MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Religion and the GAA in the 21st century

The easiest way to approach this morning’s column is with a simple thought-experiment.

Do you think the Angelus at 6pm on the telly is a) a harmless minute of reflection; b) something that always give you pause for a quick prayer; or c) an irritating holdover from a time when the Church more or less ruled the country?

I begin there because I was interested to see comments
recently from Tyrone player Ronan McNamee about the county team’s pre-game
ritual, specifically the decade of the rosary led by team
manager Mickey Harte.

“He (Harte) has a strong faith and naturally enough if you’re asked to do something, you do it,” said McNamee. “Everybody pulls the same way, whether it’s saying the rosary or going to Mass.”

There’s a bit to unpack there. McNamee’s point about everyone pulling the same way is a valid one — a team environment is a contradictory place to begin with, because it needs to facilitate individuals but also must, by definition, get those individuals to submit to the group’s aims and objectives.

By definition the people in an intercounty dressing-room tend to be driven, ambitious, aggressive people. Yet how easy is the presumption now that those are all Catholics?

I remember the great yarn emanating from a Cork GAA club about an underage team going to Dublin for a tournament, with the players being woken early on Sunday for Mass. One of those players
resisted the invitation, which led to some testy exchanges until said player laid his ace on the table: “I’m a Protestant.”

As an aside, this event took place three decades ago, not in the last couple of years. Which goes to show that those presumptions about modern diversity may need to be resisted.

In fairness to McNamee, he didn’t claim in his remarks that the Tyrone players were necessarily religious either: “Everyone comes from different backgrounds and might never have been to Mass since their confirmation. I go to Mass every Sunday and before every game. And when we’re away whether it’s staying in Dublin before a game or staying in Kerry before a game you would go to Mass as a team, whether it’s in the hotel or out to a chapel somewhere.”

What’s fascinating to me isn’t so much the level of belief among the Tyrone defence, never mind the possibilities of an ‘opium of the massed (defence)’ pun.

There are also the obvious political realities behind the GAA in Northern Ireland.

What about mundane realities, though? If you’re in charge of an intercounty minor team, for instance, do you book them all in for Mass the morning of a game? Do you give them the option to go or not? Do you contact parents? Do you ask individual players their religious beliefs? Should you accommodate the smart alec who claims to be an ordained Jedi High Priest, or just give him a thick ear?

It’s easy now to point to those great old pictures of bishops sitting on what look like thrones along the sidelines of big games, or the footage of clerics throwing in the ball and scurrying out of the way of footballers and hurlers moving with serious intent. It’s crying out for some Harry Enfield/Mr Cholmondeley-Warner-type voiceover.

But there’s a serious side. To what extent is the lazy assumption about religion in the GAA still extant? Never mind the increasing diversity in
belief, what about the rising numbers of unbelievers, and what they’re entitled to?

And the last point, which is what nobody really wants to talk about: has the GAA ever really replaced the unpaid thousands of coaches it
had for decades, the men wearing white collars as they impressed the basic skills on generations of kids?


Not only have I read it, I wrote it…

One of my favourite stories of all time — bar none — is the one about Joyce Kilmer in the trenches of the First World War, when… ah, I’ve either told it here before or I’ll tell it here next week.

I recently came across a challenger for its place in my mental library, though.

In December 1889, apparently, the Reverend WE Clarke of the London Missionary Society noticed another European near him on the beach at Apia, near his mission in Samoa.

Clarke noticed how thin the other man was, thinking he was unwell, perhaps, but he was so keen for company from home that he greeted him and was delighted to find a Scot with whom he could chat.

After some time Clarke mentioned ‘how much he had admired a book entitled Jekyll and Hyde’ and asked if the other man read the novel.

“Not only have I read it, I wrote it and before that I dreamt it,” replied Robert Louis Stevenson.

If that alone isn’t enough to make you buy Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Joseph Farrell, then you’re a lost cause.

Anyone buying or selling tickets?

I am shocked — shocked, as Claude Rains said — that there are tickets being sold for GAA games far above their face value.

Seriously, what is This Great Association doing with this terrible decision to cancel tickets which are being sold on for more than they’re worth?

This will bring an end to a hardy perennial story which every newspaper in the country has depended on for decades, surfacing on specific weekends in September for years.

I refer, of course, to that evergreen headline about the tickets being sold outside the Gresham for €1,000/fifty sovereigns/three Welsh slaves, all depending on the date of the game and state of the market.

Let the market set the price and give us our reliable stories.

If we don’t speak up now, what tradition goes next?

The booked-out trains?

The Monday night homecoming?


Sporting bores break down class barriers

I stumbled across a book that deserves its place on anyone’s ‘lost classics’ shelf during the week — Class; A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell.

A writer who fully deserved the title, ‘man of letters,’ Fussell published books on a whole range of topics, from Poetic Meter and Poetic Form to The Great War and Modern Memory.

The book on class, however, is regarded widely as one of his best — a naughty treat, in the words of one journalist.

With passages like the one quoted here, you can see why. “The World Series and the Super Bowl give every man his opportunity to perform as a learned bore, to play for the moment the impressive barroom pedant, to imitate for a brief season the superior classes identified by their practice of weighty utterance and informed opinion.”

The Premier League started last weekend.


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