Mickey Harte learned last week that it is impossible to change the mind of a young Irish person who has decided to leave Ireland.
This fact doesn’t just apply to Cathal McShane and his dalliance with the AFL.
Once the young Irish mind has imagined faraway blue skies and the promise of boundless opportunity, suddenly home seems dreary and small by comparison.
This is basically the plot of most Irish movies and pretty much every play ever staged in the AbbeyTheatre.
In this timeless Irish drama, McShane is the callow dreamer, his heart set on a better life across the ocean. Harte is the embittered father figure who had planned for him to take over the farm.
“All this will be yours one day,” pleads old man Harte.
“But I don’t want it Daddy, can’t you see that?” McShane cries. “I want more! I want to see the world! I want to…I want to…I want to DANCE!!”
[Cue musical number which ends with McShane being carried off stage by muscular men in Aussie Rules vests].
Harte has been criticised for his response to the news McShane will spend two weeks among the sleeveless ones, with a view to making a go of it Down Under.
The Tyrone manager is perceived as the bad guy in this situation because why should anyone begrudge the bird its chance to leave the cage?
Harte’s view is that the cage isn’t so bad. It’s our cage. And it’s quite a nice cage actually, well-appointed, spacious and lots of seeds to eat. Why go outside the cage where you might get eaten by a hungry cat? And those cats, what are they doing in the house anyway? Why are we organising games between our birds and those cats? Isn’t that making it easier for the cats to eat the birds?
Harte is a morally judgmental man, unafraid to share his strong beliefs about his sport and the world beyond it. If you listen to him closely you sense a distaste for this whole sordid business that goes beyond the feelings of a manager who might lose his All-Star full-forward.
All that wooing and treachery — this is a heady brew for a man of Harte’s convictions. Harte’s worldview is built around family, faith, and community, with the GAA wrapped around all of those things.
For him the AFL is a scarlet whore, their scouts are shameless pimps, and the players who try their luck down under are succumbing to professionalism’s wanton lure.
It is easy to mock Harte on his bully pulpit, raging against the permissive society. Most have preferred to shrug their shoulders and wish McShane well on his quest. He is, after all, only trying to better himself. Gaelic football doesn’t put bread on the table and what young athlete wouldn’t want to get paid for playing, if not quite the game he loves, then at least a weird, Salvador Dali painting version of that game?
But Harte is — in his ascetic, ultra-zealous, High Sparrow sort of way — only articulating a recurring tension within the GAA. Most 20th century Irish drama was basically about whether a young buck would head off to Amerikay because that was essentially the story of the emerging nation — the pull of modernity against tradition. So too does every current GAA controversy come down to the same heaving forces.
Whether it’s trying to rejig the fixture calendar, that jerry-built favela of a thing, selling TV rights to Sky or handling Dublin’s commercial horsepower, the GAA is constantly finding its fundamental values puffing and wheezing against the strain.
THE GAA is built on amateurism, volunteerism, and cultural insularity — things that mix with globalisation and late-stage capitalism like brandy butter and quinoa. Pretty much the main job of top brass in Croke Park is to keep the organisation moving with the times without completely selling its soul.
The lurid temptations of Australia are a case in point. Harte’s ire was directed at the GAA’s ongoing dalliance with the AFL via international rules, the silly mongrel sport the two bodies insist on foisting upon us every few years. As the Aussies pick off our top young players, Harte feels we are like a cuckolded husband who tells his wife’s lover to help himself to a beer.
International Rules is stupid, but it’s not the problem here. Aussie clubs would have found and ransacked our little island catch-and-kick farm eventually, even if we hadn’t sent Michael Murphy out to put manners on them every few years. The worrying thing is that in McShane the Aussies have taken an interest in fully matured livestock, not coltish promise.
Now, thanks to the physical demands of elite GAA, never has the top level Gaelic footballer been more attractive to AFL clubs; thanks to the same demands, never has his life at home been less attractive. In Australia, he has a chance to a professional. At home, he is a professional pretending to be an amateur. He is a bird in a cage.
The GAA for their part are rearing professional athletes that they cannot sell. Amateurism means no compensation for the players they lose and, bar the quiet nod for a cushy job, little more than wholesome ideals to persuade them to stay. There is nothing much they can do about, and deep inside, that is what galls Mickey Harte.
Many of those who go do come back. Some don’t make it; some find it to be as full of empty promises as Harte suggests. But even if you offer them the farm, the young bucks will always leave, because that’s what young bucks always do.