County boundaries are sacred lines in Irish life

The general election offers a gorgeous insight into the importance of the county boundary in modern Irish life.

County boundaries are sacred lines in Irish life

The way new constituencies have been created around the country for this election has upset a few people who now see their local areas stitched on to the lands of neighbouring counties.

It’s as if they are the cousins you have to invite to the wedding and end up shoving them into a few seats at a table where they know nobody.

There are many examples of this: there’s the bit of Mayo (extending to more than 10,000 people) that is now part of Galway West constituency, the bit of Kildare (with some 7,000 people) that has been given to the new constituency of Laois and so on.

These changes may make sense in terms of geography and population, but the problem is the boundaries between counties are sacred lines in Irish life.

Usually, rivalry between counties is revealed and sustained through Gaelic games — there is no contest as intense as the one between border rivals. People who might agree on everything else fall out over football and hurling. And from this sporting rivalry flows all manner of other differences.

Each county — in its own way — is perceived to be a place apart, with its own traditions and its own history. You may be born just a field or a street away from your neighbour, but if a county boundary runs through that field or street, your neighbour is somehow different. For all that you might love that neighbour, you would not trade places with them.

Typically, of course, these differences are imagined rather than real; they are things which are invented to sustain a tradition — whether invented or not, they are important nonetheless.

It is within this context that, for example, the decision to create a sort of Gaza Strip in North Tipperary and make it part of the new Offaly constituency can be seen.

Talking to people from Borrisokane and Lorrha and other villages, they leave no doubt as to their resentment at their new-found Offaly citizenship.

And for Offaly people, having shed the weight of the people of Laois from their backs (it was the constituency of Laois-Offaly from 1921) and secured an independent homeland, they are now burdened with 10,000 people of uncertain loyalty.

Against that, this is a union that has also allowed some happy sneering: the view in Offaly is that the negative reaction of the Tipp people is the inevitable response of those who have come to understand that they are now dealing with a superior civilisation and are feeling a little insecure!

It was the Normans who began the evolution of the county system when they introduced an English system of shires and counties to the Irish landscape — boundaries (although many remained fluid for quite a time) were introduced and counties began to emerge.

By 1200AD, counties such as Cork, Kerry, Louth, Tipperary and Waterford had come into being. The basic process continued until Wicklow became the last of 32 counties to be created in 1606.

For most Irish people, any sense of county identity, prior to the 19th century, was most likely relatively weak — indeed, there was nothing inevitable about the triumph of county loyalties. Increasingly, though, during the 1800s the county functioned as an administrative unit for British colonisers. Bodies such as the Royal Irish Constabulary were organised around county units of organisation and the census was collected on a county basis.

The campaign for catholic emancipation, the Land League and other movements were organised by county and during the 19th century various history books were written which chronicled the history of various counties.

A further major shift in developing county affiliations took place between 1833 and 1846, when Ireland was mapped by the Ordnance Survey.

While the process of mapping was met by suspicion and even violence in certain parts, the reality of the maps was simple and powerful: people now knew in which county they lived, where the boundaries of that county were, and where next door began.

This was further reinforced when the counties began to be used as the unit of local government from 1888.

Initially, it had not been the intention of the men who established the GAA in 1884 to use the county structure of Ireland as a basis on which to develop their association. In the beginning, it was simply decided to establish clubs across Ireland and these clubs were asked to affiliate to the central committee of the GAA.

The extraordinary and immediate growth in the number of GAA clubs left it impossible for the GAA to regulate matters at central level.

There was already a precedent within sporting organisations for responding to a rapid increase in the number of affiliated clubs. In England, the men who organised soccer, rugby and cricket used the English county structure as the basis for their own rapid spread.

It is, of course, impossible to know if the GAA consciously followed the model laid down by sporting bodies in England — and, anyway, there were other dynamics at play: across the country local clubs were already thinking of themselves in county terms.

For example, hurling teams from Tipperary travelled to Cork to play local club teams in a series of matches on a Sunday afternoon in August 1886. It was a remarkable occasion, full of pageantry and music, and the newspapers estimated up to 20,000 spectators turned up. The Cork teams were generally victorious but, even the local Cork papers were drawn to admit the partisan behaviour of the local referees and the continuous interference of local fans affected the chances of the Tipp men. Despite this, those same papers preened at the defeat of Tipp teams and lauded the superior skill of the Corkmen.

The second critical factor in determining the GAA should organise on county lines was the decision in 1886 to establish All-Ireland hurling and football championships. The rules upon which this championship were based identified the club as the primary unit of the GAA, but also clearly laid the basis on which the future primacy of the county was founded.

These rules stated the All-Ireland Championship was open to all affiliated clubs of the GAA; that clubs in each county would first play off a championship between themselves on a knockout basis; and that then the winning club in each county would proceed to play off, again on a knock-out basis, against the winning teams from the other counties until an All-Ireland champion emerged.

Critically, to facilitate the running of the championship it was decided county committees (the forerunners of modern county boards) should be established in each county. It was to these county committees so much power ultimately devolved within the GAA.

If the establishment of county committees was vital to the future, so too was the manner in which GAA people observed the rules — or,perhaps, failed to observe them. From that very first championship a practice was established whereby the winning club in each county pulled in the best hurlers from other clubs in the county upon entering the All-Ireland championship.

So it was that when Thurles played Meelick in the first ever All-Ireland hurling final in April 1888, the Thurles team contained men from Moyne and Borris and other parishes around Thurles, while the Meelick team included men from Killimor and Eyrecourt and Mullagh. By the rules, they were illegal.

Quickly, it became apparent the only way to police such a tendency towards illegality was to legislate for its acceptance. It was soon accepted the winning club in each county would have the right to choose whichever hurlers it wished to play with it during the All-Ireland championships.

Over time, more and more players were brought in to supplement the county champions. Steadily, too, the selection of county teams became the preserve of the county committee, rather than the champion club — in some counties this happened shortly after 1900, in others in took several more decades. Although there were occasional pleas the county was not the appropriate structure for the proper organiSation of the GAA, these were lost in a fervour of local patriotism.

This local patriotism remains undimmed — it is enough to ensure that in the minority enclaves of new ‘multi-ethnic’ constituencies, people will vote for ‘their candidate’, regardless of party affiliation or matters of policy. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the option of taking the lead from Donald Trump and threatening to build a wall.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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