This blog first appeared as a column in the Andersonstown News
At times there’s a strong temptation to put your head under the sofa cushion and not remove it. You tell yourself that people are ultimately decent and simply want what’s best for themselves and for their family. Then you come on the banner hung at Grove Playing Fields – “ANTI BRITISH GAA NOT WELCOME” – and reports that a group of men warned some young people wearing GAA football tops to leave, and you reach for a second cushion.
This hostility to Gaelic games took a deadly turn in 1997. That’s when Sean Brown, the chairman of the Bellaghy GAA club, was abducted and killed by a group of loyalists.
What is it about the GAA that many unionists feel outraged by its very existence? After all, it’s just an organisation that supports games, isn’t it? Well, maybe something more than that. Viewed historically, maybe some unionists would have grounds for unease.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884. Rule 4 of its official guide declares:
“The Association shall actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music , song and other aspects of Irish culture. It shall foster an awareness and love of the national ideals in the people of Ireland, and assist in promoting a community spirit through its clubs.”
When I was a teenager, I played Gaelic football and loved it. I never really thought of it as a distinctively Irish game, or that the GAA had the aim of fostering a love of all things Irish. We were just playing football.
Unionist children are taught to shun all Gaelic games. Scarcely a single state school includes Gaelic games on the curriculum. Which is a pity, because besides widening the pool from which players for club and county could be drawn, it would foster closer relations. It’s difficult to work together towards a common goal (no pun intended, Virginia) and not develop a sense of comradeship with your fellow-workers. But unionists refuse to join the GAA or support it in any way. They point out that the Irish national flag frequently flies before games and that the Irish national anthem is frequently played before throw-in.
You’ll often hear unionists draw comparisons between the GAA and the Orange Order. Arlene Foster did that just last week, when she suggested that schools might re-open and still maintain social distancing, by using the local Orange Hall or GAA premises for overspill.
I think there are several important differences between the two organisations.
The first and most obvious one is that Gaelic games are played in a stadium. A march through the local town with a band playing doesn’t precede Gaelic fixtures. The big games have a parade and a band, but it’s all inside the stadium. And all are welcome.
The Orange Hall is by definition a building of the Orange Order, and the Orange Order does not confine its activity to one venue. Each year it marches on the Queen’s Highway somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 times (and yes, Virginia, this year they won’t. Now stop grinning.)
Rule No 2 of the Orange Order’s General Rules declares:
“No person who at any time has been a Roman-catholic can be admitted into the institution, except by special application to the grand lodge, or grand committee, accompanied by certificates and testimonials, transmitted through the grand secretary of his county, which shall be so perfectly satisfactory as to produce an unanimous vote on the occasion”.
The Orange Order, then, is an organisation that seeks to screen and exclude any polluting outside elements. The GAA, in. contrast, seeks to expand and develop, and has done so to an extraordinary degree,with some 500,000 members throughout the world.
The people who used their shaky markers to decorate the Grove Playing Fields banner were clearly apprehensive of the global expansion of the GAA. Perhaps that sad banner is unionism’s tormented answer to Bobby Sands’s famous assertion: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”