Emmet Malone, writing in The Irish Times (subs needed – but the pertinent quote can be found in the summary) a few weeks back, referred to the late Brian Moore and his regret at the effect Sunday afternoon highlights packages had on the attendances at matches in the League of Ireland and the Irish League. Anyone, like myself, who has grown up viewing the stories of Cecil B DeMille-style attendances at League of Ireland matches in the 1950’s and 1960’s with eyebrow-raising scepticism should take heed of such warnings from history. In the wake of Daire Whelan’s excoriating account of the decline of domestic soccer in Who Stole Our Game?, it should be obvious how television has cut a savage swathe through sporting attendances, and only the paranoid have survived.
With that tangent fixed firmly in mind, picture the scene in the deiseach household: the convalescing man of the house, his English wife, her English friend, our English neighbour and his virulently anti-GAA wife, come together to sup wine and talk crap in the finest Irish tradition, the one that Maeve Binchy encapsulated when she referred to a nation that valued talkers, not listeners.
Virulent is too strong. She is hardly the only person to have been turned off, not without good reason, from the skullduggery that has permeated the GAA throughout its history. Her thought processes veered off from a spot of de Valera bashing – nothing inherently wrong with that – into the usual litany of crimes committed by the GAA, i.e.
- personal accounts of the madness of The Ban (an incident which occurred over half a century ago and impossible to happen for thirty-six years since Rule 27 was abolished; curious how, amidst much talk about the joys of rugby, the inviolate prohibition on players who ‘went North‘ or the IRFU’s rancid attitude to apartheid South Africa, both of which still pertained as recently as the 1980’s, was never alluded to)
- the mean-spiritedness of the local club regarding a stage show that she was involved with (impossible to defend)
- the travesty of making the Waterford team travel up to Dublin on a train on the day of the match last Sunday, in contrast to the local golf club which always sent teams up to stay in a hotel the night before (golfers presumably tee off first thing in the morning; what benefit you’d get from having a team farting around Dublin until 4pm was left unsaid)
- the habitual moan that “I paid for the rebuilding of Croke Park, I should get a say in how it’s used” mantra (so should taxpayers get access to your house because you benefitted from mortgage interest relief? This was dismissed as “not being the same thing at all”. Actually, in an economic sense, it is exactly the same thing)
None of this was worthy of getting het up over. People are entitled to hold all of the above against the GAA. What sent me off the rails was when the rhetorical question was asked, “what do they do with the money?” 80,000 people at Croke Park last Sunday paying €40 a head, you’ve got to ask what they do with the money?
Well, I suggested that splendor of the GAA’s facilities up and down the country might account for it. When an Irish Independent hack visited a Dublin cricket club in the aftermath of Ireland’s heroics in the West Indies during the summer to have a go at putting willow to leather, he was shocked at how poor the facilities were. He even went so far as to say they were far worse than those he utilised during his brief underage hurling career in Tipperary. That, I suggested, was where the money was going.
Nonsense, I was told, and was treated to some apocryphal tale of poor hurling clubs on the telly recently who couldn’t get some essential facilities. Clearly this club showed how the money was not getting to the fabled grassroots.
So where, I asked (shouted, I ruefully confess), do you think the money is going? Ah, that’s the question, “what do they do with the money?”, the implication of it being used to buy guns for the IRA or feather Frank Murphy‘s nest being clear. Thankfully, Mrs deiseach stepped in this point to prevent me from going into complete meltdown and the conversation was steered towards more mundane (and sociable topics).
Three lessons came from the evening.
First, I need to control my temper.
Second, I can cope with many criticisms of the GAA, but the idea that the megabucks that have flowed from Croke Park have been frittered away is hard to take. All sports have had to face the rapaciousness of television since the 1970’s. Soccer’s abdication of the domestic game as a spectator sport is well documented. What is more surprising is the implosion of athletics. Paul Daffey wrote on the Morton Mile (subs required) and how crowds of 20,000+ in 1958 for an amateur show had dwindled to double figures by 2007. Rugby has retreated to its ghettos in south Dublin, Limerick and Ulster. This stands in stark contrast to the backwoodsmen of the GAA. Once upon a time, the GAA seemed to be going down the same road, nine thousand hardy souls attending the 1985 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Cork. Twenty-two years later, Waterford’s three appearances in Croke Park would, in conjunction with other matches, garner a collective attendance of over 230,000 people. All this despite being televised! All hail an organisation which has taken on the television bogeyman as fretted about by Brian Moore – and won.
And the third lesson? Foreigners are entirely ignorant of the GAA, which means they are blank canvases on which the Irish can paint their opinions. My neighbour’s husband casually buys into the backwoodsman theory of the GAA as expressed by his wife. Later on in the evening, my wife would express “100% agreement” with my analysis. 100% agreement? To my own surprise, it seems that I really love Dis Great Asssooosheeayshun Of Ours.