I visited Kilkenny for the first time last weekend. My wife and I were attending a friend’s wedding and took the opportunity to enjoy a long weekend in a beautiful county. Rural Kilkenny is a wonderfully scenic and photogenic place. Its views are simply stunning. However, Kilkenny city was the real and unexpected delight. The street signs hail Kilkenny as the Medieval City and it’s easy to understand why. The city is dominated by a large castle and its clean, cobbled streets are evocative of a lost age. We were extremely lucky in that the weather was kind, enabling us to enjoy leisurely strolls through Kilkenny city. We took a sightseeing tour on the Sunday and marvelled at Kilkenny’s rustic facades and ornate churches. There was no shortage of pubs and restaurants either. It was easy to see why hordes of tourists had flocked to this unheralded gem. I know I sound like a Fáilte Ireland employee here (who needs Trip Advisor?), but I think it’s nice to share pleasant destinations. After all, I wish somebody had told me about Kilkenny before now. I thoroughly recommend this delightful city for anyone remotely inclined to go.
I saw something else in Kilkenny too. Something besides the tourist trail. Probably for the first time, I realised the overarching and ubiquitous reach of the GAA. Of course as an Irish sports fan, I know about the intrinsic relevance of the organisation to Irish life and culture. However, it’s only when you visit somewhere like Kilkenny that you really understand the significance of the GAA. Our visit coincided with the Senior Hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Waterford. The game ended as a pulsating draw, although Brian Cody’s men predictably prevailed in last night’s replay. Hurling is massive in Kilkenny. It has to be seen to be believed. Even with the mass exodus to Croker, the city was absolutely buzzing with excitement. The love of hurling was everywhere. You see, in Kilkenny there are no replica Man United, Liverpool, or Arsenal shirts. There isn’t the usual glory hunters rocking up in Man City tops (ten years ago, did anyone support City?). Literally every other person was wearing a Kikenny shirt. Forget the Red Devils. In these parishes, it’s all about The Cats.
The experience encapsulates what the GAA means to the people of Ireland. In defining the role of the organisation, we can’t really generalise. The GAA means different things to different people. That said, there are several characteristics that go some way to defining the enduring success of the association. While the GAA is undoubtedly a key part of the cultural fabric of Irish life, it’s much more than that. The GAA is about community. It’s about both local pride and national identity. It’s about association and affiliation; an identification with your parish and locality. It’s about volunteerism and amateurism. The GAA is about all these things and much more. In my opinion, the secret of the GAA’s success is that it works on several levels. It’s both parochial AND national. Its influence pervades the length and breadth of Ireland. From Skibbereen to Ballycastle, the GAA arouses passions and interests throughout the land.
As a rugby fan, I understand the GAA’s appeal. In fact, I see a lot of parallels between the sports. The club ethos, the Corinthian spirit, the emphasis on physical dominance and hard work. The sports share these characteristics. The difference is scale. While rugby is a minority sport-albeit a successful one-Gaelic games are the undisputed national sports of Ireland, possessing an appeal that’s difficult to contest. Only in Limerick, where rugby is the game of the people, does the oval ball game come close to challenging the GAA’S dominance. And therein lies the rub. Ireland is a small country. Despite that, we consistently manage to punch above our weight in the international arena in a variety of sports. However, the global ambitions of rugby, soccer, and every other international sport in Ireland are always going to be curtailed by a critical factor. For any Irish sport to be globally successful, it has to find a way to persuade young people to choose it over the others. In so doing, it has to compete with the GAA. The influence of the GAA, therefore, places an inbuilt restriction on the growth of other sporting codes.
That’s not the GAA’s problem, though. While other sports struggle for relevance in a world littered with increasing distractions, the GAA goes from strength to strength. Witness the new generations lining up to play and follow Gaelic games in substantial numbers. Rival sports can only look on with envy, demoralised by the reality that the success of the GAA can’t be emulated. It’s simply not possible for any other organisation to knit its way into the fabric of Irish life on the same terms. It just can’t happen. You only need to talk to GAA fans to appreciate the scale of their devotion. I was chatting to a Donegal fan last night and while he was disappointed with his team’s exit from the championship, he had plenty of ideas about what the county had to do to improve next season. I suspect he could have talked GAA for hours. And that’s the essence of it. When GAA folk talk about their sport, they betray a passionate affection that’s just not seen in other codes. Because GAA isn’t a hobby. It’s a way of life.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. As an outsider, I read with interest the Gaelic football pundits who argue that their sport has become too defensive. The demands for rule changes are interesting. Maybe Gaelic football has become too tactical and complicated? I’m not really qualified to offer a view. I understand that there’s also a disconnect between the county and club game that needs to be addressed. I also think, going forward, the GAA still has some way to go in terms of outreach. As someone born and bred in an area-North Down-that isn’t renowned as a GAA stronghold, I can see a huge untapped potential that’s yet to be explored fully. The GAA has evolved from its political origins to become a thoroughly modern and inclusive organisation. Wouldn’t it be great if that process was taken a step further?-uniting Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter, to coin a phrase! Why not? In modern, pluralist Ireland, anything is possible. That said, it’s easy to criticise the GAA for what is isn’t, when we should be celebrating it for what it is. The heart and soul of Ireland. While some may yawn if Kilkenny’s giants win their 37th All-Ireland title in a few weeks, there’s sure to be one hell of a party in one of the most beautiful cities in Ireland.
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: [[File:Cillian Buckley.jpg|Cillian Buckley]] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Seaninryan