A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Bill Doonan from Cavan was a radio operator in the Irish Army who found the Emergency a bit dull so he deserted and joined the British one. One Sunday afternoon in 1943, during a lull in hostilities in Southern Italy, he disappeared. He was eventually found up a tree with his radio, having managed to pull from the ether the broadcast of the Roscommon-Cavan All-Ireland Gaelic football final. After the war, he played (association) football with Lincoln City and then returned to Ireland to win two All-Irelands with Cavan, one in New York in 1947 and the other in Dublin in 1948.
If anyone ever asks you what the GAA is all about just think of Bill Doonan, the wanderer, on the side of that hill, in the middle of a World War, …, at home.
Before we go any further, you will need to know what all the fuss is about. Clips from a programme of twenty great GAA moments are on youtube. The games are hurling (the one with a stick) and Gaelic football (the bastardized rugby). Take a quick look and come back.
Done that? Some history. The Gaelic Athletic Association is older than the Irish state, older than all of Ireland’s political parties and part of the foundation of modern Ireland. The main sports it governs are played by amateurs and almost completely unknown outside the country (had you heard of hurling?), an island of five million people, yet the GAA owns the sixth biggest stadium in Europe, Croke Park. A good way to decide if a history of Ireland is worth buying is to check the index. If there is no entry for `GAA’, the book is best avoided: otherwise, quality can be considered proportional to length of entry.
The basic unit of the GAA is the local club, based on the parish and usually named after the parish saint or given some patriotic title: Kilmacud Crokes, Austin Stacks, Na Piarsaigh, Faughs, Na Fianna, Kickhams. The man who sells you your lampshades, or operates the lighthouse, or organizes a loan, may be a legend who has a stack of All-Ireland medals at home. Breandán Ó hEithir’s (Brend-AWN O Hare) memoir, first published in 1984, is a classic account of a life spent in and around the GAA and why it matters, as the story of Bill Doonan, which ends the book, explains.
Ó hEithir was born on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, Europe’s last gasp before America. As he puts it, `the level grass-covered land, necessary for the playing of hurling and football, was scarce and far too valuable to be trampled and torn’, but he came into contact with Gaelic sport through family connections and visits to Galway and Dublin for big games. His first visit to Croke Park, still properly a rite of passage for any Irish boy, was, as it should be, in the company of his father to see the 1939 football semi-final between Mayo and Kerry. His father had been there on Bloody Sunday 1920 when British forces murdered thirteen spectators and a player at a Dublin-Tipperary football match.
At the time, Ó hEithir was also developing an interest in the Hidden Ireland that would lead to his later career as a journalist.
This Hidden Ireland was not populated by wandering poets in the ancestral tongue but by philandering chemists with access to strychnine, randy mountainy farmers impregnating their wives’ nubile nieces and silent young men from the Midlands who, after drinking twenty pints without uttering a single word, walked home through the stillness of the night and taking up an axe butchered the uncle whose land they hoped to inherit but whose filthy personal habits had driven them insane. I longed to get to know that world at first hand.
After failing at his first attempt in the relevant examinations, embarassing his schoolmaster father by failing not only handwriting and arithmetic but also Irish, he eventually entered a boarding school on the mainland and, from there, won a scholarship to University College Galway, thereby narrowly avoiding having to train
as a teacher. After scraping through the first year, he fell in with his uncle, Liam O’Flaherty, who was working on his novel Insurrection. He took his uncle’s advice to use university as a chance to read widely, then skipped his final exams, forfeited his scholarship and had to take up gainful employment as an organizer for the Irish language movement.
After leaving this employ in circumstances calling for the turning of blind eyes by An Garda Síochána, he eventually ended up at the Irish Press, now defunct, where, as he puts it, `gradually I became industrious’, editing a magazine and working for radio, as well as reporting for the newspaper. The constant presence in his life was the GAA, the games and the people involved in them. Not being a sports reporter, he watched matches at all levels, from club and college matches up to inter-county games and All-Ireland finals. His book is one of the best guides to Ireland and the Irish and what they do when nobody is looking.
L’esprit du clocher is alive and well in Arklow: one club game in County Wicklow `scared me out of a year’s growth’. Perhaps because of `the mountains that divided them’, club games in that county are notoriously ferocious although it was in County Galway that Ó hEithir heard a gem of the revenger’s art: a player intent on meting out justice to a member of the opposing team was soothed by a trainer who pointed out that he could gut him `in the friendly in Loughrea in a fortnight’.
