e’re an emotive bunch in the GAA. We exist in a tribal system where county allegiance isn’t chosen, but designated at birth. We take pride in the fact that our game is among the oldest and fastest of all sports. We tell ourselves myths about the prowess of hurlers and heroic on-field exploits, even codding ourselves that Cuchulainn himself was a hurler.
As in any team sport, the emphasis is on the collective rather than the individual, but the GAA’s ethos of amateurism and volunteerism intensifies this outlook. It simplifies motivations — we take part in the sport first and foremost for the love of it, and as long as the team succeeds, nothing else matters.
In media discourse, players are more often conceptualised as servants than as stars.
The cornerstone of this way of life, of course, is the club.
As the tagline of the All-Ireland club championship goes, it’s ‘one life, one club’, a riff Bono might have sung had he been born into hurling stock. GAA players believe fiercely in the idea that growing up in this parish rather than that parish shapes our identity in some essential way.
There is a sense of continuum that comes from playing in the same colours as your father and your grandfather.
When family members come to watch you play, you feel the weight of that tradition, the sense that you are a link in an unbroken chain.
‘Pride in the jersey’ is a phrase I first heard at around 10 or 11, playing for the U12s in the north Tipp final. The mentor giving his pre-match pep talk didn’t explain or unpack what this meant. He didn’t need to. It was implicit. Your club colours are your club colours and they will always look right to you, the way a loved one’s name will always sound right to you, no matter who bears it.
Under these circumstances, it’s unsurprising that the notion of transferring clubs feels like a foreign concept to many GAA people.
Even the word ‘transfer’, with its soccer implications, falls flat and wrong on GAA ears.
Earlier this year, I transferred from my home camogie club in Moneygall, Co Tipperary, to St Finbarr’s in Cork city.
At the time of the transfer, I’d been living and working in Cork for two and a half years, and had been training happily with the Barrs for two seasons.
Still, it was a struggle to arrive at the decision.
You can’t help but feel that you’re letting down your team-mates, many of them relatives and childhood friends, people you’ve grown up with and gone to school with and played alongside for years.
I started out playing junior B with Moneygall; we later progressed through intermediate after three cracks at the title. Being part of a team means investing in a collective goal, and ours was to reach a senior county final.
In 2015, we came within a hair’s breadth of this dream. You never really get over those close calls, those almost-but-not-quites. To abandon ship before that goal is achieved feels like a betrayal of a common cause.
You don’t come to a decision like this overnight.
It comes slowly, piece by piece. Over time, the very idea of transferring changes from something you could never imagine yourself doing, to a viable, even attractive option. But never forget that it is a selfish decision, a prioritising of the self before club. You have to own that stark fact.
There’s a commonsense element to transferring too, of course.
Whenever I talk to urban GAA players about the soul-searching that went into this decision, to them it’s the sensible, even obvious choice: ‘Sure you’re living here!’
On this point, there’s a distinction between urban and rural players, namely that travel is part and parcel of the rural club player’s life.
hether you’re away for college or working in a city, many of us don’t actually live in the community that holds our hurling allegiance.
Throwing your gear in the boot of the car after a day’s work and expending a tank of petrol to get to a match or a training session is standard practice.
Since transferring, I’ve become highly conscious of the little differences between urban and rural clubs. Urban clubs are more likely to have a clubhouse; rural clubs, a stand.
Urban clubs have the simple advantage of being situated in a more populous place, of having a larger pool to draw on.
Broadly speaking, urban clubs are likely to have more facilities, more resources, more personnel than their rural counterparts. While I’m enjoying being part of a larger set up, I also find myself worrying about the long-term prospects of rural clubs all over the country, as more and more players emigrate or migrate to urban centres. It’s not an even playing field. Like so many things in life, it boils down to a numbers game.
All in all, however, my transfer experience has been a very positive one.
I’m really enjoying my hurling. While in some ways, playing for a new club can’t compare to playing for the club where your roots run deep, in other ways it’s a refreshing new start.
The emotional highs aren’t quite as euphoric, but equally, the lows aren’t quite as crushing. There’s a freedom in starting fresh, in shuffling off the weight of history and continuity that comes with playing for your home club. And it’s lovely to only have to pop down the road for a match.
But the best part of the transfer has been the kindness of my clubmates, both old and new.
I was nervous and stressed about telling my long-term team-mates about my decision to switch clubs, but I needn’t have worried; they couldn’t have been sounder or more understanding.
Some well-deserved slagging about the Tipp hurlers’ loss to Cork aside, the Barrs have likewise done everything in their power to make me feel welcome.
Which just goes to show: Regardless of the hue of their jerseys, GAA members are cut from the same fabric.