The general bemusement that has flowed from GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghaíl’s comments on the possibility of the Irish national anthem and the tricolour no longer being used at GAA matches is understandable, writes Paul Rouse

The logic or intent of his timing remains unclear. And the fact that he was moved within a couple of days to clarify still further the already hypothetical nature of his comments was revealing.

But if the ambition was to provoke a discussion within the GAA, then the scope of any such discussion would have to extend far beyond flags and anthems.

The starting point of such a discussion could be: What is the GAA’s relationship with Irish nationalism and Irish national identity?

The GAA’s Official Guide is absolutely clear that such a relationship exists and is fundamental to the GAA. On the first page of that guide — in what amounts to a three-paragraph ‘mission statement’ — it is claimed that those who play its games and who run the organisation see the GAA as “a means of consolidating our Irish identity”. More than that, it sees the “primary purpose of the GAA” as being “a means to create a disciplined, self-reliant, national-minded manhood”. And more than that again, all of this amounts to “the expression of a people’s preference for native ways as opposed to imported ones”.

The Official Guide then moves on to note that, because of partition, “Ireland’s claim to nationhood is impaired” and concludes: “Today, the native games take on a new significance when it is realised that they have been a part, and still are a part, of the Nation’s desire to live her own life, to govern her own affairs.”

It is one thing, of course, to have a mission statement and altogether another to have actual rules that give meaning — or attempt to give meaning — to broader ambitions.

And the GAA does have a slew of rules which are framed around these ideas of Irish nationhood.

For example, the GAA commits itself to “actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of national culture”.

It also commits to “use all practical endeavours to support Irish industry, especially in relation to the provision of trophies and playing gear and equipment”. There are precise rules around the use of Irish in official documentation, and the flying of the flag and anthem (hurlers must remove their helmets, for example).

And the GAA commits to being “non-party political” in its meetings, and anyone who infringes on this can be suspended for six months.

There is also a commitment to “principles of inclusion and diversity at all levels”, and an avowed anti-racist and anti-sectarian policy.

Every working constitution of every sporting organisation is an uneasy manifestation of historical experience, present realities, and attempts to imagine the future.

The reality of the GAA’s Official Guide is that it is almost entirely consumed with the practical operation of a modern sporting organisation.

It could not be otherwise. So it is that the rules of the Association are spelled out in the sort of minute detail in everything from disciplinary procedures to membership and affiliation processes. The current success of the GAA is rooted in the smooth and proper operation of all of these rules.

But — as the mission statement and the rules in respect of Irishness and national identity that flow from it demonstrate — the shadow cast by history is a real one, The foundation of the GAA amid the tumult of the 1880s shaped its origins as a nationalist organisation. The ‘Britishness’ of large swathes of Irish popular culture was undeniable and the GAA was — in part — an Irish cultural nationalism reaction against this.

The GAA sought from the beginning to make Irish people choose between “Irish laws” and “English laws”, and between “native” and “foreigner”. This was a potent rhetorical flourish in the divided politics of Ireland, notwithstanding its eschewal of history for propaganda.

The remnants of that era are plain to see in the Official Guide. For example, in the appendices, there are short portraits of the men who founded the GAA, in which they are lauded for the commitment to the creation of a “Free and Gaelic Ireland”.

Also in the appendices, there is a reprint of Archbishop Thomas Croke’s letter, written in support of the GAA in December 1884, in which he pledges his support for the GAA against the “degenerate dandies” of the Empire and their games which were mere “effeminate follies”.

To deny the history of the GAA as an organisation filled with nationalists would be entirely wrong (even if the GAA’s contribution to 1916 and the War of Independence has been grossly overstated).

Equally, the impact of partition and the violence of the post-1969 decades has inevitably shaped the nature of the GAA. The reality of that experience was clearly set out by Joe Brolly last weekend in his passionate, compelling evocation of the role of the GAA club in nationalist communities in Northern Ireland (or in some such communities, at least, and the image constructed was of a very particular type of Irishness).

It would make no sense to dismiss the potency of such sentiments and to deny the symbolic attachment to the flag and the anthem.

This is an attachment that is broadly shared by nationalists all across the island.

But, of course, the logical extension is that in these symbols and — especially — in the ambitions set out in the Official Guide, there can be no real place for unionists within the GAA.

U

nless, of course, it is understood that all those unionists who might wander into the GAA are simply pretending that they agree with the Association’s clearly expressed “primary purpose”, as set out in the Official Guide.

Would they be alone in such pretences? Do the great majority of GAA members agree their involvement in the GAA is, ultimately, the expression of their preference for native ways over imported ones?

It is undoubtedly true that GAA members are extremely proud of their games.

Part of that pride comes from the fact that these games are Irish games and are a badge of distinction.

There is, however, a limit to which this pride extends. It is one thing to be proud of games you play and altogether another to imagine such games are inherently superior to what the GAA still officially calls “imported games”, just because they are Irish.

These are the type of imaginings that were prevalent in certain GAA circles in the middle decades of the 20th century.

The GAA had in its ranks men who believed the Association’s mission was to render Ireland’s political revolution meaningful in a cultural sense, by establishing an Irish-Ireland. Ultimately, though, they believed too much.

Their belief led them — for example — to expel from his role as patron of the GAA, Douglas Hyde, who, in 1938, in his capacity as the first president of Ireland, attended an international soccer match in Dublin in the course of the duties of his office.

The rules of the GAA at the time stipulated that no member could attend a soccer match. The thing was that, as well as being the President, Hyde was celebrated as a founding father of modern Ireland; he was a distinguished Gaelic scholar and the intellectual driving-force behind the founding of the Gaelic League.

He had also been friendly with Michael Cusack, the GAA’s founder, whom he had come to know in Irish language circles in Dublin in the 1880s.

The decision to deploy the ban rules against a man who had helped to invent the very ideal of an ‘Irish-Ireland’ which the rules were supposed to help establish was, at the least, a perversion of common sense.

This was a debacle that demonstrated how the contested politics of Ireland continued to have a significant bearing on its sport, as well as the sense of unresolved struggle that flowed from the partition of Ireland.

T

he Troubles ensured that the sporting divides of Ireland were routinely given new impetus (often in the most horrific of ways), but has any of this been changed by the Good Friday Agreement?

The architecture of that Agreement, and in particular the fact there is now an invisible border between north and south in terms of trade and travel, amount to an agreed Ireland. It is not a United Ireland, of course, but it is what all the main political parties on the island have signed up for and what the people of the island voted for by referendum. But how does the wording of the GAA’s Official Guide sit with this Agreement? It seems clear that, in its opening page at least, it sits at odds with political shifts and the evolution of ideas around identity.

All of which brings us back to the purpose of the GAA and its place in Irish life.

That the GAA is more than just a sporting organisation is clear. At a most basic level, the role of clubs as the focal point of many communities makes this point with practical eloquence.

Equally, though, it should be acknowledged that the legacy of history and the practicalities of past inheritances mean that the GAA’s communities in Ireland essentially exclude all unionists. This is something that extends far beyond flags and anthems.

What is the GAA’s relationship with Irish national identity?


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