Dublin were taking on Meath in the first round of the Leinster championship and on the walk up from the Dart station, I tried my best to prepare him for the, ahem, unique nature of that rivalry. Of course, nothing could have really prepared the outsider for the exhilarating spectacle he took in once we took our seats in the front row of the upper Cusack Stand.
The color and the noise (nothing quite as loud as the Meath farmer hollering with delight) in the stadium reminded him of college grid-iron Saturdays back home but it was the skills and the thundering physical hits that took his breath away. In one first half burst, Sean Boylan’s side reeled off eight points without reply. The scoring spell was even more impressive because the likes of John McDermott and Trevor Giles were popping them over from all angles and distances.
My guest was mightily impressed by the way they seemed to be shooting without scarcely glancing at the posts. For all that, as was the way with clashes between the counties in that era, the result was still in doubt up to the last second. Two minutes into injury time, Paul Bealin crashed what would have been an equalizing penalty off the crossbar, the ball was scrambled clear, Meath advanced and my father-in-law finally exhaled.
On the way back to Dun Laoghaire, he waxed lyrical about the incredible catching and kicking he’d witnessed and marveled anew as I listed off the day jobs of the various players that caught his eye. I realized then that if he was anything to go by, the average American sports aficionado would be blown away by an afternoon spent in Thurles or on Jones’ Road. This point was brought home to me again by the revelation that researchers at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown have discovered the GAA should be used as a marketing tool to attract tourists.
It’s about time somebody somewhere came to that conclusion and acted upon it. Considering the seemingly endless foreign appetite for sham Irishness when visiting the country, from medieval banquets to overpriced leprechaun paraphernalia, it follows that the vast majority of tourists would be overwhelmed by the authentic flavor of Gaelic football or hurling at their finest. The big problem just now appears to be ignorance of their very existence.
“We conducted our survey among 414 tourists in Antrim, Derry, Donegal and Tyrone, and found out that only 12.3 percent of them were familiar with Gaelic games,” said Adrian Devine, a lecturer in the School of Hotel, Leisure and Tourism at Jordanstown. “Yet more than 68 percent of them said they would be interested in either playing or watching a sport unique to Ireland. As well, all of the business interests said they would like to see a Gaelic football or hurling match during their stay.
“In addition, 52 percent of the females said they would like to see a GAA match, and 20 percent would like to participate. Croke Park was only full for three matches this season, and the spare tickets could be allocated to interested tourists. But the GAA all over the country could also benefit through increased attendance levels at internal county club and provincial club matches.”
The number of American visitors that teem into Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day are an obvious enough target for the All-Ireland club finals. Similarly, the inclusion of Croke Park’s museum in the various package tours that visit the city every day seems like another logical, simple step. Perhaps Devine’s most interesting point though concerns county championship matches. The scandalously low attendances at the Cork senior hurling semi-finals last weekend (at a time when interest in the county should be at an all-time high) demonstrate that any initiative to put more bums on seats for those games would be a boon.
Most American, Australian and British tourists come to Ireland to see the place their ancestors came from. They go to enormous lengths to try to get a sense of the particular hometown or county involved. Well, there is no better window into the soul of every town, village and county in Ireland than a club football or hurling match. These are raw, passionate encounters of a different caliber to so much of the faux shamroguery often laid on to exploit a visitors’ weakness for all things Irish.
The financial benefits from properly marketing the various levels of the GAA to tourists are straightforward. Apart from increasing traffic at the turnstiles, these people would load up with replica jerseys, polo shirts and baseball caps. Premiership soccer clubs put incredible efforts into flogging this sort of gear in different countries and, in this regard, the most canny sporting concern in Ireland appears to the Munster rugby team. Anybody passing through Shannon or Cork Airports will find it a lot easier to buy stuff related to Munster than the hurlers of Cork, Limerick and Clare.
County boards could cash in here with very little work. Given the way tourists buy up Guinness t-shirts, it’s not going to be too difficult to persuade an American whose father was from Cork to buy a red jersey or a polo shirt with the county crest as a souvenir of his trip to the homeland. It’s not a stretch either to see them throwing DVDs into their shopping baskets to show their friends back home what hurling and Gaelic football are about.
“If promoted properly, the link between the GAA and the image it portrays can be exploited to attract overseas visitors to Ireland,” said Devine. “All Gaelic games are amateur, drug-free and family-orientated – admirable qualities in today’s sporting arena.”
Well, amateur for a little while longer anyhow.