opinion : Andy West

Gaelic games protecting Irish identity

Andy West

MARCH 12 — Crash!

For a couple of seconds, my world was spinning around and I lost all awareness of time and space.

Quickly I recovered my senses, and remembered that I was on a playing field at the welcoming Na Fianna sports club on the outskirts of Dublin.

I was spending a weekend catching up with some old university friends on a brief sojourn to the Irish capital and, as part of our festivities, we were enjoying an introductory immersion into traditional Irish sports — Gaelic games, as they are commonly known.

The first sport we tried out was Gaelic football, and that was when my “Crash!” moment happened.

Anyone who has ever seen an Irish sport knows they are physically extremely tough, perhaps the most violent ball games on Earth, so it was only inevitable that one of our group suffered physical injury during the course of our exertions, and I just happened to be the unfortunate one.

Luckily, the only consequence was a cut on the chin and after the application of a comically outsized plaster to stop the bleeding, I was able to continue with the action. So there was no great drama. In fact, I was quite proud that my Gaelic games experience had given me a battle scar. A war wound. It made me feel like a real man… a real Irish man.

So how did it happen, this dramatic incident? A violent collision with a flying fist, boot or elbow, whilst in heroic and recklessly brave pursuit of a crucial game-deciding loose ball?

Erm, not quite. Actually, we had only just started so we were warming up, and I ran into a fence. A very hard metal perimeter fence, which fortunately stopped at chin height. A ball was kicked towards me, high and over my shoulder, and when I turned to race after it I lost my bearings, didn’t realise how close I was to the edge of the pitch and… well, you know the rest.

So my little mishap wasn’t quite as heroic or brave as it might have been, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of a day which also provided a fascinating insight into how Gaelic games fulfil a vital and unique role in preserving and promoting traditional Irish culture.

Before we played, we were given an entertaining introductory talk by one of the club’s coaches, Bryan, who was eager to explain why Gaelic games mean, in his words, “much, much more to Irish people than sports do in other countries.”

For starters, the sports are just very different to their better-known cousins. Gaelic football is a combination of football and rugby, with a touch of basketball (because you can run with the ball while bouncing it) and volleyball (which has a similar passing motion with the front of the palm) thrown into the mix.

Hurling, kind of like an airborne version of hockey, is one of the highlights in the Gaelic games. — Picture from the Gaelic Athletic Association websiteHurling, kind of like an airborne version of hockey, is one of the highlights in the Gaelic games. — Picture from the Gaelic Athletic Association websiteThe other main sport is hurling, which is a kind of airborne version of hockey, with the ball flung long distances at ferocious speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour. No wonder the players wear helmets, but the job of goalkeeper in a hurling team still must be one of the most masochistic in the world.

The climax of the season comes in September, when more than 80,000 people flock to the Croke Park stadium to witness the finals, contested between Irish counties, so the popularity of the games as spectator events is obvious. Indeed, as Bryan gleefully pointed out, more people attend the Gaelic games finals than attended the 2014 World Cup Final.

But rather than the actual structure of the sports and their competitions, the importance of Gaelic games reside in their wider role in society.

For starters, every player is amateur, even at the very highest level. The competitors are therefore genuine representatives of their communities, because they have normal jobs and live in normal houses, rather than existing in isolated bubbles like the lavishly paid superstars at the upper echelons of other sports.

Furthermore, players are not given the opportunity to pick and choose their clubs, transferring their allegiance at the end of every season. Instead, they are “born into” the club which represents their local town or village and they stay with that club for the rest of their lives, only changing to a new team if normal life circumstances necessitate a move to a different part of the country.

The sense of community and belonging is further strengthened by the way clubs form a central part of their members’ social and cultural lives, with clubhouses serving as the all-purpose regular meeting point for everyone — players, friends, families and fans alike.

There are, Bryan told us, 130 Gaelic games clubs in Dublin alone, and 2,200 across the whole of the Republic of Ireland. For a country with a population of just 4.5 million, that’s a huge figure — one club for every two thousand people — and it shows just how engrained into everyday life traditional sports have remained.

To prove the point that clubhouses are the focal point of their communities, during our visit the Na Fianna club was also hosting a traditional music event, with dozens of children filling every nook and cranny banging drums and strumming guitars.

And it was inside the clubhouse, against the backdrop of random noise from irrepressibly cheerful children, that I was able to partake in the traditional Irish method of recuperation for my injury: a pint of Guinness, of course.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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