Confessions of a late convert to GAA



Blue, I used to think, was a peaceful colour, until my life took an unexpected swerve. The change of direction started innocently enough. Himself went to fetch the newspaper and was gone quite a while, returning in triumph with a couple of tickets to Croke Park for Saturday’s football semi- final. The friend he invited to come along was unavailable. “If you have no one to go with I’ll come,” I said, never thinking for one moment that this would happen.

Spoiler alert, it did. I should confess at this point that I am a GAA virgin. When I disclosed at the ripe age of 46 that I didn’t know what the Sam Maguire was, the entire staff of the Irish Independent features department fell into stunned silence. More than that I have studiously avoided any form of sport forever, except when as a teenager in Belfast I went to see if your man Jimmy would run out of his shorts at a Glentoran v. Distillery match.

The fateful Saturday in question dawned wet and windy but any worries about being stuck in massive queues for Croker were lifted, unlike the rain. The GAA is impressively efficient. The first sight of the grounds was as awesome as the Roman Colosseum, with a spine-tingling thrill of Christians to the Lions/ Monaghan to the Dubs, as vuvuzela horns blared in a battleground of blue and blue and white flags circling the vast field.

Wasn’t that offside, I asked as the game got underway and got queer looks from nearby supporters.  But there’s no offside, memories of school hockey games where the rules are similar to soccer were no help at all. “What’s happening?” I asked himself.,“You’ve got 15 on one side and 15 on the other and they both try to get goals,” he said.

Simple, maybe it is if you have been playing since before you lost your first tooth.

It was hard not to let out an occasional roar as the ball hurtled over the goal posts from amazing distances as I was caught up in the enthusiasm of  about 60,000 spectators. The Dubs and Monaghan had level scores no fewer than six times in a match that looked as though it would go either way.  I was puzzled as players pushed, pulled and grabbed each other, weren’t they were committing fouls? Nope, not serious unless a punch is thrown. After a while I got the hang of 45s but the groans from the crowd had me mystified, what on earth had an unfortunate player done to cause them?

Binoculars would have been helpful, I could barely see the players – never mind their numbers – veiled in misty rain at the far end of the field. I wasn’t wearing the right gear to judge by neighbouring females, where deep fake tan legs, seriously short shorts and rain ponchos were derigeur. At half time there was none of that queueing for an inadequate number of loos or for drink because of an inadequate number of bartenders, more evidence of GAA efficiency.

In the second half the tension mounted: would the match end in a draw? At the 11th hour a goal for Dublin by Dean Rock and a further three points caused frenzy in the stands. You couldn’t beat it for drama. I was hooked.

During the night I must had had some kind Damascene conversion, as though I had absorbed Michael Cusack’s 1884 ‘A Word About Irish Athletics’. The morning saw me absorbed in the sports pages, an unheard of activity for me, then reading GAA Rules For Dummies to discover what a Mark meant. That won’t be the end of it either. You can bet that I watched the Kilkenny v Limerick Hurling final and I am devastated, and I’ll be gearing up for the football final.

At this late stage I am glad that it has finally dawned on me how extraordinarily special the GAA is with an impressive 2,200 clubs around the 32 counties. I finally get why there all those flags flying in hedges and car windows at this time of year.

The GAA has a voluntary ethos and amateur players so no underhand payments for its stars. It is a proud part of national identity.

Maybe they should put the GAA in charge of sorting out RTE and the National Children’s Hospital.

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