A Connemara bar on an Easter Sunday afternoon — pints and fish-and- chips and plenty of fun. There are locals and blow-ins, tourists, day-trippers and weekenders. By 5pm, the place is full.
It’s not exactly the last days of Rome, but as afternoon turns to evening the laughter and the flow of English and Irish and French and Polish rises and gathers in a lovely warm hum.
There’s a match on the TV — Chelsea v Manchester United in the English Premier League. When it starts, people are watching it and not watching it.
But there is a particular insistence in a bar when the TV is on and the roar of the match-day crowd comes out through the speakers.
The hardcore of viewers who are gathered under the screen are joined by a few and then a few more, like iron filings pulled towards a magnetic pole.
The cheers in the bar for the two goals that Manchester United score draw in a few more. And then there is the Great Cartoon Villain that is Diego Costa.
A man across the table is emptying pints of Guinness as if they are mere thimbles, but clears himself long enough to say: “He probably thinks he’s hard, but if he’s so hard why does he roll around like that so much?”
(Certain words have been omitted from that quote to allow for printing.)
And it’s hard to answer that question without agreeing with its sentiment.
Anyway, the game was more than just a bit of a diversion in the corner — instead, it sort of seeped into everything that was happening in the bar for the two hours it was on.
You couldn’t easily ignore it — and few seemed really to be trying.
Now, this is no lament of modern pubs in the style of David Norris (‘Huge TV screens blasting out music and ghastly soccer matches all the time’, as he put it recently).
It’s just to mention the fact that in the middle of the Gaeltacht, the TV in a pub was tuned to watch Chelsea play Manchester United at the same time that the Allianz League hurling semi-final was being played out between Tipperary and Wexford and being shown on TG4.
Nobody asked for the channel to be changed.
A few hours earlier — at a lovely beach out past Spiddal — another man had sat in his car and listened to the ‘Off the Ball’ radio coverage of another English Premier League match between Liverpool and West Brom.
At the same time, his own county of Galway was playing Limerick, also in an Allianz Hurling League final, and it, too, was being broadcast live on a different channel.
Now, it should be acknowledged that this is an area of Galway where Gaelic football dominates hurling in GAA circles, but the cheer that came from the van when Liverpool scored suggests that this was an irrelevance to the choice of station.
What matters, either way, is that he chose to listen to the soccer — and not to the hurling.
If this is no lament for the decline of Irish pubs, it is equally absolutely no lament for the manner in which the English Premier League was the choice of the man in the van and the people in the bar.
The cultural choices that people make are matters of personal taste and there is something insufferable about anyone who decries, sneers, or dismisses the decision to choose one form of sport over another.
And yet it happens often enough. From golf bores to rugby yahoos and on to hurling snobs, the sporting world is run through with people for whom it is not enough merely to love their particular sport of choice.
Instead, they are unable to resist the urge to construct a hierarchy where — surprise, surprise — their game sits unchallengeable at the apex.
And languishing below on the ground slopes of this sporting civilization is the rest of the sporting rabble, the athletically unclean.
This is not something that is the preserve of the Irish, but the historical entanglement of sport with the politics of national identity in Ireland brings a particular local flavour.
he GAA rested at the centre of this entanglement — its very formation was in part a response to the supposed ‘Britishness’ of existing sporting organisations.
As Michael Cusack — the founder of the GAA — so neatly put it in a newspaper column, Irish people could now “choose between Irish and foreign laws”.
In the decades that followed, there was indeed a core of GAA officials who followed in Cusack’s path and were zealous in their belief in the transformative power of the GAA.
Ultimately, they saw themselves as being engaged in a project of national political and cultural liberation.
They expressed both a positive advance of their very particular version of Irishness, and also a rhetorical disdain for everything British — especially ‘peil Luther’!
But, for much of the membership of the GAA, their involvement in the Association was driven by a love of sport and not by any wider cultural or political project.
And, usually, someone who loves one sport can be drawn easily to another — so it was that the bounce of a ‘foreign’ ball proved a siren song time and again across the Gaelic world.
More than anything, though, the ambitions of nationalist ideologues were crushed by the impossibility of creating immutable cultural silos.
The infinite connections and complexities of life mean that neat divisions based on sport are simply not achievable.
Whenever people come together — whether by accident or by design — human exchange brings cultural shifts.
These shifts are facilitated by technological change and by the unending movement of people.
And so it still continues. The power of the Premier League — and its ubiquity on Sunday afternoons across much of Ireland — is part of this familiar story.
This is not something to be loathed or patronised. The growth of soccer in Ireland once provoked great worries for those who ran the GAA.
It also drew the RTÉ broadcaster John Bowman to write in The Sunday Times in 1989 that it was naïve to imagine that soccer, rugby and Gaelic football could all prosper indefinitely on such a small island: ‘Many astute observers reckon that the threat must be to Gaelic football.’
In The Irish Times, Michael Finlan agreed: ‘We do seem to have reached the stage where soccer, a once-reviled symbol of foreign yokes and repression, is threatening to become the national game of Ireland.’
All of which is a reminder of how hard it is to read the future. And also a reminder of one other thing about cultural change: absorbing new ways does not necessarily (or even usually) mean shedding those that already exist.
Either way, there is simple solution here for Easter Sunday 2018: a second TV for the bar in the Gaeltacht.
Although, you could only have the sound up on one...
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