Radio National's The Sports Factor


with Amanda Smith

Irish Sport & Nationalism


This week in the Sports Factor Summer Series, the focus is on Irish sports, like hurling and Gaelic football.

MIKE CRONIN, author of "Sport and Nationalism in Ireland", discusses the critical role played by the Gaelic Athletic Association over the past hundred or so years, both as a cultural expression of Irish distinctiveness, and as a political expression of Irish nationalism.

GERARD ROE, from the Gaelic Athletic Association of Australasia explains the place of Gaelic sports for those of the Irish diaspora. And various players of hurling and Gaelic football in Australia, from clubs with names like "Sinn Fein" and "Padraig Pearce", fill us in on Gaelic sports played Aussie-style.

Details or Transcript:


Amanda Smith: In the Sports Factor Summer Series this week, a look at Irish sports.

MEN SINGING SONG - "Sean South of Garryowen"

Twas on a dreary New Year's Eve

as the shades of night came down,

A lorry load of volunteers approached a border town,

There were men from Dublin and from Cork, Fermanagh and Tyrone

But the leader was a Limerick man, Sean South from Garryowen.

And as they moved along the street

up to the barracks door,

they scorned the dangers they would meet,

the fate that lay in store,

They were fighting for old Ireland's cause

to claim their very own,

And the foremost of that gallant band

was South of Garryowen.

But the sergeant foiled their daring plan,

he spied them through the door,

Then the sten guns and the rifles,

a hail of death did pour,

And when that awful night was past,

two men lay cold as stone,

One was from near the border town

and one from Garryowen.

No more he will hear the seagulls cry

or the murmuring Shannon tide,

For he fell beneath a northern sky,

brave O'Hanlon by his side.

He has gone to join that gallant band

of Plunkett, Pearse and Tone,

Another martyr for old Ireland,

Sean South of Garryowen.

Amanda Smith: That's The Team Song, sung by players of the Garryowen Gaelic Football Club, not in Ireland, but in Australia.

And this week, we're focusing on uniquely Irish sports like Gaelic football, as well as hurling. And considering the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and what playing Gaelic sports means to people, both in Ireland, and in Australia.

Francie Collins: Being involved in Gaelic sports in Australia I suppose for me as an Irishman is a very important facet of my life because it rekindles the links I've had with the GAA since I was a kid back home in Ireland; and it's part of our culture. And to me, keeping that alive and fostering here in a faraway country just keeps you in touch with your links, with your past and with your family back home.

Mary Geaney: For me, it keeps me in touch with my homeland. I think a lot of other people the same way, and you meet your own, but not that I've got a - I mean I mix with everybody, but there's just something that keeps you with your own.

Amanda Smith: And more on Gaelic football and hurling, as played in Australia, later in the program. In Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884, by a schoolteacher called Michael Cusack. And according to Mike Cronin, who's the author of a book called 'Sport and Nationalism in Ireland', the Gaelic Athletic Association was established as much for political as sporting reasons.

Mike Cronin: The GAA as it's popularly known, was founded really as a backlash against the British presence within Ireland. There was a very great concern within society that British behaviour, British customs, British music, even the English language were taking over from the traditional Irish way of life. The people who founded the GAA firmly believed that an athletic body had a role, if not only to preserve those Irish customs for which they used Gaelic football and hurling, but that those sports represented Gaelic manhood, Gaelic masculinity, strength, a physical fitness, a level of physical fitness which they also saw, because these people were intensely politically motivated, that could be used in the future in any struggle against Britain. So there's a two-way thing there, it's reaction against British culture but it's also a preparation for a sort of longer term revival and then hopefully sort of from their perspective, successful struggle for Irish nationalism.

Amanda Smith: So its origins were to promote and develop Gaelic sports as a cultural expression of Irish distinctiveness, but also as a political expression of Irish nationalism?

