The Gaelic Question

One of my favourite hacks is Gideon Haigh, a cricket journalist whose contributions in the Guardian during the 2005 Ashes series help me gain an appreciation for that most impenetrable of sports that has endured to this day. While doing a casual Google of Haigh’s latest output, I came across this  line at the start of a column about the potential for Ireland’s participation in future Cricket World Cups:

In their famous spoof version of British history, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman describe Gladstone as having spent his twilight years trying to resolve “the Irish Question”. Alas it is to no avail: “Unfortunately whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question”.

It’s just as well he mentioned this was a spoof, for the idea that ‘the Irish question’ was entirely a consequence of the irrationality and fecklessness of the Irish is a widely accepted one to this day, not least among West Brit commentators on this side of the Irish Sea *cough* the Sindo *cough*. With that out of the way, Haigh’s comments came to mind when I read Tim O’Keeffe, secretary of the Waterford County Board, complaining about the format of the All-Ireland football championship. O’Keeffe feels that it is the height of folly to have the weak counties pitted directly against the strong counties:

“The system has always been flawed. Is there any other sport in the world where the strongest and weakest are thrown in together? If it hasn’t worked in the 127-year history of the GAA, it’s unlikely to start working now,” he said.

O’Keeffe believes it’s illogical to have 33 teams competing for the All-Ireland championship when the vast majority are out of their depth.

“It doesn’t happen in hurling or at club level either,” he said. “Donegal won the Lory Meagher Cup but nobody would dream of putting them in against Tipperary next year. No county puts a weak junior club team in against the senior county champions either.”

In itself, O’Keeffe’s comments make sense. Putting a featherweight in with a heavyweight is a recipe for disaster. The problem, and the reason Gideon Haigh’s comment came to mind, is that we’ve been here before. We had a secondary football competition – it was called the Tommy Murphy Cup. And when the GAA applied the logic of O’Keeffe’s idea, corralling any team outside the top three NFL divisions into the competition without going through the backdoor first, the squawks of outrage could be heard on Mars. Like Haigh’s notional Irishmen, the GAA thought they were providing the football fraternity with what they wanted only to find the question was then changed.

The comparision with hurling’s B trophies is wrongheaded. Donegal may embrace the Lory Meagher Cup, but that’s because they have never competed in the Liam McCarthy Cup. Had they been in it then found themselves excluded in the interests of keeping things competitive, you can be sure they’d see the Lory Meagher Cup as a pale imitation of the real thing. More pointedly, having no chance of winning the All-Ireland didn’t stop Waterford submitting ourselves for ritual slaughter year after year from the late 1960’s to the late 1990’s. Can you imagine the reaction if someone had patted us on the head and suggested we should compete in a competition better suited to our abilities? Hell hath no fury like a sports team scorned.

Someday people will realise that there isn’t a system out there which will magically make every game competitive. Clearly today is not that day.