Dublin dominates all other parts of the State in terms of economics, population — and now Gaelic football too, writes Michael Clifford
When did Dublin cease to be a county? The question arises in light of the capital’s dominance of Gaelic football.
Since last weekend’s unprecedented achievement by Dublin, there has been much breast-beating about the unfair advantages enjoyed by the county in Gaelic sport. There is a fear that the current dominance is not transient, but a harbinger of a new era in which Dublin will only occasionally be beaten in the All-Ireland championship.
The fears resonate around the rural parts of the State where there is a belief that all the focus of governing and the deployment of resources today is on the east coast conurbation. Sport is the froth of life, but very often it presents bigger truths about life and society at any particular time.
Most of the coverage in the aftermath of last Saturday’s All-Ireland final replay has concerned the huge resources deployed in the capital. A lot of that talk is unfair. Yes, Dublin has huge resources, but it also has to cater for a massive playing population. Commensurate resources are ploughed into the grassroots, doing an excellent job in introducing sport to children of all ages and abilities.
Other counties also benefit from disproportionate resources. All-Ireland hurling champions Tipperary had a committed sugar daddy this year in PR guru, Declan Kelly, whose company contributed generously to the county effort. Kerry is fortunate that a local company grew into a global agri-food business and is on hand to provide whatever is required. So Dublin is not alone in attracting GAA funds or big sponsorship.
But what exactly is Dublin in terms of the GAA?
The county structure that has become the prime unit of the national game is a remnant of the British empire’s renowned capacity for efficient administration.
Each county became an administrative unit under the crown. To a large extent, that structure endures today. When the GAA began to make an impact in the late 19th century, it already had a ready-made structure for a national element of the games. And so it was that people came to identify themselves by their county. In GAA terms, this identity was forged into the DNA of all who took an interest in the games, and ultimately even those who didn’t.
The county system has plenty of anomalies. The teenage girl from deepest west Cork has far more in common with her friend across the border in Kenmare than she might with a girl from Mitchelstown in North Cork. As the old saying goes, what is a west Corkman but a Kerryman with shoes. Yet it is the county structure that provides identity.
Cork is a hurling county, but they barely play the game in the west of the county. The same goes for Galway. There are many other examples of where a uniform application to the games does not apply right across a county structure.
And then you have Dublin. In terms of the GAA, Dublin should have had huge advantages through most of the last century. For instance, in 1975, when Dublin football was in its pomp, the population of the county was 835,000 in a State of 3.2m.
But Dublin in those rare old times was only half tuned into the GAA. The games were, to a large extent, confined to certain pockets, principally on the northside of the city. Dublin GAA folk were a tribe within a county. You could go about your life in the city at the time and be under the impression that the GAA was something that happened beyond the metropolis, like farming or country-and-western music.
The Dublin teams were always distinguishable from their country cousins. The 1970s Dubs played with a swagger. That was hugely attractive in a nation with a severe deficit of self-confidence.
The success in the ’70s awoke many sections of the city to this weird game that they’d noticed being played by guards and teachers up the from country. But when the success faded, the interest began to wane.
Roll on another 40 years. Today, Dublin’s dominance of the State, economically and socially, is overwhelming. The old administrative units didn’t work, so they were split into four local authorities, each as large as most county councils. The population in 2019 is hitting 1.35m, in a State of 4.7m. A Government economic study, Project Ireland 2040, published in 2017, stated that Dublin now accounts for 49% of economic activity in the State. Since emerging from the last, deep recession, Dublin — and to a large extent the other cities in the State — has have been in the fast lane of a two-track economy.
The GAA in the city has also been motoring. No longer are the games regarded as a novelty. Through excellent work by the county board, the GAA now has widespread appeal, right across social classes.
Another attraction of the GAA in the city has been the ethos, including a community spirit that is at a premium these days. The popularisation of the games in the capital has been nothing less than spectacular.
As a result, the population imbalance that was always present is now reflected in the performance of the county GAA team. In such a milieu, the notion that Dublin should still be considered a “county”, nominally on a par with the other 31, is ridiculous.
Look, for instance, at how Dublin gets on in soccer. Four of the 10 teams in the League of Ireland Premier Division are Dublin-based. If the four were rolled into one, in terms of resources and support base, would any other club be able to realistically challenge its dominance?
London offers another example. The city has a population of 9m out of 55m in England. London has five clubs in a premier league of 20. Proportionately, this reflects the city’s size. Imagine if there was one club for all of London?
Official recognition that Dublin is no longer a county in GAA terms will have to come some day soon. In 2002, a review committee recommended splitting Dublin into two. That didn’t happen, largely because it would attack a primal identity feature of the GAA. The split, which as Brendan Behan noted, was the first item on the agenda of an Irish organisation, will, by contrast, be a long time coming in Dublin GAA. Good luck to whomever has to ultimately deal with the issue.
In the meantime, enjoy the sporting excellence of the current All-Ireland champions.
Their football and athletic prowess on the field is beyond dispute. Off it, they comport themselves with a humility which is a refreshing antidote to the empty posturing that permeates much of professional sport these days.
The ‘drive for five’ is done. They talk now of a ‘fix for six’. By the time they get to the ‘yen for ten’, the rest of the country may be throwing in for a second-tier intercountry competition.