Mike Cronin: Absolutely. I think that's where there's two very important stories. I think the first you identify quite rightly as this development of the sport. In that the GAA is incredibly successful. It works very, very hard; its first meeting is in November 1884. By January 1885 they have a full set of rules for their, as it were three big games: hurling, Gaelic football and handball. I mean Michael Cusack famously said that the organisation spread like a prairie fire across Ireland, and it's certainly borne out by the membership figures that you see within the GAA in its first few years. Because people are very enraptured by this idea of an Irish sport, and Irish identity, and they also like the games. I mean they're games that people have said before, suit the Irish physique, the Irish mentality. They're certainly obviously clearly Irish, they're not English, which helps people along as well. And they're games that were incredibly well suited to rural Ireland at that time, because the GAA's master stroke was basing the organisation of the games around the local parishes. So every parish priest became, if you like, the chairman of each individual club, which meant you had a sort of spontaneous automatic national network of teams, but then you also had instant rivalries. You know, could you beat the team up the road who beat you at everything else, but now you have sport, an Irish sport, where you could level the scores as it were. So I think the game's very important. I think nationalism comes in in the ethos of the organisation at the first stroke. But then obviously within a matter of months, the GAA is taken over at the committee level at least, and then slowly throughout the whole country, by members of a sort of radical nationalist organisation called the Irish Republican Brotherhood who are physical force nationalists who are aiming at the kind of military expulsion of Britain from Ireland. And the IRB, although people in the IRB are very dedicated and very able sports organisers and administrators, but they are underpinning the whole organisation with ideas of a radical Irish nationalism, and in certain cases a very violent Irish nationalism. So those two ideas, the sport and the nationalism, the political nationalism, go hand in hand from a very early date within the organisation's history.

Amanda Smith: What do you think the significance has been of the Gaelic Athletic Association in shaping Irish nationalism, Mike?

Mike Cronin: I think it's been profoundly important. At the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1921, it is seen as the third most important body in the country, behind the State apparatus, being the government, then the Catholic church, and then there's the GAA. Some people in the GAA would actually argue they're more important than both those bodies, but the GAA shapes nationalism because it is still an Irish sport, it's identifiable in a sort of a global world as something that is peculiarly Irish. It's very important for the parochialism, the regionalism that it gives the Irish people. The All-Ireland finals are built round a long sort of drawn out competition which begins within the local parishes, works through a county level and then into a provincial level, leading to the finals in Dublin in September. The idea is that all points until maybe the semi finals, everybody even at the provincial level, will have somebody they can support. This competition belongs to them, and that's still true today, if you go certainly even in metropolitan Dublin, but even well out in the countryside both north and south Ireland, the GAA club is one of the most kind of vibrant symbols of any local parish, local community's activity. And that link, very sort of organic link if you like, between the people, a sports body which then represents cultural notions of Irish nationalism and also political notions of Irish nationalism, is hugely important for sustaining the idea of Irishness.

Amanda Smith: Well how does all this play out in Northern Ireland then? How hostile have Loyalists been to the Gaelic Athletic Association or vice versa?

Mike Cronin: The GAA had a very profound impact on the Northern Ireland situation since 1968. First of all it continues to play that role whereby it offers the Catholic population in the north of Ireland if you like a safe haven. They know that the GAA club is somewhere where if they wish to they can speak in Irish, they will not be infiltrated by security forces, they will be left alone to commune with each other, to support the idea of Irish culture. I mean it's at that very organic level of an organisation. However the Loyalists or broad Unionist community responded to it very, very badly. Since 1984 the Ulster Freedom Fighters, one of the Loyalist paramilitary organisations until the ceasefire at least, has had members of the GAA down on their list of legitimate targets as part of the Republican war machine, because of their support for Irish nationalism. There are many, many instances of GAA members who were travelling either side of the border to watch or to play in games being harassed by the security forces in the north of Ireland because obviously if you have a hurley stick you're a nationalist, you're a Catholic you know. There's that level of harassment. That's led quite famously in the late 1980s to the killing of a man called Aidan McAnespie at a border cross point when he was shot by members of the British army. So there is a very direct correlation between the rejection of nationalism by one side of the community i.e. the Loyalists and the Unionists, against the embrace of the GAA by the nationalists themselves.

Amanda Smith: Can or does the Gaelic Athletic Association play any kind of role, either actual or symbolic, in the Northern Ireland peace process, or is that just completely problematic?

