July 2016        

GAA facing a stiff challenge

Graham Harrington

The Gaelic Athletic Association is one of the largest mass organisations in Irish society, with more than 500,000 members. To illustrate the significance of this, the ICTU has approximately 830,000 members.
     While the GAA may seem like a simple sports body, its substance is far more than that.
     The GAA was founded in 1884 as a co-ordinating body for Irish games and culture. This is significant, as Ireland was under the heavy boot of British dominance at this time, with the British having for centuries suppressed all manifestations of a unique and Irish culture, including sports. The goal was clear: to remove the distinct cultural identity of the Irish and substitute for it a British identity, thereby removing the will to resist British rule.
     In the late 1880s this was doing well, with no organising bodies to help Irish culture and identity survive. The GAA was formed around the beginning of the period of the Irish Revival, when the Irish people took the cultural offensive and began promoting and preserving Irish language, sports, theatre, and music.
     Many of the GAA’s original members came from a working-class or small-farmer background, although the Revival meant it had a petit-bourgeois intellectual leadership.
     The contribution of the Revival to politics can be seen as the first step on the road to revolution, which would erupt in 1916. We can fairly say that the GAA has a radical, even in a sense a revolutionary, background. However, it is also true to say that the GAA represents a broad church of interests and class forces.
     During the revolutionary period the GAA continued to act as a cultural base for the Republican forces. It suffered also from British repression. In 1920 the RIC Auxiliaries, backed up by the British army, in reprisal for the killing of British intelligence operatives, opened fire on a crowd watching a football match in Croke Park, killing thirteen spectators and one of the players. The Hogan Stand in Croke Park is named after the player killed.
     Partition also took its toll on the GAA, with the unionist authorities seeing it as a dangerous and subversive manifestation of republicanism, while in the South the government made links to the GAA in return for support.
     In measuring the GAA’s influence on Irish politics we need look no further than Fianna Fáil’s dominance in the South, which was built on networking and populist campaigning as well as “jobs for the boys” corruption. Many of these networks were built through the GAA, with the organisation acting as a type of meeting-ground for big farmers, property developers, and politicians. Of course this was not in the interest of the members of the GAA.
     The GAA, especially in rural Ireland, has lost thousands of members through emigration—the establishment’s policy of exporting Irish youth. The GAA, despite its immense social weight, seen as the hub of the parish, has never campaigned or made more than a token gesture against this, despite it being one of the main obstacles to the organisation. In some parts of Ireland, especially in the west, some areas have seen entire teams lose people in the 18 to 25-year-old brackets through emigration and lack of investment in these communities. This illustrates the insanity of the GAA’s cosy relationship with the establishment.
     The main strength of the GAA can be seen in its collective outlook. In every town in Ireland the GAA is the bedrock of the community, being a rival to the Catholic Church in its social influence. It promotes such concepts as teamwork and community-building for its young members.
     In the north of Ireland this was reflected in the repression of the GAA by British forces, as they feared the organisation of nationalist youth would inevitably lead to resistance to their presence. This can be illustrated by the infamous film showing British helicopters and a military presence around Crossmaglen Rangers’ GAA grounds, an overt operation of intimidation.
     The GAA manages to pack tens of thousands into stadiums every year, yet there is still a sense that the organisation is declining. Its games are amateur sports; its players do not get paid and have to manage full-time jobs around training and matches. The GAA does not have the resources that sports such as soccer have, such as international tournaments watched around the world by millions, or stadiums capable of hosting competitions of Olympic Games standard. There are far fewer sponsorship deals for the GAA by international corporations.
     Still, Gaelic games are our most popular sports. The GAA promotes competitiveness and individual sacrifice but blends this with a cultural and community outlook in an amateur setting. This faces a very stiff challenge. In recent years the tendency in the GAA has moved towards viewing players as commodities, with immense pressure put on players to work at a professional level while playing for an amateur sport. In any sport this is a problem, with players being viewed more for their usefulness to the GAA’s sponsors and financial contributors than for their usefulness to their club and community.
     Major events such as the all-Ireland finals are becoming more and more indistinguishable from soccer tournaments, where celebrity millionaires with haircuts more entertaining than their playing skill fall on the ground after a small bump.
     The corporations swoop on these events like vultures, trying to get their name in prominent places. Of course this is lucrative for the GAA, so there is a lesser emphasis on local club matches as a result. Corporations aren’t too interested in spending money for the few hundred watching Lough Rovers play St Finbarr’s.
     The emphasis on this excessive style poses problems such as mental health issues and heart problems for the players, as well as making the GAA another haven for elitism, challenging the inclusiveness the GAA has always promoted. The focus of resources is inevitably on the clubs that perfect this, which means that the problem develops further. It also calls into question the amateur status of Gaelic games. “If players are being expected to act like professional highly paid athletes,” is the refrain, “then why aren’t they paid as such?”
     Over the past two decades this is the direction the GAA has been heading in, with its highly placed stakeholders (or is that shareholders?) being happy with the results so far, even going so far as to sign a lucrative deal with Rupert Murdoch’s British Sky Broadcasting for showing GAA matches as a type of pageantry for the British consumer who’s interested in what the mad Irish get up to in their spare time.
     There is also more and more emphasis on professional sports training, such as physios and energy shakes and all that nonsense. It may not mean much for the community, but it does for the companies trying to sell health products that have signed deals with the GAA.
     The GAA has abandoned its rule on banning members of the British forces from joining, meaning that the armed forces that murdered Michael Hogan and that maintain five thousand troops in the north-east of our country are allowed to participate in a body that is meant to represent Irish values.
     In general, the GAA is fast moving away from its community-based, grass-roots cultural organisation that gave it its strength and towards another commercialised and boring sport.
     One pundit, Joe Brolly, didn’t obfuscate the issue: “The GAA hierarchy has been unable to deal with the huge problems facing us over the past 20 years. There has been no strategy. No radical action. The vacuum this inertia created was filled by capitalism. Capitalism always fills the vacuum.”
     The GAA’s history and its social strength mean that it must be looked at seriously by revolutionaries. It is a necessary vehicle for the promotion of collective values in our communities, as well as the promotion of our native language and culture in very challenging times. We should not be afraid to politicise the GAA. The establishment have always sought to keep it on side, using the GAA to reinforce its section 31 ban on republicans, for example.
     The GAA has always been political. It has a radical and progressive origin and is a mass organisation of our people. If corporations want to advertise at GAA games, we should go to these games with our own leaflets and banners. If the local supermarket employing people on zero-hour contracts sponsors the local team, we should get our trade unions to do the same.
     The class struggle is also a battle of culture, and we shouldn’t find it ludicrous to consider the GAA a serious ground for action.

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