If you’re of my persuasion (and you’re probably not, unless you’re the sort of reckless maverick who uses parentheses in an opening sentence), Croke Park strikes the eye as a kind of optical illusion. At once monstrously conspicuous – a brusque interruption of a familiar landscape – and curiously invisible, by virtue of one’s utter indifference to everything it represents.
For international readers – Croke Park is the 80,000-seater Dublin headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the body which governs Gaelic Games.
If you’re unfamiliar with Gaelic football, it is essentially an archaic kicking-and-catching code, akin to those played in elite English schools 150 years ago (from which modern football quickly evolved). Its sister sport, hurling, resembles a hybrid of lacrosse and field hockey in which the ball is plucked and volleyed freely.
The common format of the Gaelic Games (amateur players, multiple scoring methods, 70-minute matches) is unrecognisable from those practised at the elite level of sport, and they are better understood as elaborate athletic folk-rituals (along with other regionally popular spectacles such as bullfighting and Morris-dancing). – Dublin Dilettante
It is beyond dispute that football (and there will be no qualification of that term) is the game, indeed the primary cultural outlet, of the global working class. It conquered the world in parallel with the very processes which formed that class, rippling outwards from the British Isles along the earliest currents of globalised capitalism.
Enthusiasm for the game was immediate and uniform, throughout Latin America and Central Europe (except, initially, in Germany, where football was condemned as a malign foreign influence amid a vicious swelling of Teutonic nationalism, but survived and thrived nonetheless).
Curiously, however, those countries which proved most resistant to the game were precisely those which appeared best-placed to assimilate it, by virtue of their cultural ties with Britain.
Even today, football remains institutionally marginalised (though wildly popular amongst much of the general public) in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. South Africa is an atypical case, where majority rule has seen football displace rugby union, the sport jealously favoured under Apartheid as an exemplar of disciplined white supremacy.
Football had the misfortune to take the playing field at a time when all these societies were attempting to disentangle themselves from British influence, with varying degrees of urgency. But in order for the native elites of these countries to preserve their own political and economic power, they needed a forge national identities which did not conflict with existing systems of ownership.
Cultural and ethnic differentiations were a means of short-circuiting the more radical currents of thought which emerged from anti-colonial struggles in the English-speaking world. Sport was a central battlefield in this cultural war, even in those places where the trenches had to be carved from virgin land.
The supposedly ancient Gaelic Games (and how weird is it that a sport should carry a racialising prefix?) were not actually codified until the 1880s; like so many feats of “national awakening”, this was hailed as an heroic revival rather than an outright contrivance.
From the very outset of Ireland’s independent existence, the Gaelic Athletic Association constituted the sporting wing of the corporatist Irish state, a state which sought to bring all cultural, religious and social institutions under its control while allowing private capital to operate freely. Gaelic Games were, in effect, the racial purity and brutal simplicity of De Valera’s Gaelic Ireland neatly encased in pigskin.
Professional football is a primarily urban sport in which the club-based structure tends to highlight local class tensions and divisions. Dublin’s clubs have their roots in unambiguously working-class communities such as Inchicore, Phibsboro and Ringsend.
Gaelic Games, by cunning contrast, are contested at the inter-county level (Ireland’s counties being more-or-less arbitrary parcels of land with no distinct socio-economic identity). It’s hardly surprising that this meaningless and unthreatening “county pride” is relentlessly promoted by the Irish media, political class and the massive multinationals which back the GAA to the hilt.
If you’re still not convinced that the GAA’s supposed centrality to Irish life is a political and marketing exercise, attempt the following:
Take a walk through any estate, park, or viable patch of grass in any major urban centre in Ireland. You will see gaggles of children breathlessly kicking, heading and dribbling footballs, just as – if not God, then some happy combination of human biology and human genius surely intended. (Indeed, it’s significant that football involves the head and feet – the organs of thought and dance – whereas catching codes express the acquisitive desire to grasp and manhandle, to fumble with the greasy ball).
By contrast, the only evidence of Gaelic Games you will encounter will be taking place within caged-off reservations festooned with civic and corporate sponsorship, or under strict and peremptory adult supervision.
The Gaelic, Catholic model of nationalism upon which the state was founded has largely fallen into disrepute in recent years. It has been replaced by Ireland Inc., a perverse concept which presents the “favourable business climate” as the bedrock of 21st-century patriotism.
But this novel definition of Ireland as a patchwork of taxation rates and share prices excludes the populace entirely, and makes for a vague and tenuous claim on their allegiance. And so the GAA must continue to be fostered, the atrophied black heart at the centre of the Irish state, the eternal reminder that your ancestors were every bit as unworthy and servile as you are.