Mike Cronin: No they've actually been roundly criticised for their lack of a role within the Northern Ireland peace process. During the early 1990s as the ceasefires were first slipping into place, the Irish government ran a body in Dublin called the Peace and Reconciliation Council, and it worked through presentations from each of the political parties about what they wanted, and then they actually finally got onto the issue of sport. And bodies such as the two football associations in Ireland, the Rugby Football Union, showjumping, you name it, all these different sports bodies attended and said how they felt their sporting body could play a part in a work for peace. The GAA roundly refused to attend, kept arguing that they didn't have their responses ready. But I mean they were criticised and oppressed for simply not playing a role.

Amanda Smith: Well how has the global popularity of other sports, and I'm thinking particularly of soccer here, how has that impacted on the relevance of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland today?

Mike Cronin: I think a lot of people within the GAA were very, very worried in the 1980s, and 1990s when the Irish Republic's football team did so well within sort of World Cup competitions, under the leadership of Jack Charlton. There was a sort of nightmare scenario where they believed that all young boys would start kicking a round ball playing football, wouldn't want to play for Manchester United and wouldn't want to play at Croke Park in an All-Ireland final. Quite simply that's not come true, that nightmare scenario. One reason is simply because the Irish bubble to a certain extent, burst; they didn't go to the World Cup finals in France and so on. Secondly, there is a simple explanation in a way, that these two sports aren't in direct competition. Soccer is a winter game, Gaelic football and hurling are summer games. So it's quite easy for children, or even adults, to play both games because they're not competing seasons. I think what the GAA's been very, very good at, and very astute, is it's learnt a lot of lessons from watching certainly the development of premier league football in the last few years in Britain, to realise that if you have a good product and you market it properly, you can make a lot of money. That the GAA coverage, or the coverage of Gaelic games more specifically, on the Irish State Broadcaster, RTE, by BBC Northern Ireland, and then within the Irish global satellite channels of Setanta Sport and Tara TV, Gaelic games looks fantastic on those channels. It's presented very, very professionally, and if anything in the last five years, the numbers of people attending Gaelic games matches and then people watching them on TV, both in Ireland and around the world, has gone up quite dramatically. And the GAA has benefited hugely in terms of their wealth. So I think in a way if their worst-case scenario of football forced them or galvanised them into action.

Amanda Smith: Mike Cronin, the author of 'Sport and Nationalism in Ireland', and speaking to me there from Dublin.

Well if the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland was, and is, motivated by politics as much as by sport, what about Gaelic sporting organisations of the Irish diaspora? In Australia, Gaelic football and hurling matches were played between the Irish of Melbourne and Sydney in the 1920s and 1930s. Much later, an Australasian Gaelic Athletic Association was formed, of which Gerard Roe, who's based in Adelaide, is the Secretary. But were those early interstate matches in Australia also infused with the nationalist outlook of the Gaelic Athletic Association of Ireland, which until 1971 by the way, banned the playing of non-Irish, 'foreign', sports.

Gerard Roe.

Gerard Roe: I don't think so, I think going back to then it was more a case of wanting to preserve their identity or put forward their identity. It wasn't the case as such here in Australia, that you had the same rules I think in effect as what they had back at home, whereas you weren't allowed to play what was called a foreign game, and that could be anything from cricket to soccer to rugby. If you were even found watching it in the old days, you could be banned from playing Gaelic football, but that really wasn't the case out here in Australia, they just wanted to get together and promote the Irish identity.

Amanda Smith: And when and why was an Australia-wide Gaelic Athletic Association formed?

Gerard Roe: It was formed in 1974 because prior to that we were having Sydney and Melbourne teams playing each other in interstate games, and then Adelaide came on the scene and they started to take part in a tripartite sort of competition, and from there it was formed the association in 1974 to more or less formalise things, and it's grown then from the two to the three to nowadays where you have the mainland States of Australia, plus Auckland, Wellington and as of two weeks ago, Singapore is now affiliated as well.

Amanda Smith: Oh well, welcome Singapore. Is there still an interest in the kind of nationalist causes in Ireland that the GAA in Ireland has always been so strongly linked to?

