Yesterday was Sunday and that means GAA football is played the length and breadth of the country. Padraig, who works at the bar in the Valley House Hostel plays for the island side so I said I'd come along and watch. The last and only GAA game I've ever attended was in 1967 at the old Wembley Stadium, between Down and Derry, who were in London on a promotional jaunt.
As it happened, this piece of arcane GAA history came in useful, as I was chatting to the ref before tip off and he was saying that he was taking part in a pub quiz just the other week and one of the questions was 'In what year was GAA football played at Wembley Stadium? He now has the year and the teams involved to pull out of his quizzers back pocket at some future date.
Achill were playing Foxford in a championship match. Foxford had the run of things for the first five minutes or so, even scoring the first goal of the game, but Achill were scoring points from all over the pitch, building up a handsome lead,
Foxford had a lump of a man playing in midfield and I knew that he would be worth watching after an early exchange with his increasingly frustrated manager. Foxford were under pressure all over the field, second best to all knock downs and free balls. Their defence was taking a battering and I heard the manager shout for his No 8 to get back and help out. ''There's enough people back there already.'' he replied, to the obvious chagrin of his boss and defenders.
A high ball in the centre of the field; two opposing players jump for it and, almost inevitably, the Achill player wins the contest, but is dumped on his back for his trouble. It's one of those tackles that you see in rugby that is usually little more than a winding and a yellow card. Although a couple of punches were thrown, I'm not sure anything else was shown. All I could hear from the Foxford player was ''I had my eyes on the fucking ball. I had my eyes on the fucking ball.'' But he also had his hands on his off balance opponents shoulders.
Just before half time Achill scored two goals in quick succession and the game was pretty much over, but I still had high hopes that No 8 would provide some entertainment. He didn't disappoint, as during the half time team talk he made it obvious to everyone, that if anyone once more doubted his ability, his commitment or his parentage, he was more than happy to deal with them here and now. I got the feeling it would have been sans Marquis of Queensbury.
The manager stepped in at this point, saying that from now on, his voice was going to be the only one anyone heard and that the game was far from over. Five minutes into the second half, No 8 goes into contest a high ball, down he goes and calamity, he stays down with a turned ankle. His work for the day is done as is my anticipation of a major ruck with him leading the charge.
There were more points and goals scored and Achill ran out handy winners. Why all this talk of Gaelic games? It's because, despite the growing power and influence of the Premiership, Gaelic games retain a presence at the heart of the Irish psyche that is too important to dismiss them as 'simply' sport.
A couple of weeks ago, two northern teams, Tyrone and Monaghan met in the quarter final of the championship. At stake was a semi final place at Croke Park that is to be played next Sunday. A Monaghan player broke clear of the Tyrone defenders and looked likely to score a goal, when he was rugby tackled by Tyrone's Sean Cavanagh.
This incident seems to have led to a great deal of introspection into both the dark heart of modern football and of Ireland itself. The first reaction was from ex player Joe Brolly who was watching the match as a pundit in the tv studio. There is no way I can do justice to Brolly's outburst, which is full of sturm und drang, bewilderment, anger, distress - it's all there. If you want to see a man's head explode in anger google Joe Brolly for five minutes of fun.
Keith Duggan from the Irish Times wrote a piece that tried to put Brolly's outrage in some sort of wider context. He quoted a letter to the Times that refuted the argument that any player would have done the same in similar circumstances. The pursuit of success does not justify the means and it is that contrary thinking that has brought Ireland to its knees:
The pursuit of wealth at the expense of community interests motivated banks and has created an uncaring and divided and financially and morally bankrupt society. Every means at their disposal are now being used by those who made selfish and misconceived investments in the Irish property market to avoid suffering any financial loss and to continue with their ostentatious and extravagant lifestyles. Do we really want our children to grow up seeking to attain success at any cost.
Now, whilst it may not be possible and indeed fanciful to lay the blame for the country's current travails solely at the doorstep of Mickey Harte and his Tyrone team, there is a school of thought (my cousin Frank) who does believe that the success of Ulster teams over the past few years has been achieved via an increased amount of cynicism and dare I say, professionalism. That is professionalism defined as get the job done, get the game won, whatever it takes. His daughter told me that the coach of a team in which she played in had a code word he would shout when he wanted one of his players to go down as if fouled. Anna is 13 and left in disgust.
Inevitably, the twitterati were active denouncing this Ulster bias:
I think there has been an increase in general for Ulster people in general in the last 15 years... The prosperity (of the Celtic Tiger) bred a certain type of sneering, selfiish, cynical, self important beings who see themselves as intellectually and culturally superior and much more cosmopolitan than the average Bogger/Nordie/Skanger or whichever group they chose to look down their noses at on a particular day. Johnboy7
Now, I'm fairly sure that is something, whereever we may live, that we can all agree on. Those who live in the capital city, are by and large thieving bastards who should be in prison.
The reason why this incident is so important can best be summed up by Keith Duggan himself, when he wrote:
Still, it was clear that Brolly's outrage had sparked something throughout a nation that has been mystifyingly passive through a decade of tribunals, inept government and catastrophic banking regulation...For all its faults the GAA contains the best of us; a burning belief in community, in volunteering, in working with young people and, through the limitless sacrifices that players like Cavanagh make, to play for the near quixotic dream of bringing home a big shiny cup called Sam, it offers the best illustration that some things transcend mere money.
An almost Olympian definition of why sport matters so much and how it can define the best that is to be found in a country.
If only Match of the Day had the gumption to get the nation talking like this!