By Simon Kuper
Published: February 4 2005 20:59
A resurgent nation has been returning to traditional
games as a testament to its faith in community.
This weekend, an ancient Irish ritual resumes:
the Gaelic football season. "Gaelic"
- a fabulous game halfway between rugby and soccer
- is Europe's most successful indigenous sport.
Dublin's Croke Park, the third biggest sports
stadium in Europe, sometimes packs in 82,000 spectators,
and the stands are so high that some of them get
treated for vertigo. The Gaelic Athletic Association
is Ireland's largest organisation after the Catholic
church, notes the British historian Mike Cronin.
It isn't what you would expect
to find in the "new" Ireland. This is
the world's fourth-richest country, and its most
globalised, according to Foreign Affairs magazine
and A.T. Kearney. Surely soccer - the global game
- should have crushed Gaelic? Hurling, an Irish
stick-and-ball game dating back to the 8th century,
should have had no chance at all. Yet Paul Rouse,
another historian of Gaelic games, says they have
"never been more popular". This reveals
something about Ireland.
Many Irish play Gaelic simply
because it's fun: had Ireland rather than Britain
established an empire, the world would now probably
be playing their game instead of soccer. Played
on a huge pitch, with ample space for moves, Gaelic
is more fluent than rugby or American football,
and produces more attacks than soccer. Since you
can use both hands and feet, it's more varied
Yet Gaelic was never just a game.
It was always tied to an idea of rural Catholic
Irishness. The GAA was founded in 1884 as an Irish
nationalist organisation, charged to protect the
native games from the British sports of rugby
and football. Gaelic's ties to nationalism deepened
with time: one end of Croke Park, "Hill 16",
was built from rubble from the Easter Rising of
1916. In 1920, on the original "Bloody Sunday",
British forces killed 12 people during a match
at the ground.
Each club was tied to a parish,
overseen by the local priest, the games watched
by a congregation fresh from Mass. On muddy parish
pitches on Sunday afternoons, Gaelic became an
Irish Catholic rite almost like holy communion.
Before All-Ireland finals, GAA officials would
kneel to kiss a bishop's ring.
Later some traditions faded:
the bishops went, the ban on "foreign games"
was lifted in 1971, the GAA stopped meddling in
the Northern Irish conflict, and permitted players
to make money from endorsements. Women have been
allowed to discover the games. This April the
GAA may lift its ban on soccer and rugby being
played at Croke Park.
Yet it's remarkable how many
of Gaelic's traditions survive in the new Ireland.
Although droves of Irish have left the church,
often slamming the door behind them, Sean Kelly,
the GAA's president, told me one Sunday morning
before Mass: "Obviously the parish priest
would normally be involved in the game."
Although soccer stars now earn millions, Gaelic
clubs still pay nothing. When I asked Kelly why
amateurism was important, he replied: "Why
is it important to keep breathing?" Although
many Irish villagers have migrated to booming
Dublin, they are still encouraged to trek "home"
for hours each weekend to play for their parish
The strange thing is that many
of them do. Today's globalised Irish display as
much "pride of place" as their parents
did. They love the fact that they'll have known
players in their county team since childhood,
that these stars have normal jobs, that cousins
or brothers play together. You don't get that
in Premiership soccer.
Gaelic gives the new Irish a
sense of unchanging community. Kelly says: "Everybody
needs to hold onto their roots. And we're their
roots." That's why Irish software companies
have corporate boxes in Croke Park, and why television
now shows live games every weekend.
In short, the GAA has ditched
the old Catholic nationalist Irishness, and attached
itself to a nostalgic fantasy of Irishness. It's
the Irishness you see in a Guinness ad for hurling,
which shows giants playing over a map of Ireland:
a new, happy-clappy, rural, pagan Irishness with
the old sharp edges filed off. It's the Irishness
depicted on the walls of Irish pubs in Singapore
or Moscow, the Irishness the world loves. "Being
Irish is cool," as Kelly says.
Now he is promoting the game
abroad. If the Irish keep buying the world's apartments,
Gaelic could conquer the globe.