Gerard Roe: I don't think so, Amanda. It tends to be that when people come out from Ireland to here, if they come out with very nationalistic thoughts, they tend to be a bit diluted as time goes on, and it's seen more only as a sport that they're playing rather than identifying it with the nationalist cause in Ireland.

Amanda Smith: And what attracts people to take up Gaelic sports in Australia?

Gerard Roe: It's a different type of game to anything else. People try to say it's an abridged version of rugby, Australian Rules and Rugby League or whatever, but I haven't seen anybody yet hitting the nail on the head and saying what it is; it's got a game all on its own. It gives anyone who's there they're multiskilled or very little skilled, the opportunity to compete in it. It also gives you a chance to play within your State, and it also gives you a chance to represent your State at what's called the Australasian championships every year. And if you're good enough then it gives you a chance to also represent the association at nice little competitions in Ireland.

Amanda Smith: Now last year we had an Irish Gaelic football team in Australia, playing Australian Rules footballers in a compromise version of the two games. Has that had an impact on the interest of people in Australia in Gaelic football?

Gerard Roe: Very much so. I know in Adelaide that we, 12 months ago, almost went to the wall, there was very little interest, we weren't able to get many players to come out because of various other sports that were being played, and I actually attended a meeting just going back over 12 months ago here, when there was almost a proposal to wind the association up. They decided that they wouldn't do it, what they would do would go to a summer competition, and this was done probably just before the Compromise Rules competition that was here in Adelaide. There were so many pluses from that in that people went to see it; they saw the big game in Melbourne when there was 60,000 or 70,000 people at it, they came here packed at Football Park, and a lot of them thought that Gaelic football was what they were watching. Whenever they contacted us we told them there were slight differences etc. That didn't stop them coming out, and a result there were various new teams came in to play in our competition, directly I believe, as a spinoff from the Compromise Rules series. So whilst there are some people within the GAA who are very much opposed to Compromise Rules, I believe that there's been very much a benefit to us.

Amanda Smith: And why are some people in the GAA opposed to Compromise Rules?

Gerard Roe: They don't see it as being Gaelic football, and they feel as well that maybe the association in Ireland is putting too much effort into this Compromise Rules series, rather than putting the effort and money etc. into the pure GAA people and the games out here.

Amanda Smith: Do many Irish travellers (and I'm thinking particularly of young people on those working holiday visas) do they get involved with the Gaelic sports clubs in Australia while they're here?

Gerard Roe: Yes. I've processed I think it was 490 transfers last year alone for players coming out from Ireland to work here, travel, holiday, whatever may be, and of course if they do come from Ireland we have to get a transfer for them, and those people generally would have been from Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent the other States. So yes, there is a big amount of people who come out and they'll play the game. And what we're trying to do now as well is the better ones, we're trying to use them for coaching purposes as well.

Amanda Smith: Gerard Roe, from the Gaelic Athletic Association of Australasia.


Amanda Smith: Francie Collins is a player with the Victorian-based club, Garryowen. He agrees with Gerard Roe that Gaelic sports organisations in Australia don't bother about Irish nationalist politics. Although ...

Francie Collins: Well we ... I've got to be careful here now because if I name some of the teams we've got here you might get the wrong impression ...

Amanda Smith: Well yes, I mean that is an interesting thing, because you have got teams with names like Sinn Fein for example.

Francie Collins: That's correct. I think it goes back again years ago when people had an immense pride in Ireland and what it represented, and I suppose they remember back to the many turbulent years that Ireland had in the 1920s and names such as Pearse and Wolf Tones and these names came automatically to the fore.

Amanda Smith: Yes, now I should just explain: that's the Padraig Pearse is one of the team names, and that's named after the Irish Republic leader who was executed following his involvement in the Easter Uprising of 1916.

Francie Collins: That's correct, yes. He was executed along with many more leaders at that time.

Amanda Smith: And Wolf Tone was an Irish politician of the, what? 17th, 18th century?

Francie Collins: Back in the 1700s he was again another man who was fighting for independence and emancipation in Catholic Ireland at that time.

Amanda Smith: Right. So those names really do sort of signify a kind of political allegiance with the nationalist Irish cause.

Francie Collins: Yes, because, well I suppose really the Gaelic games back home in Ireland, stemmed from a lot of that, and it was part of that Catholic people wanting something for themselves, and part of their identity, and I suppose that carried through the generations, and it hasn't stopped.

