Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Mess of Pottage

Oh brave new world, that hath such creatures in it!If you've even been at a party where someone cracks a joke and everybody is laughing but you, because you really, really don't get it, then you'll know exactly how An Spailpín Fánach has felt ever since yesterday's announcement that a deal has been reached between the GAA, the IRFU and the FAI over the use of Croke Park. It has been presented by a more or less unanimous media as a Great Day for Ireland, and anything that smacks as much of an Official Party Line as that should always have the sensible citizen reaching for her rubber gloves and ten foot pole.

Skimming through the radio news and sportscasts this morning, I couldn't help but be struck that the media has - subconsciously or no - divided the country up into Us and Them.

In the Us corner, it's modern Ireland, taking her place among the nations of the Earth two hundred and four years after Robert Emmett's speech from the dock. Our leader is President Stan Staunton (Sir Bobby his Vice-Regent, of course), and our national symbols are the inflatable green shamrock, the Dundrum shopping centre and a docket confirming the granting of planning permission for a strip club just off Fitzwilliam Square. Our great national Cathedral is Croker, a sacred sward in Dublin 7 where our millionaire Poet Laureate, Bono, has often lectured us on poverty.

Somehow, and nobody is quite sure how it happened, that national Cathedral where we gather to worship who we are and what we have become, has been taken over by Them, those who are Not Us. It seems that Croker has been taken over by Them, and They have refused to allow us to celebrate our Irishness by playing soccer and rugby in Croke Park. However, after long and protracted debate, They have finally fallen and given in. They have taken our money, the ultimate power in New Ireland, and now they're saying Uncle, and all is right with the world. This morning's "Irish" Sun headlines with "Becks for Croker!" and nothing quite sums up this Brave New World as succinctly.

The notion that Croke Park belongs to the hoi polloi rather than the GAA, a private organisation with a private agenda, is an interesting one. The price of the sexy GAA of the past ten or fifteen years - and wouldn't it be a rich irony if we could date it precisely to Dublin's last All-Ireland, that thing that must happen regularly if the GAA is to survive? - is that Gaelic Games have lost some of the depth of their meaning, and become just one more event on the social calendar, happening after the Horse Show and before the Gaiety Panto.

A great and good friend, confidante and legal advisor to An Spailpín Fánach was speculating recently on just how hard it is now to get All-Ireland tickets. While it was never easy, this man posited a theory that it's now more difficult than ever because going to an All-Ireland is something that One Does - it makes the top ten of those Thirty Things to Do Before You Die lists that one sees in glossy magazines and colour supplements. I've been to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, I've danced with Springsteen in the dark, and I've seen Les Mis. My life is complete.

It's interesting to note that while attending Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day is something that one does, attending Provincial Finals or - God forbid - club games is most certainly not on the list of Thirty Things. That is below the salt, darling, so far below the salt it's damn near off the table. Also off the table is taking Under 12s for training, washing jerseys, selling club lotto and going to Ballinlough this Sunday, knowing full well that Mayo are doomed, doomed, doomed under the Moran stewardship but they are still the Mayo football team and there is nothing else. Besides, there's a rumour that there's a tree in Ballinlough that's growing right up through the stand, so maybe that'd be something at which to marvel while the team get their heads lopped off for the first - but not, alas, the last - time in 2006.

While men are trying to plot a way to and from Ballinlough on Sunday, the papers will be full of supplements about how The Great Dawn came about, and how Croker was repatriated for the people. Seán Kelly, Uachtarán CLG, will no doubt be giving his "howdy, neighbour" schtick fir all he's worth, and there'll be a lot of soft chat about "the Irish Sporting Family," now that the G has been taken out of GAA. All that old chat about Irishness and Irish identity will be quietly put aside, all that old palaver about Irish dancing and scór na n-óg and the Annals of the Four Masters, and we'll all march on together into this brave new, sporting, world. I can only hope that a seat isn't being reserved for Seán Kelly and such well-meaning men as Eugene McGee beside Marshall Pétain and Diarmuid MacMurrough who also thought they were doing their best by their country and beliefs.

But don't mind a bitter old Spailpín, whose senility has been delivered early. Read the great Keith Duggan in this morning's Irish Times, who writes with more grace, subtlety and style than An Spailpín could dream of, on life in the Brave New World. God help you, Ireland, whoever you are.

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