By Kevin O’Sullivan
The GAA is 125 years old this year, in case you hadn’t noticed. (If you genuinely hadn’t, welcome back. The weather’s been pretty good, but the economy’s gone to the dogs, Bertie’s gone, everyone’s waiting for the day they can say ‘back in NAMA’, Kilkenny are perpetual All-Ireland champions and Louth still can’t get past the Leinster quarter-finals.) Though certainly not without its faults, the GAA is one of the successes of modern Ireland: for its vision and application in the construction of Croke Park; in its continued growth and consolidation in parishes and local communities across Ireland.
At the heart of that success is a strong awareness of the organisation’s history. The GAA’s culture and tradition are, though its grassroots followers might balk at the term, very much part of ‘the brand’. But unlike the comfort you’re supposed to get from watching montages of old Guinness, Persil or Hibernian Aviva ads, there is something a little deeper to the admirably wide-ranging analysis coming out of Croke Park. Maybe it’s something in the canal water or just the influence of all those schoolteachers. It’s certainly a far cry from the conference I attended at Croke Park in 2005 which was just the wrong blend of history – interesting primarily to the academics in the morning, veering too much towards the school children in the afternoon.
Today, in addition to the GAA Museum and the archive footage that accompanies RTE’s coverage, the Boston College-led oral history project strikes a happy medium between outreach and popular history (great idea to make some of the interviews available in audio online) and a serious effort to document the development of the organisation through the stories of those integral to its existence. In keeping with that spirit of academic inquiry, the recent publication of the Mike Cronin, William Murphy and Paul Rouse edited The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009), hints at a more nuanced examination of the association’s role in modern Irish society. It’s one that might nudge historians to look in greater detail at its broader cultural and political impact, not least as a symbol of the transition to a new Ireland: building clubs and identities in the parishes that grew up in Dublin’s new suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing in sponsorship and embracing television coverage in the 1990s, playing a changing role among emigrant communities, lifting bans and slowly picking at the walls of its own insularity, and, most recently, becoming one of the most visible indicators of a new Irish identity emerging in the early twenty-first century. Even if the association is not yet as multicultural as the new Ireland, that will come in time; probably when Gort’s Brazilian population provide a couple of high-scoring corner-forwards to star alongside the next Joe Canning.
And then there’s the sport. This summer’s fare, particularly what passes for the football championship, is hardly living up to the glorious anniversary celebrations. But Sunday might yet prove to be the turning point. With all respect to the Dublin and Kildare footballers, one of the jewels in the association’s crown will be on display at Thurles this Sunday when an ageing Waterford meet a resurgent Tipperary in the Munster hurling final. So, this being a history blog after all, what better way to prepare than by looking back to the sport’s most recent golden age: that inexplicable period from 1994 to 1998 when Offaly (2), Clare (2) and Wexford shared All-Ireland spoils between them? And where better to look than the story of that love-them-or-hate-them Clare team told by the team’s manager Ger Loughnane and a number of senior players, with the Biddy Early myth (she died ten years before the GAA was founded) exploded along the way? Listen to RTE’s 2005 excellent Radio 1 documentary ‘Clare Champions’ or go to The Irish Times and search out some of Tom Humphries’ writing from the period to refresh your memory.