MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Armagh abuse claims just a storm in a teacup

It says something when the most bizarre GAA story of the week was neither the stream of oddities from Waterford, nor the confrontation involving Anthony Daly and a patron at the end of Kilkenny-Dublin last Sunday (you have to love the term ‘confrontation’ there, suggesting as it does a face-off between two Marvel Comics superheroes.

1995-Man takes on Anonymous! Limited Edish, natch!)

No. The bizarre abuse claim made by the Armagh footballers against their Laois counterparts surely takes the didn’t-see-that-on-the-horizon award for the last seven days.

If your memory cells have performed a mercy self-obliteration in that regard, allow us to refresh: Armagh claimed, following last week’s defeat in the NFL to Laois, that their players had been subjected to verbal abuse along the lines of “British bastard” during the game, abuse they regarded as racial in nature. This storm in a teacup barely made it into the saucer, however, before suddenly dissolving: the two counties issued a joint statement in the middle of the week with Laois apologising for the poverty of their banter and Armagh toning down their earlier claims instead insisting that “inappropriate” comments were made.

What this suggests about the susceptibility of Armagh players to chants of “God Save The Queen” we leave to your imagination, but it’s a bit of an eye-opener, or more accurately an ear-opener, to this column, which has laboured for years under the illusion that along with superior cardiovasular facility, raw physical strength and outstanding skills, the verbal abuse at the intercounty level was far above the pay grade of us ordinary mortals.

According to reliable — though invariably off-the-record — remarks from elite hurlers and footballers, practically anything can be said to you when you cross the white lines to play for your county, and it often is. Marriage break-ups are raised with errant husbands and players struggling with drinking problems are asked how sobriety suits them.

Family bereavements are mentioned. Business problems are well ventilated. It’s not always at the standard of the Algonquin Round Table, of course. One player of our acquaintance remembered his efforts to sledge an opponent from the other end of the country who responded in the same style.

“I gave up after a few minutes,” he recalled. “I realised he didn’t understand a word I was saying, and I certainly didn’t understand a word that he was saying, so we both just focused on the ball.”

Clearly this kind of mouthing off is unedifying at best and shameful at worst, but there’s been a ferocious level of talk going on in certain quarters on intercounty hurling and football fields for years. It’s not something new. What is new is the Armagh claim that it’s racist.

They’ve withdrawn that claim now but it raises the valid question: is calling a Northern player “British” racist abuse? Not by our lights. Throwing the “British” card at Northern teams is hardly new – which doesn’t excuse it – but without getting into the obvious grounds for rebuttal on cultural outlook, you couldn’t call our Northern brethren a race apart.

What the nonsense of the last week does, however, is make it difficult when the first high-profile racial abuse incident takes place in the GAA, which assuredly will happen. The increased diversity in the Irish population over the last ten to fifteen years is bound to feed through to intercounty hurling and football, as in other sports, and it’s hardly a challenge to the powers of the crystal ball to presume someone somewhere will disgrace themselves.

You need only look at England, and the furore over John Terry’s alleged remarks to Anton Ferdinand to see that this can happen even in a country whose major sport has generations of experience in racial issues. Look west instead of east and you’ll see a recent controversy erupting over a loose word in a headline about Chinese-American Jeremy Lin, the rising star of the NBA: the Americans invented racial sensitivity and they still drop a clanger every now and then.

The late-onset sensitivity of the Armagh footballers thus becomes an easy stick with which to play down any racial controversy that occurs in the future within the GAA, however. You can almost hear people saying ‘I suppose we’ll get a joint statement in a few days time’ when and if such an incident happens, rather than treating it with due seriousness.

Note that we referred to the ‘Armagh footballers’ above, by the way. We didn’t use the term ‘Orchard County’ at any point because we didn’t wish to offend anyone by mentioning apples.

People are sensitive, you know?

* michael.moynihan@examiner.ie Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx


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