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Repeat: Off The Ball

"I've been blown away" - an outsider's view on the importance of the GAA

This summer has been a privilege for an outsider looking in on the GAA. While the storylines have...


"I've been blown away" - an outsider's view on the importance of the GAA

This summer has been a privilege for an outsider looking in on the GAA. While the storylines have roughly stayed the same – Dublin’s dominance, Mayo’s wait and Brian Cody as a human being – the difference has been experiencing what clubs all over Ireland do for their communities. I have been blown away.

A very brief background: my family are Irish, with roots in Derry, Donegal and Meath. Dad was at the 2012 final to see Jim winnin’ the most important of his matches. But being raised in England has meant that the GAA has always been at arm’s length at best.

This summer, however, has allowed me to meet the people that have weaved some of the most incredible memories in the GAA’s tapestry; the old hands that provide wisdom and a link to the past, the young people that manage their time to balance studies and training (and those that don’t), the parents ferrying players all around their county, and the young coaches that have the determination to shape the future.

Through Off The Ball’s work with SuperValu, we have visited St Finbarr’s in Cork, Gaoth Dobhair, Dr Crokes in Killarney, Achill and St Vincent’s in Dublin. The stories have differed - from success to the strive for it, behind-the-scenes stories and communities that have rallied around families in tragic circumstances.

We start in St Finbarr’s, where Gerald McCarthy was nervous backstage on a balmy night in Cork. Third up on stage, he was concerned that he wouldn’t live up to the night. A humility common in GAA, he came on and did a set of which Dave Chappelle would have been proud. He spoke about a night at where Finbarr’s lost in torrid conditions, to the point that the jerseys’ colours had started to run - “The only fucking things that ran tonight!”

Gerald is the type of person that is recognisable in every club in the country - selflessly giving his time to his club and its members, on hand to mould systems and give advice, but ultimately concerned with making the best of every person at the club's disposal.

One of the most scenic clubs Off The Ball has visited, Gaoth Dobhair, typifies the bandit country feeling of the remoter parts of Donegal. It is remote, but by no means removed. The people are among the most self-effacing, driven individuals – crystallised in Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland win. The panel of Kevin Cassidy (who dealt with the pain of missing out on that special day with typical perspective), Brendan Devenney and Eamon McGee gave us the stories of rising from relative mediocrity to the top of the club and county game.

The most touching aspect of the show was their stories of how the club dealt with the tragic death of four young men in a car crash in January. One of the victims was their clubmate Mícheál Roarty. Putting to one side their personal grief – ‘numb’ was Cassidy’s description of the days after - the room was silent as they recanted how the club helped Mícheál’s family in the aftermath. These were moments of real electricity, knowing that all those in the room were immersed in the hollow feeling of loss, but had known instinctively to catalyse it into action. One of the particular triumphs of the GAA is safety in the knowledge that that support continues to this day.

Clubs and counties have dealt with difficulties of a much more trivial kind, and with the light-heartedness that they deserve. Achill was the spot for Kevin Kilbane and Nathan Murphy’s Mayo homecoming, brimming with pre-match confidence before the reality of Dublin hit home. But it was Liam McHale who stole the show, in the shadow of Croaghaun. He told a story of the panel getting together on the morning of an All-Ireland final, and a mix-up that had him and the panel howling their way into their match that afternoon…

The respect that is shown to rival competitors was a touching aside to the summer. Kieran Donaghy's Austin Stacks credentials were put to one side at Dr Crokes, as it is so hard to look past his sinew-straining efforts for Kerry. But it was Andy Moran’s tales last night, deep in the heart of Dub territory, that typified the hard work of a county trying their collective best to dethrone the best county team of their generation.

The ‘Mill on the Hill’ was a ballsy move by Mayo that at once earned the disdain of Dubs fans , but its respect for their moxy. While the shoulders were flying, it summed up a rivalry that has come to typify football for the last decade. Moran told of the chaos on the Mayo coach as they mooned Dubs fans on the way to Croker. The bare-faced cheek pissed off Dublin fans, but is part of a folklore that Moran helped to build the team-building craic that he will miss in his retirement.

Whatever happens on Sunday, this outsider has been honoured to be up close to some of the best players, coaches and fans that have graced the game in the last decades.  The likes of Mickey Whelan at Vincent’s and Gerald McCarthy at Finbarr’s are the men that I know that have given a few clips round the ear, but earned the respect of those they taught. Donaghy, Cassidy, Mossy Quinn – these are faces nationally and locally that have earned respect for both their talents and the time they gave to club and county.

They welcomed us at Off The Ball, and even tolerated my English accent.

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