Amanda Smith: But how does that carry through into these teams in Australia?

Francie Collins: Well I don't think that we're really going to turn away anybody who wants to come and play a game, if that's what you're referring to. We welcome everybody to come and play, Catholic, Protestant, English, Irish, Scottish, Australian, you name it, we'll take anybody really.

Amanda Smith: Mind you, I would imagine that if you had loyalist sympathies, you're not likely to get involved with clubs with names like Sinn Fein are you?

Francie Collins: No, you'll tend to maybe stray away from getting involved in Gaelic football, you might try cricket or something else I think. There is a lot of Northern Irish people there that play the games, and I suppose they align themselves very quickly when they see names like Wolf Tone and then Sinn Fein and Pearse etc., so it's just something that has evolved over time and I don't think anybody has ever caused a fuss about the names, although I must say in my workplace when I mention that one of the teams is Sinn Fein, one of my workmates said, 'Oh, so you carry rifles?' We don't do that, it's purely the fostering and the development of the games.

Amanda Smith: Now we've been talking a bit about hurling, as one of the quintessential Gaelic sports, and which was reputedly played by the great athlete-warrior of Celtic mythology, CuChulainn. But what is hurling?

Francie Collins: Well it's basically a game played with 15 players on each side. We play with what's called a 'caman' which is a stick 36-inches long, similar to a hockey stick in a lot of ways, except at the bottom it's got a flat area; we call it a boss, but it's basically just a flat piece of timber at the end of the handle, on which you can carry the 'sliotar', as it's called, the hurling ball. That's basically a hard ball, not as hard as a cricket ball, probably similar to baseball, with a rim around the edge. And you can catch the ball in your hand, run it on the stick, throw it up and hit it in one motion with the caman And it's a very skilful and fast and intense sport.


Man: . from a place called Kerry, not renowned for his hurling skills, but he's really trying his best here in Australia.

Man: But even renowned for its football skills at the moment ... (laughs)

Amanda Smith: Although Irish immigrants form the backbone of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Australia, with many fewer Irish coming to live here now, compared to the past, the local hurling and Gaelic football clubs recruit players from whoever and wherever they can. And as Gerard Roe mentioned earlier, one of those ways is to involve young Irish people who come to Australia on short-term working holiday visas.

Alan Fitzgerald: My name is Alan Fitzgerald, and I'm involved with Sinn Fein GAA Club in hurling and football. I was the coach of the hurling team last year and I was also the coach of the Victoria State team in Perth, so that's just basically my involvement in the game.

Amanda Smith: So you're only here on a short visit?

Alan Fitzgerald: That's all. Yes I'm only here on actually a year's visa, and I got an extension, so I've actually been here kind of a year and three months. So I'm due home though actually, next week; next Tuesday I'm flying home. So I'm looking forward to going home all right, but I've had a super year here, like and a lot of us have been known to the GAA here like you know.

Amanda Smith: How did you come to get involved with the Gaelic Athletic Association here?

Alan Fitzgerald: Well basically if you come to Australia you know from Ireland you know you're over here for a year, the first thing you kind of look for is a job. And if you go looking for a job like normally you meet a man and he says, 'Can you play GAA?' that's basically where it comes from like you know what I mean and you might meet in one of the Irish pubs, Molly Bloom's or you know Bridie O'Reilly's in the city, and they'll just say to you, you know, 'Oh, how long are you over? Do you play a bit of football or hurling?' and usually you don't say no, because if you say no, well that shuts the door on a job straightaway, so you've kind of got to say yes, and you get a chance of a job, so that's basically why I started. You know when you come over here for the first time the best thing to do is to get involved with some GAA you know what I mean because it opens up the doors for jobs after that, like you know.

Amanda Smith: Now you may have got the impression so far that Gaelic sports are played exclusively by men in Australia. With Gaelic football however, that is definitely not the case. Women's teams have been competing for the past five years or so in Australia. And according to Martina Wheelan, who's a player and coach with the Garryowen Club, only a small percentage of women who play Gaelic football in this country are of Irish heritage.

