Saturday, April 15, 2006

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Seán Kelly's Legacy to the GAA

Why not throw in your daughters as well?
Tom Humphries has written the first epitaph of Seán Kelly's Presidency of the GAA. It's in this morning's Irish Times and it's depressingly typical of the rather gooey copy that Big Tom comes up with when he's writing about someone he likes - lambs gambolling at his hero's feet as he walks the green playing fields of Erin, and similar soft chat. "At grass roots level, Kelly is revered and loved ... You don't imagine Seán Kelly worrying about getting confession if he sits and watches a soccer match ... the beginning of a journey into Ireland and Irishness."

You couldn't make it up. The most telling sentence of the lot is this one, a quote from Seán Kelly himself: "I think another part of us will say 'thank God, we're old enough and we've grown up enough to make this contribution.'". "Make this contribution" - what an odd expression for a man who is effectively CEO of a business with the highest membership in Ireland. That's not the language of business - that's the language of ... oh dear God, it's the language of religion.

And not just any religion. "Make this contribution" is beardy-priest speak - you know those bucks that would plague you in school turning up at retreats with their beards and guitars and sandals and their "oh, don't bother with any of that 'Father O'Brien' stuff - just call me Tommy!" And then out with the guitar - nylon stringed, of course - and a few verses of a newly written folksong about Liberation Theology or Archbishop Romero.

The beardy priest is a good-hearted sort of soul, but he'd be better off feeding soup to the poor and needy than running anything bigger than a parish raffle for a new set of pipes for the organ. And it's the same with the Presidency of the GAA - all naivety will get you is a good price on a glass hammer or a one in a lifetime deal on a box of rubber nails.

Thanks to Seán Kelly's political skills, soccer and rugby will be played next year in Croke Park. This is a decision that has been universally lauded by a media who spend their time beating divers drums about "how far we have travelled," but do not tell us how exactly the GAA is better off itself after the deal - except in terms of some ersatz nylon-strung morality, of course. It has "made a contribution." But to what or to whom?

The GAA is getting money, of course. Some things can't be bought, such as those things that the GAA is effectively holding in trust for the nation until the nation decides to try to be Irish again, something currently down on the list of national priorities. Some things, miserably, can very easily be sold however, and history will tell just how much birthright the GAA has sold for a mess of pottage.

The mainstream media also tell us that the deal allowing soccer and rugby to be played in Croke Park has softened the cough of the backwoodsmen in the GAA, a cheap and nasty little term that even the normally impeccable Daire O'Brien of Setanta Sports has used in the past. Not a term that bothers An Spailpín Fánach though, as An Spailpín is nothing if not an incorrigible backwoodsman, and will be, if God spares him, until he's leaving the church feet first on the shoulders of his nearest and dearest. That sad little saw about modernisation and the quietening of the backwoodsmen always reminds An Spailpín of Father O'Connor, the curate in Strumpet City. You may remember how Father O'Connor's superior, Father Giffley, used make a point of chiding Father O'Connor's preference for his "fine friends in Kingstown" over his inner-city parishioners. Now, if Father O'Connor is a GAA man perhaps his "fine friends in Kingstown" won't look so far down their noses at him, and may even let him sit closer to the fire. They may even get him corp comp tickets for Hermes v Alex in the hockey - who knows where it ends? Those who "make a contribution" shan't be forgotten, I'm sure.

Manna indeed for those in the GAA of a mind to keep in well with fine friends in Kingstown. But bitter mead for those who aren't that pushed about correct opinion, but whose love for the GAA had always to do with patriotism and Irishness, first, last and always. They have nothing to console themselves except the pieces of silver.

How odd it was, during the so-called debate on the opening of Croke Park, that the GAA was being chided for being able to build a stadium of its own and neither the IRFU nor FAI were called to account for their having gotten into this mess in the first place. Now, with the mentality of the beardy priest, wearing his sandals in a snowstorm, the GAA stands at the shore, its large smile in inverse proportion to its demonstrated intelligence, welcoming - what? What is coming, exactly? Who are these strangers in chain mail and armour decamping at Waterford and talking about a big day out on St Bartholomew's Eve?

Marian, one of few real talents on RTÉ, was of the opinion a few weeks ago that, so long as the young people are off kicking ball and we-the-nation can still carry out Jack Charlton's bull to "always have a party," isn't it only fantastic that Croke Park has been opened up in the face of the "backwoodsmen?" And if you see no distinction between the games, then you're laughing along too. You are also a rather poor GAA man, ispo facto, but we can't have everything, can we? An Spailpín's very best to your fine friends in Kingstown, of course. If, however, you think that the modern world makes it even more essential that Ireland has a distinctly Irish identity separate from some hideous globalised shopping centre, with one million shops selling two million different kinds of tat at three million times what it's worth, and that this identity has to fought for and doesn't just rise up out of the ground like a well of fresh spring water, then today's Seán Kelly interview sounds like nothing so much as the first nail being hammered into a coffin.

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