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Is the GAA retreating in the cultural war?

Yesterday’s All Ireland hurling final will be recalled as one of the best, certainly the most exciting, for a long time. It marked the formal accession of this Limerick team into the Pantheon of the great teams by virtue of their having won their third title in succession, and their fourth in five years.

Only Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork have even managed to do this previously. Now, Limerick’s sights will be on at least emulating the Kilkenny team of 2006 – 2009 by winning a fourth in a row next year.

On the Sunday Game Dónal Óg Cusack again raised the issue of whether the inter county championships ought to be run off as quickly as they have been this year.

Dónal Óg’s reference to the overall media coverage is relevant as it indicates the extent to which what used to be the main events of the Irish sporting year have been marginalised for the want of a better word. Reducing the footprint of the GAA’s prime events is at the very least a serious marketing blunder. More to the point it is conceding prime media attention to sports that are competing with the GAA for players, particularly among children.

The decision by the GAA to squeeze the inter county championships at all grades into less than four months was approved without opposition by Congress in February 2021. The motion proposed that the senior finals be held before the 29th Sunday of the year. Which was yesterday so with the senior football final between Kerry and Galway to be played next Sunday, they are a week behind schedule. Let us hope that it does not interfere with a concert tour or a cultural event.

The reason for the decision to compress the championships was to allow more time for club games. There was some basis to that in relation to senior club championships where the involvement of inter county players meant that the club championships did not begin until after the inter county team was eliminated.

Which let us face it, only applies to a small number of counties and they are pretty much predictable from year to year. That this was still used as an excuse for some of the weaker counties to be concluding competitions in December or even the following January illustrates the extent to which it is a bit of a red herring. One county whose footballers exited the championship in early June a few years back still managed to hold their county football final a few weeks before Christmas.

In Dublin the group stage of the Senior hurling championship starts this week, but it is a rare year that the county team would still be involved at this stage on the old schedule. In any event, the group stages will only finish on September 10, after which there will be quarter finals. So with the usual break to allow for senior football games, it is likely that the championship will finish a month earlier than in 2021.

It should be noted too that there will be the traditional three week break into the second week of August so it certainly cannot be argued that holding the All Ireland senior final two months earlier than normal is having all that much difference even in Dublin where the county team’s involvement in the championship ended two months ago.

As for other grades than senior, as anyone who has played Junior hurling or football in Dublin or any other county will know, what happens at senior inter county is totally irrelevant. There has never been a reason why the vast majority of club games at all levels needed to be arranged around senior inter county matches.

There are lots of cultural battles being fought in Ireland at the present time, and it is not difficult in my view to regard the telescoping of the main traditional sporting competitions as marking a significant retreat on one of those fronts.

Anyone who grew up in Dublin as I did in the 1970s will know that the GAA was in a very weak position before the county team set the world of Gaelic football alight. One of the features of that was the huge excitement in schools when we returned in September and the mass gathering of materials for the making of flags and bunting. Then if they won, every primary and secondary school in the county – other than those known for their antipathy to our culture – was visited by a player or players brandishing the Sam Maguire.

Last week, Dublin played Kerry in the all Ireland semi-final and you would hardly have known there was a big match coming up in the days before. So few were the flags that once festooned the city and county, and the ubiquitous jerseys. It is almost as though some people cannot hasten the homogenization of Ireland quickly enough. Dublin is perhaps several years ahead on that score, but the rest are catching up rapidly.

The GAA is not helping matters by ceding the battle for young minds who need heroes that might live down the road, rather than on Sky Sports. And we won’t get started on that one!

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