Thursday, January 20, 2011

Television and the Heart of the GAA

Martin Breheny wrote a remarkable article in yesterday’s Irish Independent about the coverage of Gaelic Games on television, specifically TG4. So remarkable, in fact, that your faithful correspondent started to wonder if Martin understood the GAA at all.

Martin started out with an old-fashioned swipe at binnbhriathra na Gaeilge, sean-teanga na nGael. “Since the majority of viewers have only a sketchy knowledge of the Irish language,” sniffs Martin, “they can't enjoy the coverage as much as if the commentaries were in English.”

Would it be wrong of An Spailpín Fánach to point out that a commentary in Mongolian would make it easier to enjoy the coverage compared to some of the stuff that’s come out of my television since poor Micheál Ó hEithir got sick, God be good to him?

Matters of personal taste aside, where Breheny’s argument falls down is in a matter of fact. Breheny compares the GAA TV product to the rugby and soccer products, but the comparison is not legitimate. He is not comparing like with like.

It’s like meeting your neighbour taking his dog for a walk and asking him why he doesn’t take the goldfish for a walk as well. Sure isn’t a goldfish just the same as a dog, really?

The advantage soccer and rugby have over inter-county Gaelic games is that soccer and rugby are professional games. They exist solely to entertain the public. Their schedules are set in such ways as to provide maximum reliable entertainment for the public – everything is honed to that end.

The GAA is not set up to provide entertainment in the same way. It annually provides the greatest sporting spectacle in the country, year after year, in the football and hurling championships, but this is co-incidental, rather than essential, to the GAA’s actual purpose.

If the provision of a sporting entertainment to compare with soccer or rugby were the GAA’s mission, there would have to be some changes made. The league and Championship would be amalgamated. A transfer market would have to be created, in order to ensure that every team had a chance to have good players, and not leave things to chance accidents of birth.

Pride in the jersey, be it ever so humble, counts for lilttle when the mob paid their dollars, are waiting to be entertained at the circus and it’s five minutes to showtime.

After a few years, the GAA would have changed completely. Some counties would have disappeared off the map entirely. It’d be like Aussie Rules without the money, or the League of Ireland with crowds. Or the current GAA without its soul. A Frankenstein’s monster wandering the Earth, wondering why it’s different.

Because providing a reliable sporting entertainment isn’t the GAA’s mission. If the GAA ever changes from that it will have ceased to be what it is, which is the single greatest common cause in our society.

All over the country, in the recession-hit and broken-hearted and bitter and divided Ireland of 2011, people give up their free evenings in front of the fire to take busloads of dirty, noisy kids back mountains and into glens to play busloads of other dirty, noisy kids in games referred by fat men with red faces with good hearts that mightn’t really be fit for running around any more. And they all do it for a chicken dinner at Christmas and an empty promise of an All-Ireland ticket if the county team goes on a run.

Of course, volunteers train kids to play soccer and rugby too. But it’s not the same. The connection isn’t as strong. One in a thousand soccer stars might get an apprenticeship with Dagenham United. The good rugby players will find out how hard it is to get a paying gig in a country with two and three-quarter professional teams.

But the GAA star still meets you at funerals and stands next to you in the queue at the Centra and has Ruby Walsh’s horse and high hopes in the Grand National sweep in the local.

People talk about the heart of the GAA being a full house in a floodlit Croke Park. It’s not. It’s a gang of kids and a fat man on the side of a mountain, and the kids beginning to realise that they’re from somewhere, not anywhere, and that matters. Long may it thrive.