Martina Wheelan: Tonight, what we've got, about 14 players out there, I would say we have two that were born Ireland, but we have about four others who have parents who are Irish, and so that's probably not a lot.

Amanda Smith: So how do the rest find their way into playing Gaelic football?

Martina Wheelan: I hate to say it, probably the pub scene probably was where a lot of them do recruiting, but from our prospective some of ours are through the university, they've known each other through university and then friends, or someone else played Aussie Rules, and then through injury maybe, decided to play Gaelic football because it's not so physical, and then probably told their friends who play Aussie Rules, how about coming along. Although you can get to represent your State in Aussie Rules, also you can represent your State in Gaelic football, and this year for the first time we've got an international for the first time, an Australasian team is going home to Ireland to play. So we actually get a chance to represent our country. I mean, and that's a big buzz as well.


Amanda Smith: Now while some of the men's Gaelic football and hurling clubs in Australia are struggling to keep up their numbers, the development of the women's Gaelic football has injected some new blood into the Gaelic Athletic Association. Alison Duncan is a non-Irish player with the St Kevin's Club in Melbourne.

Alison Duncan: Certainly we're the ones that are growing, or we're trying to grow, and the lads tend to recruit more Irish people who are passing by, who come out for a year to play, and that's all very good fun for the lads, but it doesn't promote the entire competition, so yes, the women tend to recruit a few more Australians and people from all sorts of places. So perhaps we are keeping things going.

Amanda Smith: Another woman who's definitely keeping things going in the Australian-Irish sports scene is Mary Geaney. She's the President of 'Gaelic Park', which is the venue for Victorian hurling and Gaelic football competitions. Gaelic Park is in the outer Melbourne suburb of Keysborough, and it was officially opened as an Irish sports centre in 1985, as Mary Geaney says, after years of fund-raising.

Mary Geaney: Well for many, many years as long as I've been here, 46 years, we were always hiring grounds. You hired them from councils, you're paying out rent, and we used to run dances and they used to go round with a blanket at the games and get a few bob here and there, and eventually they got enough to pay a deposit on two houses; let those out and hung on to those for many years, and then they decided they would sell those, and that's what gave us the deposit to buy the 20 acres in Keysborough. Because when you're renting grounds from the council, you had to be out by five o'clock, and it didn't matter whether the lads were showered and changed, they just had to get out of the change-rooms. So now we've got our own grounds, and we have no problem, whether we're ready to leave at six, or at six in the morning, it doesn't matter, nobody tells us to go. So it's great.

Amanda Smith: So how important is this as a venue for Gaelic sports?

Mary Geaney: Well I think it's very important, and we have got a great facility, and we are the only Irish organisation that have got their own ground.

Amanda Smith: In Australia?

Mary Geaney: In Australia. Actually there is a park in New York but the Irish don't own it. We own it, holus bolus, it's ours.

Amanda Smith: So what does being involved in Gaelic sports in Australia mean to you and other members of the association here?

Mary Geaney: Well to me, it keeps me in touch with my homeland. I think a lot of other people are the same way, and you meet your own. It's not that I've got - I mean I mix with everybody, but there's just something that keeps you with your own.

Amanda Smith: Mary Geaney, the President of Gaelic Park, the Irish sports centre in Melbourne. And bringing us to the end of The Sports Factor for this week. Michael Shirrefs is the Producer, and I'm Amanda Smith. Thanks for your company; and a happy St Patrick's Day to the Irish, and those who feel like being Irish today.


Guests on this program:

Mike Cronin
Author of 'Sport & Nationalism In Ireland'

Gerard Roe
Secretary of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Australia

Francie Collins
Player with the Victorian-based Garryowen Club

Alan Fitzgerald
Gaelic footballer

Martina Whelan
Player & coach with the Victorian-based Garryowen Gaelic sports club

Alison Duncan
Player with the Victorian-based St.Kevin's Gaelic sports club

Mary Geaney
President of Gaelic Park Irish Sports Centre in Melbourne 


Sport and Nationalism in Ireland
Author: Mike Cronin
Publisher: Four Courts Press
ISBN 1-85182-408-1

Amanda Smith

Michael Shirrefs

© 2002 ABC