Gaelic games has never enjoyed such cross-spectrum appeal, but the absence of diversity in the summer narrative is a source of concern — not least with other sports ready and willing to step up to the mic, writes Paul Rouse.
There are many interesting men playing inter-county Gaelic football and hurling. Meeting them is often a pleasure: They are well-educated, articulate, and many have thought-provoking things to say about all manner of things.
But there is something happening at the moment in the promotion of Gaelic games and it centres on the position of those inter-county players.
They are now routinely rolled out at corporate events and for championship launches and they say next to nothing.
It is difficult to think of inter-county players who have publicly said anything genuinely different or told a story that moves beyond the banal. The Dublin cornerback Philly McMahon is an exception to that rule and Cahir Healy from Laois has also been willing to speak his mind, but there are whole teams of inter-county players around the country who remain almost entirely unknown.
Why is that? What has brought us to the point where players are not willing to say anything meaningful in public?
Perhaps it is a simple matter of players being told by their county managers not to give interviews, not to say anything of note on social media. This Pravda-style messaging strategy is dismal in its treatment of players as incapable of behaving as adults. And why do players accept it?
Perhaps it is to do with the whole corporate garb that surrounds GAA events now, as designed by Croke Park. For rocking up and issuing a few mundane platitudes, players got thrown some money and the wheel turns again. This centralisation of message has reduced GAA media events to a dreary rehearsal of cliché after cliché.
The thing is that it simply isn’t working. Attendances are falling and almost all GAA events are now lost in the noise of the modern media. They are insipid, monotone, merely meaningless froth that evaporates and leaves no trace.
Until very recently GAA people were unafraid to be different, had the confidence to do things their own way. From its very inception, the men involved in every aspect of the GAA understood the importance of media exposure. Indeed, the very establishment of the GAA had been a triumph of propaganda.
The idea of the new Association had first been floated in the press by Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin in the summer of 1884. Then, three of the seven men who were at the founding meeting of the GAA were journalists and their use of the media to sell the GAA was essential to the Association’s early development.
Central to this was the weekly column on GAA matters that Michael Cusack secured in the populist nationalist newspaper, United Ireland. Cusack wrote that getting such a presence in the media was proof that ‘our dream was not all a dream’, rather something real and genuinely possible.
This was particularly the case because of the presence in the media of existing sporting organisations. The easy courtship of newspapers and sports such as soccer or rugby was carried out amid a whirl of free publicity. There were obvious mutual benefits of a sporting world full of heroic men performing almost mythical feats which were spun by the press and sold to the public.
The first hurlers and footballers took this one step further. PP Sutton, who played in Wexford and then in Dublin, became the country’s first full-time GAA reporter in 1886. He worked for a weekly newspaper called Sport, which was an offshoot of the national daily newspaper the Freeman’s Journal. Sutton wrote reports, previews, and gossip, and also offered advice to aspiring players. One column was written as advice to men in Louth who had never played hurling and wished now to start: ‘Get a few balls and puck them about indiscriminately. Strike both left and right as hard and as fast as possible, and let no-one stop the ball with his feet.’
Almost immediately, GAA matches became a vital part of the national and local press. Teams were printed and clubs used the space provided to make all the mundane arrangements which attach themselves to the proper functioning of every sports organisation.
Not all of these notes were mundane as clubs also used the opportunity to shame their own players as the occasion arose. When a Gaelic football club in Tipperary lost a match against neighbours, it used the national press to blame the defeat on three players, one of whom had taken to the drink, with the other two being described as too lazy to bother playing.
For many matches, newspapers replied on notes submitted by competing clubs. This created its own problems, particularly when a match ended in dispute. A match in Meath between Ratoath and Bellewstown saw the Ratoath team send in a match report which noted their one-point victory but lamented that Bellewstown had left the field early due to a dispute with the referee. The version sent in by the Bellewstown men claimed it was the Ratoath men who left the field early, but not before they had engaged in ‘unGaelic and unmanly practices’, not least of which was brandishing shillelaghs to impose their order on the game.
Once it became clear that the GAA was not merely surviving, but also thriving, a new generation of journalists was employed. After 1900 coverage of the games in the local and national press expanded steadily. Writing on the games was supplemented by the increasing use of photographs, firstly simple team shots, then later shots of players in action.
