Tommy Martin: Gaelic football's blurred lines between decency and disgrace

For some of the GAA’s detractors, complaining about violence in Gaelic football is like a diner suggesting to a waiter that his soup is a bit wet.
Tommy Martin: Gaelic football's blurred lines between decency and disgrace

BLURRED LINES: Players and officials from both sides become embroiled as they make their way to the dressing rooms after full time. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

For some of the GAA’s detractors, complaining about violence in Gaelic football is like a diner suggesting to a waiter that his soup is a bit wet.

Is the whole sport, they reason, not just a turbulent continuum, that starts with off-colour remarks about your opponent’s mother, moves on to pushing and shoving, escalates to sly digs and occasional headlocks and runs all the way to full-scale donnybrooks in full view of a scandalised nation?

Was Gaelic football, these sceptics argue, not originally codified as a way of harnessing the natural pugilistic tendencies of the Irish at play, within the wider Victorian ethos of muscular Christianity? Was it not simply the ancient Irish custom of faction fighting made respectable, dispensing with blackthorn sticks and knuckle dusters and thereby resulting in slightly fewer fractured skulls?

And did the ensuing popularity of Gaelic football, they might theorise, not reflect a native thirst for the crack of bone on bone, for the physical confrontation as ultimate arbiter of masculine worth? Even into sanitised modern times, was the commodity of ‘manliness’ not coveted by TV pundits and ‘playing on the edge’ a prerequisite for all great teams? There is a ball involved, they might concede, but let us not get bogged down in details.

If you take this view, then the days since Sunday’s all-in rammy involving the footballers of Armagh and Galway will have been bewildering. Words like ‘disgraceful’ and ‘unacceptable’ have been commonplace, but the fact that one of the teams was partaking in its third such brawl in the space of five months suggests such carry-on must be acceptable to at least some degree.

Thus, non-GAA people might have sniggered at the high dudgeon that greeted the incidents at full-time in Croke Park, as if what happened were as shocking and unprecedented as an episode of the Antiques Roadshow ending in a Tarantino-esque bloodbath.

They will also have noted a protracted search among the GAA family for something called ‘the line,’ the location of which is known to all until the moment several dozen musclebound men commence to wrassling. ‘The line’ is the mythical barrier beyond which the GAA’s permissible acts of violence shall not stray. Think of it in the same way that protagonists of kinky sex games might use a ‘safe word’ – once everyone knows ‘the line’, then hammer away boys.

As an erstwhile ranking officer in the GAA’s disciplinary machinery, former Croke Park referees chief Pat McEnaney should know better than most where ‘the line’ is. Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Today With Claire Byrne show on Monday, the one-time whistler attempted to calmly explain the frontier beyond which the rowdy Gael may not tread.

“There’s a line in Gaelic football that you don’t cross,” McEnaney confidently advised, before losing his bearings somewhat. “Gouging, spitting. A Gaelic footballer will tell you, a box is a decent thing in a football match, even though that is unacceptable as well…” 

“Eh, is a box okay?” Byrne interjected.

“Er, no it’s not okay,” McEnaney said, his mouth and brain now grappling with each other like two intercounty Maor Uisces. “I’m not saying it’s okay, but a Gaelic footballer will tell you it’s decent, compared to those two items [gouging and spitting].” 

That something can be at once decent and at the same time unacceptable tells you of the philosophical Hall of Mirrors one enters into when talking about violence in the GAA.

Narrating clips of the hot-blooded antics on The Sunday Game, former Tyrone star Sean Cavanagh also attempted to locate the fabled ‘line’. “Sometimes this is okay, Des,” Cavanagh explained over the initial exchanges involving Galway’s Damien Comer and sundry Armagh defenders, “when it is the playing members involved and it’s a show of raw emotion and it’s in the white heat of battle. But then you get men involved that shouldn’t be there…” 

As the now-familiar pictures of Comer being gouged by un-togged Armagh forward Tiernan Kelly played out, Cavanagh lamented the scenes, particularly the involvement of various hangers-on, then concluded that “it’s okay up to a certain point, but after that point, it’s a disgrace.” 

Or as Ron Burgundy might say: boy, that escalated quickly.

It was a major source of regret for many Gaelic football fans that Sunday’s unpleasantness marred what had been a glorious exhibition of all that is good about the sport. The game itself was the kind of high-octane ding-dong all too rare in the intercounty scene, a guts and glory mix of precision skill and physical abandon that made you forget about any amount of cautious, handpass-infested dross.

Played as nature intended, Gaelic football (and hurling) are volatile concoctions, mixing unstable elements like aggression and physicality, one-to-one combat and nativist passion. At their best, they flow freely, wildly. Occasionally, they explode.

That there is a widely held and unspoken tolerance of this fact is illustrated by the comically feeble GAA disciplinary procedures, which often appear to have the same effectiveness at clamping down on violence as Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane chasing down the Dukes of Hazzard. Bans are appealed, dirty blows excused and folklore tells tales of bygone hard men. People get the governments they deserve, as they say. The sketchy whereabouts of ‘the line’ reflect a tacit accommodation with the dark side, an acceptance of the beast that lurks behind the beauty.

Aside from the well-choreographed outrage, post-brawl analysis has also focused on housekeeping issues like the location of dressing rooms and the cast of thousands loitering with intent around intercounty sidelines. These might seem like cosmetic matters in the face of such a threat to the souls of the nation’s children. But at least this approach acknowledges that a potential for violence is part of the unique chemistry of Gaelic games, and that the line between the acceptable and disgraceful has a funny habit of getting blurred.

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