Last Sunday week, the closing mass of the Eucharistic Congress was held in Croke Park.
On one level that’s understandable: the GAA’s big house is a de facto national stadium, as seen when the Special Olympics was held here. But the GAA has also been seen, traditionally, as close to the Catholic Church. Too close? The Association is organised on a parish basis, many clubs carry the names of local saints into combat and bishops threw in the ball to start All-Ireland finals for decades.
The assumption of Catholicism is so all-embracing that when a friend brought his U14 hurlers away on an overnight trip some years ago, he was stunned by one player’s reason for refusing to go to mass on Sunday morning.
“I can’t go,” said the youngster. “I’m Church of Ireland.”
Officially the GAA welcomes persons of all faiths, and none: it is non-aligned in terms of religion and politics. Clearly when the majority of the population were practising Catholics, the GAA’s membership reflected that.
What’s interesting, though, is what you learn when you look a little deeper into the history of the two organisations.
“If you look at the GAA and the Church it looks at one level that it’s all fine, smooth sailing, no problems,” says Paul Rouse of UCD.
“The GAA’s obviously based on Catholic parishes, Dr Croke was the first patron of the Association and successive archbishops of Cashel have been patrons of the GAA. The Christian Brothers made GAA games the main games in their schools, so all of that might suggest to you that ‘oh, these two organisations are hand in glove’.
“But the truth isn’t quite like that. At times there has been huge conflict.”
Rouse, along with Mark Duncan and Mike Cronin, has written books such as The GAA County By County and The GAA: A People’s History, outstanding works which move beyond a history which focuses on All-Ireland champions and big-name players. He illuminates Church-GAA relations by detailing the time when the clergy sought actively to smother the GAA.
“One of the biggest conflicts occurred in the 1880s, when the Church really hammered the GAA at the time. Priests believed — with good reason — that the Irish Republican Brotherhood was infiltrating the GAA and the clergy did their best to kill the Association.
“Another troublesome aspect of the Church’s relationship with the GAA is the issue of priests playing the games. For many years seminarians weren’t allowed to play hurling and football, and there are legendary stories of priests slipping out of seminaries to play games. That’s a big thing — to stop someone playing a game, and that ties into the idea of deference and issues like that.”
Rouse isn’t so sure the supposedly close relationship is all that tight any more. By way of illustration, he places both organisations in their wider social setting.
“The GAA has toned down its symbolism in terms of having the bishop throw in the ball and so on, but in general terms I would dispute the assertion that there is a huge tie-in between the GAA and the Catholic Church.
“I’d be more inclined to say that the Catholic aspect of the GAA reflects the Catholic aspect of wider Irish society. For some people it means a lot and for some people it means nothing.
“In the second half of the 20th century, while you couldn’t argue about the symbolism — singing ‘Faith of our Fathers’ on All-Ireland final day — away from that the involvement of the Catholic Church in the GAA was largely a matter of the personal sporting likes and dislikes of individual priests.”
Maybe we were wrong about that Eucharistic Congress mass. After all, the high-ranking GAA official we discussed this with informally stumped us by asking if we believed the GAA was too close to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who are due to fill the stadium in a fortnight’s time.
Fair point. We may be looking at the wrong sporting body, anyway.
“Everyone talks about the GAA being a Catholic organisation,” adds Rouse. “But you can’t get away from the fact that the Catholic schools which are regarded as the most prestigious in the country actually play rugby. There are a couple of exceptions, but they don’t play Gaelic games. In certain schools they actively discourage their pupils from playing Gaelic games. Who’s closer to the Church in that scenario?”
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