After the GAA’s recent €55 million deal with Sky Sports, All Ireland medal winner Gearóid Ó’Ríada takes a look at how an increasingly greedy guts GAA hierarchy is threatening the ethos of volunteerism at the grassroots of the national institution.
At present, there are few areas of Irish life that have not in some way been tainted by greed and self-interest, the GAA being the latest casualty of these poisonous ideologies. For me, there is something deeply troubling about this occurrence
Historically, the GAA was an organisation comprised of radical thinkers and idealists who would play a significant part in the nation’s fight for independence.
It is ironic then that one hundred years after Ireland’s most iconic moment of revolution and defiance, they should now risk becoming part of Connolly’s Irish capitalists, Yeats’ greasy till fumblers.
What has repulsed both myself and others in recent years has been the move away from democratic and communal principles at the highest levels of the GAA, where a shift towards neoliberal values and corporate greed seem to be well underway.
The organisation is now beginning to split into a grassroots faction opposed to the future commodification of the GAA and officials and corporate bodies seeking solely to profit from high profile inter-county teams and competitions. Such a split it is feared, may even lead to the eventual death of the GAA itself.
Since the economic crash in 2008, the organization in many parts of the country has suffered greatly due to the onset of emigration, an aspect of Irish life caused primarily by political ineptitude and casino economics.
Despite emigration being an enormous problem for clubs around the country, no definitive comment on the issue has ever been made by the GAA. With the widening gulf between the corporate managerial class and grassroots members, it seems that valuing such members is secondary to not offending the corporate powers within the organisation or friends in the Irish establishment.
The GAA’s actions throughout the economic crisis have not been limited to self-censorship. Earlier this year, the Impact trade union highlighted reports that the GAA had used the controversial Jobsbridge scheme to fill approximately 249 positions within the organisation over the past 5 years.
However, the clearest example of the GAA’s neoliberal turn was undoubtedly the recent Sky TV deal. Here, patronising Orwellian doublespeak informed us that the deal was undertaken for the benefit of grassroots members.
The money obtained, it was claimed, would “trickle down” to the rest of the GAA, a lie brazenly championed by numerous political establishment figures of late. Inevitably, such a “trickle down” has not taken place, much to the detriment of countless clubs in the country struggling to survive on a yearly basis.
In October of this year, the GAA announced that a new five year deal with Sky worth €55 million had been completed. Should the past few years be an indicator, then it is unlikely that many clubs will truly reap the benefits of this.
What is sadly apparent here is that in the hands of those who see the GAA solely as a product to be bought and sold, such a trend is likely to continue in the coming year and well into the future.
As my “political literacy” began to develop as a youth, it always perplexed and infuriated me that the GAA was lumped by many commentators into the same bracket as Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Church and other right-wing national institutions. In time I began to understand the historical context of this perception; that like other aspects of Irish life post-independence, the GAA became a useful tool for the political and religious ambitions of countless individuals and groups in Ireland.
What is also clear on close analysis, is that for decades, successive Irish governments have been particularly astute and clever in their dealings with the GAA. Knowing its cultural and cross-class weight in Irish society, elected governments have deemed it imperative to be viewed as patrons and supporters of the organisation.
At the heart of such an idea was not just ballot-box chicanery, but the fear that an underfunded, struggling and resentful GAA community would potentially create a radicalised and anti-capitalist ripple throughout the state.
Patronism and financial support from the Dáil it seems became another opiate of the people, and it is understandable then that the GAA has been mistakenly viewed by some as politically right-wing in character.
Due to this perception, the GAA for other commentators is also associated with a period of Irish cultural and social life that people no longer wish to remember, Joyce’s nightmarish history from which they are trying to awake.
For me, the use of the term “the GAA community” has always been a misleading generalisation that presumes that grassroots members, governing bodies and parasitic corporations involved in the organisation are an undivided, harmonious entity. Such an idea is akin to a Marxist analysis of society that fails to differentiate between the proletariat and the capitalists.
An absurd example perhaps, but far too many voices in Irish society view the GAA in exactly such absurd ways; that the GAA is a monocultural entity void of conflicting voices and critical thinkers, when in fact it is heavily populated by both.
The GAA I had experienced at club level with Castleisland Desmonds through to Inter-County level with Kerry was anything but antiquated and right-wing in theory or practice. In its totality, it was for me an organisation that was inclusive, communal, progressive, egalitarian, and robustly democratic.
The people involved were for the most part incredibly warm and benevolent individuals, people of great integrity who were entirely selfless in their efforts.
Such people ranged from players in the dressing room of all occupations and classes, caretakers who made our modest grounds look and feel like the Nou Camp, to volunteers who brought “post-training soup” during the coldest of winter nights.
One memory which stands out for me was when I left the field after a match, 16 years old, with my leg covered in blood. As I reached the dressing room, a caretaker inquired as to what had happened. I had torn my leg across a jagged stone near the goalmouth I explained. The next evening as I walked onto the field I saw the same area where I had received the injury; the goalmouth was completely sanded, not a stone in sight.
Trying to explain to the same man that the gesture was greatly appreciated proved to be a pointless affair, no thanks was required I learned, no praise was sought after. For such people, true value and worth it seemed, was to be found in giving and collective generosity. In their eyes, the GAA was a form of communal and social solidarity free of profiteering, political cute-hoorism and religious conformity.
Paying particular attention to “capital” here, money for the most part was a necessary evil that simply enabled clubs and county teams to survive and continue the generational cycle of this social dlúthpháirtíocht that the GAA provided for communities.
Throughout my younger years, with countless other interests and distractions in life, it was not just a sense of pride in Castleisland and Kerry, but the practical expression of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” I saw within the organisation that continuously inspired both myself and others to continue playing.
What I understand now is that my socialist convictions and the genuine meritocracy of the GAA meshed perfectly, and helped establish my overall belief that Irish society was capable of exemplifying such ideals in the future also.
It is troubling to think that in an era of greed and self-interest, volunteers at grassroots level may no longer see themselves as valued members of the GAA, but the victims of an exploitative system which profits from their free labour and goodwill. For those seeking to commodify Gaelic games, the nature of people who lay sand on stony fields is an unquantifiable mystery. What they fail to understand is that most grassroots members see the GAA as something passed on from generation to generation, something higher than market value that cannot be bought nor sold.
Much like Irish society in general, the GAA appears to be at a crossroads, to continue along a path of greed and commercialisation is to lead the organisation to the precipice of self-destruction. It is my hope however that in the coming years, the GAA will return to the principles and values for which it is supposed to stand.
The grassroots of the GAA must collectively act to ensure that the organisation remains a symbolic and practical example of egalitarianism and social solidarity in modern Ireland. The GAA must reflect and understand that the fruits of grassroots efforts are for the benefit of all, and not for a select few.
Those of us who have been part of the GAA world for much of our lives desire such opposition. Decades of generosity and selfless labour demand it.