Monday, July 01, 2013

London in the Connacht Final is a Cause for National Celebration

London’s remarkable achievement in reaching this year’s Connacht Final means that the game on July 21st is now bigger than football. It’s no longer a sporting contest – it’s a unique occasion for the nation to stop and take stock, to celebrate what we did, make reparation for what we failed to do, and to look proudly to the future.

These opportunities don’t come along often in Recession Ireland, and we should make the most of them.

Firstly, the Connacht Council should get on the phone to the London Board first thing this morning and find a stadium to host the Connacht Final. They have three weeks, which is loads of time to cut a deal with one of the twenty stadia in London that have capacities of more than 10,000.

The tennis courts at Wimbledon or Queen’s club could be a bit delicate for football and we’re in the wrong time of year for the 30,000 capacity Lord’s Cricket Ground or the 23,000 Surrey Oval. Wembley or Twickenham are a bit on the big side but a stadium like White Hart Lane (36,000), Upton Park (35,000), Selhurst Park (26,000) or maybe even Loftus Road (19,000) should be considered.

This wouldn’t be cheap, of course, but in this year of The Gathering it would be interesting to see if the Government is willing to put its money where its mouth is and underwrite the operation.

Why go to the trouble? Because we, the nation, owe the Irish in London. We owe them big-style down the years and now that a unique opportunity has arisen, where an English team is playing a high-profile match in the most Irish of entities, the All-Ireland Championship, that gives us an opportunity to celebrate, remember and look forward.

This is a chance for a second Polo Grounds, and if it’s not grabbed it will be gone. But it’ll be bigger than the Polo Grounds in its way, because the Irish were always welcome in America. They were not always welcome in England – no blacks, no Irishmen, no dogs, as the signs often said.

And what was it like to be an emigrant? Well, it wasn’t great. Dónall Mac Amhlaigh wrote a poignant memoir of his time as a navvy in England in the 1950s, Dialann Deoraí, and he records a hard life with a surprising and noble absence of bitterness. Some Irish got on well in England – no sign of the famine on Graham Norton, and more power to him – but some found it a struggle.

And why wouldn’t they? All through their time in school the Irish of that forgotten ‘fifties generation were told that all Ireland’s woes were the fault of the English, the godless, heathen English. To suddenly find themselves in that same godless place, in a cold room in a terraced house that was as alien to them as pitching a tent on the moon – what on earth were they to do?

A lot became insular, and drank to ease the pain, as it was the only thing they knew how to do. They didn’t mix, because mixing would be an occasion of sin and this was, after all, a godless country. And they loyally sent money home, money that in part helped build the GAA and that very few of them ever saw again.

The Irish are emigrating again as the recession stalks the land, but it’s not the same. The world has gotten smaller. We know what the world is like since we were children, because we’ve seen it on the television.

But that lost generation of the 1950s hadn’t a clue. In this era of victims and survivors and compensation, who ever thinks of the innocent Irish who were turned from their own country and had to find a living in one that they had been taught to always think of as the enemy?

The country had its arm twisted during the Queen’s visit to believe that we’ve all moved on. Well, now let’s see Ireland’s greatest cultural association do its bit for the maturity of the nation.

Let emissaries go to London and spread the word that Gaelic games are coming to the city of Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, of Christopher Wren and Issac Newton, of David Beckham and Bobby Moore. Proclaim it through the host that it is the Irish nation’s shame that the emigrants where were nearest to us were furthest away, but that we now make reparation, and celebrate our brothers and sisters in England just as we do those in the United States, in Canada, in Australia and elsewhere.

This is bigger than football. Colm O’Rourke and Pat Spillane were sniggering on the Sunday Game yesterday about the prospect of London being in the Connacht Final. They don’t get it. They never get it. The GAA was never just about sports. It is about Ireland first, and the celebration of Irishness, that one strange thing that makes all Irish people so very different from anywhere else.

If the Gathering is anything other than the shakedown or an exercise in Paddy-whackery, the 2013 Connacht Final is an opportunity, Heaven-sent, for Ireland to send a cultural message in the other direction, to make the Gathering a two-way street. For once, let’s try to see the big picture. Up Mayo.