Why there’s nothing more Irish than a GAA final

Why there’s nothing more Irish than a GAA final

I’M writing this a few days after watching the All Ireland Hurling Final, the one where Limerick gave Cork a lesson in excellence.

Now, living in Cork the result didn’t go down too well, but there was a widely shared admiration for Limerick’s sporting superiority.

It would have been hard not to admire.

What I’m more lastingly left with though, these days or weeks later, is the overwhelming impression of how utterly Irish a game of hurling is. Of just how completely Irish that occasion was.

Now, I don’t mean this in some small-minded way, some tricolour-waving way, some anti-immigrant, making Irishness ugly way.

This is not about nationalism, which increasingly seems to me a clear, intellectual dead end, a refuge for bigotry and prejudice and spite.

It is no coincidence, for example, that the further the former leading journalists Gemma O’Doherty and John Waters have drifted away from fact and into conspiracy the more they’ve wrapped themselves in the flag.

Neither do I mean it in some kind of ourselves alone way, some ah you’d only understand if your people have lived in this townland for five generations kind of way.

I don’t even mean it in some kind of God save the GAA kind of way.

Personally, I often find their TV and radio adverts extolling ‘this is who we are’ about everything GAA just a little discomforting.

If you ask me we are so much more and plenty of people in this country and plenty of Irish people around the world do not identify themselves through sport of any kind.

Who we are is complex and varied, far more varied than the minutes on a pitch.

This is who we are is only ever a step away from this is not who you are.

The way in which I do mean it is that in an increasingly global world with an increasingly commercialised culture there are fewer and fewer times when even things in Ireland are simply and fundamentally only Irish.

For instance when I was a kid growing up in Birmingham Sunday mass was often followed by a Sunday pint.

We’d go to the local Emerald Club on the inner city streets of Small Heath and for the next few hours a purely Irish occasion would take place.

On the streets of an English city.

There would be music in the form of a song from every county.

Banks of my own Lovely Lee. Limerick you’re a Lady. You’ll have heard them all.

And they would gather there, those 1950s Irish from across the island, with their locally accented kids, and a distinctly Irish event would take place. With pints on sticky tables and clouds of cigarette smoke. Before everyone spilled back out on to the streets of England.

In many ways those few hours were about being Irish. And forgetting there was work on a Monday morning.

And now? Well, now the world’s different, isn’t it?

Those old Irish social clubs have passed their heyday and social media is now the new getting together.

Our main streets in Irish cities are more and more like English high streets.

Many of our roads are often as clogged and with very similar cars to those in Britain.

Much of our shared environment is like an airport lounge. The same wherever you are. Even our accents.

Back in that Birmingham Irish social club there were men like my father with accents so Irish they couldn’t be anything else.

Yet just the other day I was talking to a young woman who was born and went to school in the nearest Irish town to where I live and who was now living in a different county but whose accent could have been from anywhere. American? Posh Dublin? English? Instagram?

So events like that All Ireland Hurling Final stand out now more than ever.

It would seem that our increasingly commercialised, increasingly online, increasingly economised lives are going to be less and less indistinguishable.

We’ll watch the same television programmes, the same Tik-Tok, walk the same shopping centres and wear the same clothes.

We’ll even drink the same craft beers.

But a hurling final, fifty years from now, with some players with family origins in Nigeria or Pakistan, will remain a quintessentially Irish occasion that only the Irish, all the different kinds of Irish, will ever truly understand.