Church still in big league of modern Ireland

A cousin of mine is fond of telling a story from a day in school long ago, when her class was tasked with a question to take home to their parents: what was the most memorable event in their lives?

Church still in big league of modern Ireland

You can work out the age ranges of the parents from two of the responses. Her own folks nominated the Pope’s visit in 1979. A classmate’s parents picked out an event they’d attended themselves almost a decade earlier: Woodstock.

Interesting, then, to read comments from Bishop Brendan Leahy in last Friday’s Examiner: “ . . . it is good news to hear that 78% of our population have affirmed their Catholic belief. I doubt even the GAA has such a level of affiliation . . . (people come to the) big matches, as it were (Christmas mass, funerals and major events) . . . before he left Ireland, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, said there is still so much to play for in Ireland.”

Where to begin?

First off, extending your sports metaphors beyond common sense is never a good idea.

Your columnist still fondly remembers the Finance Minister who swamped himself with references to bombing on and tucking in and withdrawing full-backs and overlapping at an Oireachtas committee. Listeners were left with an image of fiscal rectitude being enacted by a particularly fluid three-at-the-back system — hence the jarring note in Bishop Leahy’s “so much to play for in Ireland”. You can almost imagine the effort needed not to get stuck into “injury time beckoning” or some such.

Second, despite the implied compliment to the GAA in terms of its reach and popularity, saying your Judaeo-Christian framework of morality is more appealing than Gaelic football and hurling is almost an admission of defeat, surely.

Any time the population would almost prefer a decent run in the qualifiers or maybe a national league title to eternal salvation you know that the message isn’t really getting through.

Third, however, you can pick up a nice snapshot here of what Ireland is now. I met someone for coffee last week and he pointed out that in living memory we could have struggled for a meeting place serving same that was open on Good Friday because of the power wielded by the Church.

Now the main religious organisation in the country is saying ‘well, at least we’re bigger than a sporting body almost two thousand years younger than us’. It’s a strange metric to use, but a telling one.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, when it comes to the Church and the GAA. Last week, for instance, Paul Rouse told a great story about Mick Mackey foxing opponents at a ceremonial throw-in by clerics, racing away with the ball to score.

Paul was making a point about Mackey’s ingenuity, but you wouldn’t have to stretch yourself to imagine a puzzled youngster reading that and asking, ‘what was a priest doing out on the field in the first place?’ Obviously teasing out the long and complicated relationship between the church and the GAA — with all sporting bodies, come to that— is labour better suited to a book or documentary series. Maybe we’ll come back to that.

But when Bishop Leahy says people still come back to the Church for “big matches, as it were”, does that mean many of them pay no attention to the bread-and-butter of league and club games (as it were)? And if so, what county does he have in mind when he says that?

Immaculate reception awaiting a sporting icon

As luck would have it, I stumbled across a new biography of Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, written by Jon Finkel - on the very day that news broke of Dan Rooney’s passing.

Rooney’s family have owned the Pittsburgh Steelers since the start, and Dan was the key man in the office during their glory days of the seventies, when Greene was the key man in their defence.

A few years back I sat down with Dan Rooney in his capacity as US Ambassador to Ireland, and he was engaging company, discussing boxers such as Fritzie Zivic and Billy Conn, his preference for hurling over Gaelic football, and, of course, the Steelers and Joe Greene.

When I asked about the ‘Immaculate Reception’, for instance, the famous play which got the Steelers over the line in an epoch-defining game against the Oakland Raiders, the ambassador became animated, re-enacting his run to the press box for the phone call to the chief of officials...

Anyway. Dan Rooney’s influence on American sport was far-ranging, and this country benefited from the Ireland Funds, which he co-founded. But for a sports nerd, hearing him eulogise Joe Greene’s attitude on the field - “tremendous” - made for a great afternoon.

Rest in peace.

Cameras should go behind the scenes

Regular readers of this column will be aware of the fondness for Laochra Gael around these parts, and that is not due to the fact that the Nemeton cameras have not yet cracked when trained on your columnist’s face.

This season of the series is up to the usual standard - Tommy Walsh, for instance, seems even better now than when he was tormenting every county in Ireland - but last week I was struck by something when writing about Vincent Linnane, the Austin Stack Park Groundsman and Kerry kitman.

Dara Ó Cinnéide — who himself featured in L.G. a couple of weeks ago — said there were people like Linnane in every county in Ireland, which made me wonder: wouldn’t a Laochra Gael focusing on the men and women behind the scenes make a decent series?

Wher is the great GAA novel for our time?

It’s short notice I know, but what else would you be at on a Bank Holiday Monday morning?

There is a Cruinniu na Casca event today in Dublin Castle (The Printworks) which features yours truly in a special appearance on Liffeyside.

The great Jim Carroll of Banter chairs a discussion entitled ‘Where Is The Great GAA Novel?’ with Rachael English of RTÉ, Eimear Ryan of Banshee and this parish, Kieran Cunningham of the Daily Star and myself. Throw-in is 11am and tickets are free but need to be booked (see late though it is).

I make no guarantees or predictions about what I intend to say, but I can say with confidence that I will not resemble the large photograph of me on this page.

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