When I was growing up in Tralee, the only black people you saw walking the streets of the town were the basketball imports who arrived in Ireland to play with the Tigers.
They were a complete novelty back in the day. People would be rubbernecking as they drove down the street to catch a glimpse of these unusually tall black men.
I’m sure it was probably there, but I don’t recall any great negativity towards them. To me, they were like gods; capable of running faster, jumping higher, and playing ball like nobody I had ever seen in the flesh.
But again, if you saw a couple of black guys walking around the town, you could tell with great confidence that they were only there to play basketball.
Those days seem like a very distant memory at this stage. It is like one of those stories you tell your kids now about a time before mobile phones and that if you wanted to talk to your friends you actually had to go to their house and knock on their door.
Today, Tralee is a town that reflects a changed Ireland in terms of diversity and ethnicity. Most of those who came from other countries have become assimilated into our community, while still holding onto their own identity and traditions, the same as everybody else. Many of their sons and daughters were born here, they go to school, they want to be with their friends, they play GAA, soccer, and plenty more besides.
GAA culture has long been silently governed by the macho omerta that ‘what happens on the field, stays on the field’.
When you really think about that kind of an approach, how are we ever to expose what goes on in the very darkest corners unless people are brave enough to shine a light on them?
To that end, I was delighted to learn that Éamonn Fitzmaurice wrote a letter to GAA headquarters in his capacity as principal of Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne to highlight elements of racist chanting that allegedly took place from a section of supporters from Naas CBS in their Hogan Cup semi-final a couple of weeks ago.
Fitzmaurice waited until after the All-Ireland Post Primary final had been played before submitting the school’s letter to ensure there was no confusion about their motivation for raising the issue.
It had nothing to do with the outcome of the game that saw the Dingle outfit well-beaten on the day. This was about lighting up one of those dark corners and calling out a very rare incident as wholly unacceptable and unrepresentative of the ethos of the association.
According to the Dingle school principal: “We have had great experiences playing football games in the Hogan Cup and Corn Uí Mhuirí but we have never experienced anything like this. We felt strongly that we had to take a stand on this matter and to ensure that this will not happen again to any other player or team.”
In all my time attending GAA games, I’ve never encountered anything racist from the terraces. Sure, fellas aren’t slow to tell you ‘you’re f**cking useless’, but those insults are generally based on a person’s ability as opposed to their skin colour, religion, or sexual orientation.
It would be foolish for me or any typically white Irish person to say we don’t have a problem with racism in the GAA or in the country. I’m sure my experiences are very different to those of Westmeath footballers Israel Ilunga and Boidu Sayeh who came to call Ireland home from war-torn Liberia.
There will always be minority elements who say or do stupid and uninformed things, and when magnified by the security of group-think, those actions can turn into something far worse.
While I can’t recall another incident like this one in a GAA context — and we’re certainly not talking about anything even remotely resembling the likes of Millwall or Chelsea of the 1980s — it is important nonetheless to highlight the issue so we all get an opportunity to consider it through the prism of the young footballer who it was directed towards, along with his family and friends.
It is a rarity, but one incident should be seen as one too many.
It begs the question; is there more we can do as an association to show even greater inclusivity than we do already?
What can we do to attract a higher percentage of children from multicultural backgrounds into our clubs and games?
How can we reemphasise one of our core messages that the only colour which matters is the jersey you are wearing and the community you are representing?
I’ve come across clubs all over the country who have tried various approaches to attract ‘new Irish’ into their folds. Something as small as doing a leaflet drop with club details and training times, in the languages that populate their catchment area can make a difference. It’s about creating engagement on a local level to show the GAA club is an open and inclusive place no matter your colour, or creed.
Clubs put on community barbecues, free camps, summer street leagues, and plenty more, so that the local population understands that their doors are open to everybody… the way the association has always operated. Shining a light into dark corners helps everybody see what might be lurking in there, until eventually those hard uninformed edges become smoothed out to reflect the open and inclusive modern GAA that we should aspire to be.