Old Habits Die Hard.

In Blog, Sportby Barry Sheppard1 Comment


Above:  Thomas Sweeney captured John Kavanagh, coach of Conor McGregor at SBG Gym. Read our previous feature on MMA here.


Given the GAA’s early attitude towards foreign sports, Barry Sheppard looks at the reaction of certain quarters of the GAA towards UFC and asks has nothing changed in 130 years?


Some have called it a rant. A pundit overstepping his boundary to comment on something he knows little about. This may be true; yet it is informed by an adherence to 130 years of a sporting culture. I refer of course to the now infamous Irish Independent opinion piece penned on the back of the tragic death of Joao Carvalho last month at a TEF MMA event in Dublin.

Its author is of course the well-known Gaelic Athletic Association pundit Joe Brolly. In his defence, Brolly wasn’t alone in attacking MMA with little knowledge of the sport, nor concern for the fallen fighter. Nevertheless, it is his personal, over-dramatic, and ultimately false comments on Conor McGregor’s role in the piece which has raised the ire of Irish fight fans.

No MMA fighter or fan has lost sight of human tragedy which unfolded last month. McGregor himself posted a heart-felt assessment of the situation on his Facebook page. While Carvhalho’s brother gave a moving interview on Obviously Fight Talk in stark contrast to the tabloidization of the situation, of which Brolly’s piece took centre stage.

Brolly’s confusing article seemed to be a long-standing opposition to boxing, rather than an insight into the world of Mixed Martial Arts. However, his dismissal of the sport as nothing more than legalised murder is in a long line of slights from the GAA’s elite to other sports which don’t measure up to their own moral standards. This sporting morality has its roots in the struggle for Irish independence and was called ‘a nation-wide campaign to resurrect the physical stature of the manhood of Ireland, which was deemed debilitated because of the combined effects of British rule and the Great Famine’.

The GAA’s origin as a branch of the Gaelic Revival in the late nineteenth century, and as a vehicle for the advancement of Irish nationalism has informed much of its outlook in the proceeding decades. The GAA’s founder, Michael Cusack’s short essay “A word about Irish athletics” concerned itself with ‘the social and political advancement of a nation from the tyranny of imported and enforced customs’. To appeal to the masses the games had to have the appeal of a noble pursuit in the face of corrupting foreign influences, while recalling dark periods of Ireland’s history:

‘The strength and energy of a race are largely dependent on the national pastimes for the development of a spirit of courage and endurance. The corrupting influences which, for several years, have been devastating the sporting grounds of our cities and towns are fast spreading to the rural population. Foreign and hostile laws and the pernicious influence of a hitherto dominant race drove the Irish people from the trysting places at the cross–roads and the hurling fields, back to their cabin where, but a few short years before, famine and fever had reigned supreme’.

Cusack wasted no time in attacking the GAA’s closest rivals at the time, which were of English origin. Rugby was dismissed as “a denationalising plague [carrying] on through winter the work of ruin that cricket was doing through the summer”. The projection of sporting nobility and masculinity was essential to the salvation of the soul and the nation and would become a lasting element in GAA history, one which arguably persists through to today among some of the sport’s traditionalists.

The organisation’s role in the Cultural Revival and the overlapping relationships between it and the political elite consolidated its position as the nation’s number one sporting body post-independence. Politicians viewed Gaelic games as an extension of the educational process and crucially as a means of building character and national identity.

The identity which the GAA thought so crucial arguably came up against its first obstacle in May 1933 when the Department of Defence investigated the training techniques of physical training from several European countries with a view to introducing them into state-run schools. An Irish Free State Army advert later stated that it was likely the European training techniques would be introduced into schools throughout the State.

The GAA hierarchy were incensed that its introduction would be the “systematic and wholesale plan of foreign importation”, and a regime that “does not suit our needs, still less our traditions”. Brolly’s plea to politicians to ban the sport of MMA in Ireland is of this tradition.

Brolly’s MMA piece generated a substantial social media backlash. Some voiced their disapproval on what was a distasteful attack on an innocent man. Unfortunately, as is the case with social media some responses were offensive and personal. This, of course provided the impetus for the follow-up article. However, a large number of the responses were quite measured, yet this wasn’t reflected in what is now a hotly discussed second article.

Of course measured responses don’t sell copy, and to illustrate his position Brolly highlights two tweeters who took part in the personal attack. It was on the basis of these two cases that Brolly vilified MMA fans in general as “Chelsea FC supporters…tattooed young men who talk like boyz in the hood and dream of owning a pet tiger”, while chastising them for writing clichés (seemingly blissfully unaware of a very obvious irony) about Joao Carvalho. Brolly’s rhetoric regarding MMA fans as living “in awe of this white rap culture, where greed is good, violence is worshipped, and conspicuous shows of wealth are the ultimate drug” are startlingly similar to Cusack’s essay 130 years ago, minus of course the reference to rap culture.

Nonetheless, parallels can be drawn between Brolly’s rap reference and the rhetoric of the infamous Anti-Jazz campaign of the 1930s. The GAA-endorsed publication ‘National Action: A Plan for the National Recovery of Ireland’ pleaded against “the demoralising influences of this condition” known as jazz music and the need for it to be abolished.

Dismissing vast swathes of combat sports fans based upon a select few who fit the mould of knuckledragger is of course a cheap and easy tactic to employ after you have lost the argument, as Brolly did when he showed his knowledge of the sport is minimal.

MMA in Ireland is a sport in its infancy. It is violent; there is no denying that. However it is in a controlled environment, something which thus far has escaped its critics. The GAA’s own sporting history is far from violence free, and over the years has resulted in tragic fatalities. The early days of hurling resembled “nothing more than a faction fight, with large, uneven groups of men hacking and wrestling as often as they followed the ball”.

Of course not all GAA adherents are opposed to Mixed Martial Arts. Perhaps the most prominent individual who straddles both sports is Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney, a veteran of the same MMA gym which McGregor fights out of, SBG Ireland. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the GAA of today is the same as that of 1884, it is a lot more progressive than it was even twenty years ago, and attitudes to sports of un-Irish origin are not uniform. Nevertheless, there is a traditionalist view, often expressed loudly that persists and hasn’t veered too far from those of the sport’s founding fathers.

Check out our interview with John Kavanagh of SBG Gym here.



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