Old though it is, older history lives on in the GAA: Ó hEithir explains the origins of the confusing taunt thrown by Wexford fans at their neighbours from Kilkenny: `Who pissed in the powder?’. Both counties have strong hurling traditions although Kilkenny have the better record and, usually, the better players. The claim dates to the 1798 rebellion, about which Wexford is still sore, when, allegedly, Kilkenny miners urinated in the gunpowder supplies of the Wexford rebels before betraying them to the yeomanry.
Like sport everywhere, the, Gaelic games offer a way of sublimating rivalries, but the GAA manages the neat trick of offering an outlet for nationalist instincts without competing in international events, in part by offering a way to be Irish, in thought, word and deed. Ó hEithir delights in the insanities of the True Gaels: it was decided at one meeting to have the Clare Set danced to determine if it was a truly Gaelic dance which could be permitted at the annual fund-raising céilí or a foreign import, like the waltz or fox-trot, suspicion having been raised due to the sliding and battering involved.
The GAA’s relationship to the first official language is an odd one. Traditionally, the winning captain says a few words in Irish when he accepts the All-Ireland trophy before switching to English to understand himself, but in the last thirty years, two native speakers have accepted the Liam McCarthy cup, the hurling trophy: Joe Connolly from Galway in 1980, who spoke to the Galway people who lived in Ireland or had been driven elsewhere (considered one of the great Irish speeches and one of those moments on youtube) and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín from Cork, whose languages were Fijian, Irish and English, in that order.
The idea of a half-Fijian, who had never seen Ireland until the age of fifteen, winning an All-Ireland would have been unthinkable to the founders of the GAA. The association began as a nationalist, cultural and sporting organization in 1884, with the main aim of keeping Irish men out of the clutches of the Brits whose sports were
becoming dangerously popular. This inevitably tied it to a certain view of Ireland and Irishness: one of the stands at Croke Park is named after Michael Hogan, the footballer murdered by the Black and Tans in 1920; the Dublin end at Croke Park, Hill 16, was built on the rubble of 1916; until the early 1970s, contact with `foreign’ (i.e. English) sports got you banned from GAA games. Hurling, in particular, has a long recorded history as well as being part of Irish mythology where it features in the stories of Cú Chulainn, a sort of one man riot in a chariot (try Thomas Kinsella’s or Cíarán Carson’s translations of the Táin Bó Cúlaigne for the full flavour of his death dealing warp spasms): the monument to the 1916 rebels is a statue of him; Michael Collins was photographed playing the game.
Despite the petty bureaucracy, from which no sporting organization is wholly free, the GAA has always been popular for reasons which transcend the games on the field. The games help of course (who would want to be good at anything else?) but the GAA is central to life in every community larger than ten houses: the first organization established by newly arrived immigrants, whether culchies on a Dublin housing estate or Irish abroad, is often a GAA club. London and New York play as counties in the All-Ireland championships; there is an All-Australia competition. Possibly because it is an amateur organization with nothing to be gained but the respect of your neighbours, it commands the loyalty of decent people who do the simple things that keep it going: teaching children how not to get their heads split open, taking them to games, raising funds for kit. The great players are remembered (Cork has a Christy Ring Bridge and a Jack Lynch tunnel, Lynch was prime minister in the 70s but that was a minor feat next to six All-Irelands in a row) but best of all they live with you. The hurling equivalent of David Beckham works in a bank; Pele drove a tanker for Shell; small farmers, firefighters, priests and lighthouse keepers have won All-Ireland medals.
Ó hEithir’s book is a love affair of a life spent in and around the GAA. You cannot understand Ireland without understanding the GAA and vice versa. Ireland at its best is Munster Final day in Thurles or a tight All-Ireland at Croke Park, the open-throated roar from the Hill at a Dublin game. When Joe Connolly accepted the trophy in 1980, on behalf of a county devastated by emigration to the point where many clubs could no longer find fifteen players to
field a team, there would have been Irish speakers in Boston and Adelaide listening to him:
There are people back in Galway with wonder in their hearts, but also we must remember (Galway) people in England, in America, and round the world and maybe they are crying at this moment,
and they too were at home.