, is an imperilled form of freedom squeezed on the one side by greed and the other by ignorance. The club, the network of clubs, makes up a world of benign socialism where everyone contributes according to means and withdraws according to needs.

The greatest threat to its existence is the privatisation of Irish society, the stingy, but ever-more-pervasive notion that people are entitled to channel their tax dollar in accordance with their little prejudices. This radio call-in culture of "I don't want taxpayers money going on refugees/arts/ policing protests/student grants, etc".

We have arrived in the culture of the cynic, knowing the value of nothing and the price of everything. The man from Howth chose to equate the GAA's continuing reluctance to allow its major competitor to use its greatest facility with the plight of women, travellers, homosexuals or immigrants. The struggle of an amateur organisation to survive in the face of competition from the world's greatest and most pervasive professional sport was described as "blatant discrimination against a section of its (the Government's) own people".

What dangerous nonsense.

There is one reason and one reason only why the GAA should open Croke Park to other sports. Because the GAA feels like it needs the money.

Every Irish citizen has the right to play soccer or rugby. In these times it is somehow both trite and offensive to pretend that the right to play a sport is the same as the right to play that sport absolutely anywhere. Yet that's the singular perversity of "modern Ireland" bought, paid for and sleekly homogenised. A useful discussion of how the biggest professional sport in the world has no stadium for itself becomes an attack on an amateur, sports/cultural organisation which won't kow-tow.

Suddenly there is the dullard's insistence that the receipt of public money brings with it an obligation to open up any house to the public, an argument that runs parallel to that which would claim that we all have the right to room and board in the houses of anyone who ever received a first-time buyer's grant or that we should all be allowed hang our own painting in publicly-funded museums.

By Sunday morning David Hickey made perfect sense. These are dark and depressing times when the airwaves are filled with big lies and the world is watching the primetime broadcast of big crimes disguised as warporn. And the little shamrock is stuck up there with the stars that sit beside the bars on the flag that gets planted by the forces of power, money and globalisation.

I didn't quite get it at the time, but sitting in our GAA club, reminiscing about great hurlers and footballers, talking about our own stuff and our own heroes, we were in one of the last bunkers. We were being what we want to be. A genuine freedom that"modern Ireland" has little time for.