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NÍ NEART GO CUR LE CHÉILE – there is no strength without Unity

October 8, 2016

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I read two pieces on Gaelic football this week – one by Darragh Ó Sé in the Irish Times; the other by Cahair O’Kane in the Irish News.

The basis of the Kerry man’s column was that Dublin were successful, and deserved to be, not because of a superior sense of entitlement as the biggest and richest county, but, conversely, because they have the humility to realise what they have to do to win, and the dedication to do it.

To those of us who support counties with records far below that of Dublin, it was a hard point to accept. It’s always easier to dismiss high flying sports teams rather than compliment them on their successes. However, Ó Sé’s advocacy was as rumbustious as his performances on the field for the Kingdom, and, in truth, just as hard to resist.

In essence, he was saying: “stop grumbling and get out there and do what ye have to do to win”. It could have been Paudí speaking.

O’Kane, on the other hand, writing in the aftermath of nine players withdrawing from the Derry panel for next season, took an entirely different, but sadly familiar, tack.

To him, it’s all rather pointless, when, realistically, more than twenty counties will never win anything – either at provincial or national level. He, rightly, pointed out the commitment needed from amateur players in what has become a game with a professional approach: three, four or more nights a week training, the travel, the emotional and physical toll inter county, and even club, football can take on a player’s life.

Even if you belong to a traditional “GAA Family”, who will at least understand your passion for the game, you could almost write off your adolescence and your twenties in terms of a regular social life or the building of relationships outside of the game.
Does he have a point? – Well, yes – if you believe the GAA is only about winning.

However, everything I know about the game suggest otherwise.
My home county of Leitrim is barely on distant terms with Sam Maguire – he may have stopped off a few times on his way to Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh or Mayo, but he would hardy be classed as a familiar presence around Lough Allan. Indeed, even his wee cousin, the JJ Nestor Cup, awarded to the Connacht Champions, has only visited twice – in 1927 and 1994.

But, there is more to be said.

I referred to my “home county” of Leitrim. The reality is that my grandfather left the county in the late 19th century – yet the connection remains, and in some ways, is most powerfully represented when I see the green and gold shirts of Leitrim in action – whether in Pairc Sean at Carrick, Ruilsip in London, or in Gaelic Park in New York.

There are a range of moments which demonstrate the power of the GAA and its impact on people – far beyond winning performances.

I remember meeting Colm Clarke of Drumkeerin GAA after Mass, one Sunday morning in 2009. His family had once farmed the land my family had farmed all those years ago. When he scored an opening goal for Leitrim that afternoon against near neighbours, Roscommon, in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada, the feeling was almost indescribable: a connection you would never get in elite professional sports.

Then, in New York to see Leitrim play at Gaelic Park in 2013, there was the unbelievable sight of St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue packed out with Leitrim tops at Mass, and after the game at Gaelic Park, a stranger seeing our jerseys on 8th Avenue and stopping us to ask “How did the lads do today?”

Last week, I felt tears at the picture I was sent of a used GAA goalkeeper’s jersey. It was from our Edinburgh GAA club, Dunedin Connolly’s, and my son had worn it as a substitute towards the end of the team’s county final. Over a century after the family left Leitrim, there, again, is the connection – and how proud am I of Patrick, in his late twenties, taking up Gaelic Football, and so enjoying the craic and banter of his new club mates who are from all parts of Ireland.

There’s that connection again.

As I write this, flags are being flown, boots cleaned, kit and gear being prepared by the players and folk of Drumkeerin, our homeplace, – and by supporters all round the world – as they look forward to Sunday’s Intermediate County Final against Ballinamore/Seán O’Heslin’s. Quite simply, the town will be there to support the Pride of the Parish, and that includes those of us who are far away.

It’s easy to be sentimental about the GAA, and to ignore its many failings, but there’s nothing soft or easy about training in car headlights on a wind and rainswept field in the darkness of early Autumn or late winter, or in carrying the hopes of a community when you put on the geansaí. The GAA is often the mainstay of village or town life – when politics and media may seem distant and irrelevant to the folk who live in the remote west or north of the country, the shouts coming from the field will remind them of what is important – neighbours, mutual support, pride in where you come from. It’s about love of your homeplace – whether its outside the door or at the end of a plane trip.

One last scene may explain the importance of the GAA more clearly than another thousand words.

I live in a western suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Capital. It is a predictable mix of neat bungalows and well tended lawns, the epitome of city life in modern Scotland. A couple of weeks ago, just before the All Ireland Senior Football Final, I passed a house in the street next to ours that had a flag flying. It was a Mayo flag. It flew right through the time between the Final and the Replay. Far from the waves on Achill, or the streets of Westport or Castlebar, a Mayoman, or woman, was flying the flag for the county – in this most unlikely of settings.

On the Saturday night after the replay, I passed the house again, the flag was still there, a little limp after the result, perhaps, but the whole front of the house was lit up in red and green. And I’m sure you would have found the same thing on every continent.

That’s the point of GAA football, that’s why the players do it, make the sacrifices, accept the likelihood of finishing with little glory and no medals. They do it for their families, neighbours, friends and the parish. They do it because they care about where they come from. They do it for all of us who cannot.

Come Sunday, I’ll be wearing every bit of Drumkeerin gear I can find; I’ll be glued to the updates and willing success to Kevie Forde, Colm Clarke, Jason and Patrick Byrne and all the lads. If they win I’ll be proud of all of them. If they lose I’ll be proud of all of them – because they ARE Drumkeerin.

Winning is important – but it’s far from everything.

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