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Opinion: At a club football match on a cold and rainy, dismal evening - I fell in love with Gaelic games

I love the sense of community spirit that is manifest at every match. Throughout Ireland, the GAA is the glue that binds residents together, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THIS SUNDAY IN London marks another chapter in my GAA journey

Those who follow me on Twitter will be well-acquainted with the steady stream of tweets emanating from my iPhone on weekends from May through the waning days of summer that track the triumphs and travails of the Galway hurlers and footballers.

Like so many people in this country, I am a die-hard fan of the Gaelic Athletic Association and an enthusiastic supporter of my home county.

The subtle or substantial – depending on how you look at it – distinction in my case is that home county probably belongs in inverted commas.  That’s because my birthplace is Boston.

Anyone familiar with that great city, however, will swiftly acknowledge that notwithstanding the 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean separating the two places, a huge number of people in Boston have family in, and myriad connections to, Galway and vice versa.

30 odd Irish-born attendees were guests at a lifelong friend’s wedding several years ago. My wife was the sole non-Galwegian. As a high profile politician remarked in the 1980s about one city neighbourhood and its environs, “lots of people around here say they’re from Dorchester, and that’s a fact, but they’re almost all of Galway.”

I am no exception to the rule.  My own family hails from north Galway, between Tuam and Dunmore, and I have become close to cousins who still live there or thereabouts.

It was in that wonderful part of the world that I was truly introduced to the GAA, an entity that I was certainly aware of, but not directly involved in, growing up in Irish Boston.  

Yet after attending a club football match on a dismal, cold, rainy evening with my cousin, I was hooked and have never looked back.

Some people have asked me – what it was that got me so enamoured of the GAA?

Indeed, many fellow Americans, particularly those without familial roots to a club and county,  who have relocated to Ireland don’t really get it or aren’t especially moved by games they had never seen before, unless and until they have children here who are exposed and then drawn to the GAA.  

As such, my attempts to explain my grá for the institution to them often fall on deaf or disbelieving ears, at least initially.

Well, here are a few things I love about the GAA.

I love its amateur ethos.  As a child and a younger man, I lived and died, metaphorically speaking, by the fortunes of the Boston professional sports teams.  

And I remain a backer from afar. Over the years, though, I became more cynical and downright angry about the grotesque salaries paid to professional athletes, as well as the absolutely extortionate, corollary costs of tickets to watch them play in person.  

That the women and men who play Gaelic games at the highest level for their clubs and counties do so because of their unwavering devotion to where they come from and to their sport, first and foremost, is inspirational. 

That, in most instances they do so at the same time being subject, like us ordinary folk, to the other realities of life – is extraordinary.

I love the sense of community spirit that is manifest at every match.

In so many Irish towns, villages and sections of cities, the GAA is the glue that binds residents together.  This country continues to change in all sorts of ways and some people sadly continue to struggle. The GAA is arguably the one constant.

I love its outreach to emigrants.  The association has tentacles literally everywhere.  

In Boston, by way of example, the GAA has an enormous facility in Canton (one of its largest landholdings in the world), just to the south of the city. There are numerous flourishing clubs comprised of men and women, girls and boys, which compete there.

Notably, there have been concerted efforts to get young Irish Americans and Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to take up football, hurling and camogie. It is heartening for me to see the children of friends and contemporaries training in the parks close to the house I was raised in.

I love that my 6-year-old son, Larry Óg, is equally mad about the GAA, whether he is playing the games himself or accompanying me to watch Galway in league or championship matches.  His donning a Galway jersey is not uncomplicated in that he lives and attends school in Wicklow, where I spend my weekends.

We were labelled “two fake Galway men” in a local pub one day while roaring in unison for the Tribesmen.  It was a pretty funny jibe.

On the other hand, being in Wicklow on the weekends has made our enviable number of Saturday and Sunday trips to Croke Park far easier. And Larry’s first loyalty increasingly will be to what is actually his home county.

Of course, the GAA is not perfect.  It is easy for onlookers to hail the amateur ethos; it is another thing completely for the players and, crucially, for their families in light of the sacrifices required of them.

Hopefully, some accommodation can be reached that will fully recognise this situation. This will necessitate some ‘outside the box’ thinking.

Moreover, recent reports that a Donegal club has been suspended for hosting a soccer match in aid of a member with motor neuron disease reveals a capacity for terrible and unjust decision making, not for the first time.

That said, the good vastly outweighs the bad.

This weekend, Galway opens its Connacht championship campaign against the London squad in Ruislip.  I will be there. For me, it’s a couple of days away with Galway friends who I don’t get to see too often anymore.  

For Galwegians travelling and for the county’s emigrants based in London, it’s a reunion, an opportunity to catch up on what’s been going on at home and away.  

For those who’ll tog out for London and for the Irish there who’ll support them, it’s a chance to get that unique match day feel across the sea.

Some of us in the crowd on Sunday – the best of us one might be tempted to say in jest – will be shouting for Galway.  

But we will all be saluting the entire GAA.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie. 

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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