By John Kelly
Many years ago, the great Kerry footballer Mick O’Connell offered cogent arguments in favor of professionalism within the GAA. They fell on deaf ears. But now, they have come to the forefront again as the result of the formation of a new player’s organization, the Gaelic Players Association.
Ten noted intercounty players in both codes have publicly agreed for the first time to work on sponsorship deals for Marlborough, a major Irish recruitment company. They will appear at promotional events for undisclosed sums.
Half of what they get will be distributed to their clubs and a national hardship fund for players. They pocket the remainder themselves.
Naturally, the deal has thrown GAA officialdom into a spin. It calls into question the entire amateur status of the organization. It can only result in suspensions or an entire rethink on the part of those who play and rule the games of the Gael.
When you survey the broad canvas of Irish history in the 19th century, you tend to view it only in terms of Catholic Emancipation, the Great Famine, the Land League and, of course, Home Rule, which continues to be the primary issue in the island of Ireland.
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Few of these themes had little enough to do with the broad mass of the Irish people. Parish-pump politics remained the main foundation color beneath the pigments of the canvas. The lives of Irish men and women were dominated by the superficially more minor concerns of everyday living. The plain people of Ireland were not obsessed with politics. Even in the midst of Famine and impoverishment, they found time to enjoy themselves.
The broad canvas of history demanded minor as well as major brushstrokes. They drank. They danced. They sang.And they also indulged themselves in sport. They continued to play the ancient game of hurling and a unique form of football, called "Ceide" in many parts of the country. Athletics and handball were ever present.
The rules of football, in particular, were barely codified. It was basically a kick and rush sport played between two sets of posts. Teams were formed in parishes and townlands. More often than not, the pitch was little more than a field convenient to both.
Often, local landlords supported them. Many a gentlemanly wager was lost and won. The more adept players were often lured by rival lords and masters.
The young men of Ireland competed fiercely for personal and parish glory. Just how intense it all was can be gauged from a dip into the wonderful pages of Canon Sheehan’s Cork-based novel, "Glenanaar," a book that is, unfortunately, ignored in these modern times.
In its characterization of the mysterious returned "Yank" who quickly became the hero of the parish hurling team, it presaged later fiction-like "The Quiet Man."
Parish-pump politics though they may have been, the local concerns of the people and the sports they played formed a common seedbed for a national organization like the Fenians. If the battlefields of Europe were won on the playing fields of Eton, as the Victorian British boasted, the sporting fields of Ireland soon became crucial recruiting centers for the Fenian organization.
Leading Fenians were quick to recognize the potential of the local parish organizations. Thus, when it became evident that the rules of the games were to be codified under the ‘gis of a new national organization called Cumann Luithcleas Gael, or the GAA, as it was more commonly known, they made sure to get their members into prominent positions.
In its formative years and much later into the 20th Century,the GAA was not just about sport. It was firmly tied into national politics and it played a major role in the vast "Gaelic Revival," a broad national movement that thrived wherever the Gaels lived, especially in the U.S. and Australia.
Even when the people were divided politically they could find a common unity in the games of the Gael, hurling, football and handball.
The Irish Catholic Church, although opposed to Fenianism and the use of violence for political ends, could also share that common ground. At the local level, priests and especially members of the newly formed Irish Christian Brothers became deeply immersed in the formation of the GAA at local level. Bishops replaced landlords as patrons.
It was not an accident that the hurley stick was used the length and breadth of the country in the early years of the last century as an imitation rifle in the parades of the Irish Volunteers. Many members were also prominent hurlers. In fact, Harry Boland in London recruited the man who was to become the most famed republican hero of all, Michael Collins, into the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The pair met for the first time as hurlers on an emigrant playing field.
And the man who inducted Michael Collins into the clandestine organization that planned and executed the 1916 Rising was none other than Sam Maguire, after whom the football All-Ireland trophy is named. The seeds of Irish republicanism spurted from the sporting fields of Ireland. Where the Irish went, their game went with them, right up to present times.
In Australia, Gaelic football was reformed into the highly popular Australian Rules code of football. In the United States, the GAA organized itself, where large numbers of emigrants congregated, through city after city.
The GAA is a unique organization in international terms. With some exceptions in the U.S. and England, the games of the Gael were always played on a purely amateur basis.
Frequently in the U.S., partly because of a shortage of home based players, but mainly because of the tremendous rivalry between clubs largely based in New York, and the cash it generates, players are not only paid but are also "imported" from Ireland.
Officially the GAA central organization forbids such breaches of the amateur code. But in practice, it is more often ignored. Many an accomplished young Irish athlete is grateful that it is. Not alone does it give them the opportunity to go to the U.S. on a working holiday but it also pays the rent. Unique though it is, as an organization, the GAA is gradually becoming a victim of its own success.
The modern Croke Park in Dublin contains corporate suites, owned by some of the country’s leading private companies for the use of staff and guests. Interchangeable managers, often doubling as coaches and general organizers are now a must for every county team that wishes to gain major honors. Invariably, the managers are paid large fees, often masquerading as expenses.
Unlike the players, they do not need to have close affiliations, either through birth or ancestry, with the county they manage.
Although the GAA is still a purely amateur organization it has blinked the official eye at such practices. Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that the players, the people who train as rigorously as any professional in any other sport and risk serious injuries week after week, are going to ask serious questions.
The answers will pose a major threat to the amateur uniqueness of the GAA. Now that the players have bounced the ball, nobody knows where it will land. It may well change the entire nature of the organization forever.