What matters is that the GAA was sufficiently savvy to build a relationship with the press that proved mutually beneficial and it was similarly attuned when the great mystery of radio was revealed in Ireland.
One Sunday in the summer of 1926, PD Mehigan, a well-known GAA journalist, sat behind a table in the press stand in Croke Park. On the table was a large mahogany box with wires and screws and numerous mysterious gadgets.
Attached to the mahogany box was a wire which led to a leather headset. The headset was placed on Mehigan and a yellow brass tube was positioned in front of his mouth. A signal came from an office beneath the Hogan Stand that they were ‘on air’. With just the two teams on a slip of paper in front of him, PD Mehigan began the first radio broadcast of a GAA match — the 1926 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Kilkenny.
Mehigan began with a preview of the game, then commentated on the first half, filled half-time with summary, and resumed commentary for the second half. By the time he was finished, he remembered being extremely tired, but was boosted by the elation of the radio engineers who had pioneered the broadcast.
The scale of the achievement was such that this was one of the first live sports broadcasts in Europe. Indeed, the very notion of the live broadcast of sport had only recently been experimented with in the US and there were many who doubted that it was technically possible to achieve what was achieved in Croke Park on that day.
Not that everyone was enthusiastic about the achievement. Mehigan described his first commentary as ‘constant shouting’ and it greatly upset his colleagues in the press box trying to take notes.
At Mehigan’s suggestion, subsequent commentaries were shifted to the sidelines of the field. This, in turn, brought its own problems. Mehigan recalled broadcasting a hurling match in Cork, when the crowd got out of hand and swarmed around the commentary position to the point where he could see nothing of the game. He stood on a chair to try to keep the commentary going, but still the crowds came. Eventually, his equipment was swept away and the broadcast broke down.
One of Mehigan’s successors, Éamonn de Barra, the editor of the GAA-related An Gaedheal magazine, was also reported to have had one of his broadcasts interrupted. While commentating on the 1933 All-Ireland football final between Cavan and Galway, de Barra was told at the point of a gun to stop speaking. An unknown voice told listeners to support the Republican prisoners then on hunger strike in Mountjoy jail. When the protesters left the box, de Barra continued his commentary.
Through the 1930s and on through the 1940s and 1950s, crowds gathered around radios and the celebrity of GAA players went to a new level. The popularity of GAA radio commentaries drove newspapers to increase their coverage of hurling and football, and attracted thousands eager to see with their eyes, what they had heard from the radio.
And, again, the crowds grew and grew.
Then, in the 1960s, the GAA’s embrace of TV brought a new dimension to coverage. This TV coverage on the newly opened national broadcaster RTÉ was building on the broadcast of GAA matches as cine-reel footage in cinemas. As early as 1901 the first known filming of a GAA match was a hurling game played at Jones Road — now Croke Park. That film has long been lost and the oldest known surviving footage is less than 30 seconds of the 1913 Kerry v Wexford Croke Cup match. Later, hurling featured in Hollywood films made in the 1930s and in Pathé newsreels broadcast across the middle decades of the 20th century.
In its first year of operation, RTÉ was allowed to broadcast the 1962 All-Ireland football and hurling finals, the football semi-finals, and the Railway Cup finals for a nominal fee. This arrangement continued through the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1990s the GAA was sufficiently moved by the growth in the number of soccer matches on TV to put more of its own championship matches on air.
This increase coincided with a new approach to sponsorship, a revamp of the structure of the championship, the redevelopment of Croke Park, and a general sense that the Association was thriving. By the turn of the millennium, live television coverage of Gaelic games had become an essential part of the Irish summer. The viewing figures, Sunday after Sunday, were superb. In 2006, for instance, despite the fact that Ireland won the triple crown in rugby, Munster won the Heineken Cup, and the World Cup soccer finals were held in Germany, the most-watched sports programme in Ireland, was the All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Kilkenny which averaged more than three-quarters of a million viewers.
In recent years, coverage of Gaelic games in the newspapers, on radio and on TV has been added to by coverage on websites, notice boards, blogs, and various forms of social media.
In the modern way, the manner in which all media now is integrated, wrapped around itself like bindweed, there has surely never been as much comment available.
But genuine substance is lacking.
And in the coverage of sport, genuine substance resides in the human stories that sit at its core. Without these stories a sport loses much of its resonance.
Any chance there’s a player out there who might break the mould?
Or maybe two?
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