Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association: a Vehicle for Social Solidarity or for Social Consensus?

Watching the – by now – predictable progress of Dublin’s Gaelic football team towards yet another Leinster Football title last Sunday, my mind drifted to the players themselves. Who were they, I pondered?

Having not kept up with the newcomers to the team since somewhere around the time of their third All-Ireland title in a row several years ago, I realized I only recognized a handful of faces.

A quick Google search later and I had the names of all 36 players on the squad in front of me.

What was most interesting, however, was that as part of the information provided by there was not just how many appearances they had made, nor merely the number of trophies they had won, but their occupations were also listed.

Social historians of the future will relish such information – information concerning the occupations of participants in social and sporting movements often being difficult to come by the further back in time one casts their eye.

Despite being several beers deep into my Sunday night – a bank holiday Sunday night, so less – it was decided to undertake a quick social analysis of the Dublin Gaelic football team to see what, if any, trends might be gleaned.

Before addressing that, for readers unfamiliar with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA); the organization was founded in 1884 as part of the burgeoning late nineteenth-century cultural nationalist revival in Ireland. Its aim, according to its official line on its website today, was “to make athletics more accessible to the masses and to revive and nurture traditional, indigenous sports and pastimes.”

This played out in the codification of the sports of Gaelic football and hurling. The sports were, indeed, brought to the masses, although factors such as geography and social class often determined which of the sports were played or not.

It is not my intention here to dissect the social composition of the cultural revival in Ireland from the nineteenth century onwards.

Suffice it to say that the urban middle classes were disproportionately represented among its ranks. This does not mean that the urban or rural working class were excluded – they were, however, not as strongly represented.

It might be argued that this over-representation of the middle class has persisted in Dublin’s revival circles – be they sporting, linguistic, or artistic – down to the present day.

To return to the senior Dublin Gaelic football team as an example; a team which is, in name at least, amateur and not professional.

The occupations of the players that were provided were as follows: 3 business consultants; 3 financial advisors/analysts; 3 accountants; 3 bank officials; 1 marketing intern; 1 business owner; 1 investment manager; 1 property investor; 1 sales executive and 1 business developer. A strongly business-orientated middle-class cohort, then.

To that we can add the middle- or lower-middle class profession of teacher, of which there are 5 on the squad, as well as 8 students (most of whom will, presumably, join the ranks of the middle class).

Only 2 members of the 36 player panel can be counted among the working class; this includes 1 painter and 1 gas meter reader.

In the absence of a more all-encompassing analysis of the social backgrounds of all Gaelic football and hurling players in Dublin, as well as ordinary members of the GAA, we must confine our analysis to those who play at the top, inter-county, level.

This, of course, comes with the caveat that these are the élite players and do not exactly represent the rank and file at club level. It is not unusual that players who progress to the highest inter-county level, while still retaining amateur status, would be from middle-class backgrounds with more stable home lives, more free time, and less poverty-related traps around them.

Nevertheless, the balance is so skewed towards the middle class in the team that it warrants remarking upon. Of course, in working class areas the GAA must also compete with soccer. But, this is counterbalanced in middle-class areas with the competition offered by rugby.

Does the finance, banking and business-based Dublin Gaelic football squad merely reflect the financialization of the wider economy at a city and statewide level? What of the quiet, but gradual, moves towards professionalization and commercialization being carried out by the GAA at executive level?

Has much of the pool of talent from working class areas in Dublin been unable to put down roots in the city, or been forced to migrate to the countryside or emigrate to the US, Australia and so on in search of work?

How do other teams at inter-county level outside of Dublin compare in terms of class? Work for a sociologist with an interest in sport and class, perhaps.

Whatever the reasons for the predominance of a finance, business and banking class among Dublin Gaelic footballers over recent years, the idea that the Gaelic Athletic Association represents a vehicle for social solidarity, especially in Dublin, must be put under the lens.

This is a trope that is constantly advanced – that the GAA is the “heartbeat of community in Ireland”, and so forth. In one way, this is true; the GAA is the communal glue that bonds much of Ireland together.

However, the question must be posed – does this communal glue nullify class antagonisms? Is it in the interest of social progress that such antagonisms be sharpened?

There is a well-established literature on the social consensus and social control  induced and enforced by the Catholic Church in Ireland over the course of the twentieth century.

Such was the culture fostered by church (and state) that the trade unions of the twentieth century in the Twenty-Six Counties of Ireland were defined by a tendency towards social consensus, compromise, and apathy, rather than by a desire for social conflict, militancy and urgency.

What is less well-known or thought about is the effect that the GAA might have had on the same process of conformity.

This needs to be considered, especially as we enter a period that might be best described, in social if not in institutional terms, as the “Twilight of the Catholic Church”.

The image of the largely working-class Dublin-supporting Hill 16 terrace at Croke Park – comprised of young construction workers, apprentices, van drivers, call center workers and service industry staff – cheering on property investors, accountants and consultants must surely raise eyebrows.

Some of these fans, should they be unlucky enough to number among the generation of exploited young tenants in the city, could well find themselves in conflict with the property and accountancy firms who employ some senior Dublin footballers.

Other examples of this class ambivalence in the GAA include the use, in recent years, of one clubhouse in Westmeath, St. Loman’s, as a courthouse where evictions were carried out.

To this we must also add the sound of former County Meath Gaelic footballer, school principal, and RTÉ pundit Colm O’Rourke on the radio spewing anti-union rhetoric any time there is talk of teachers standing up for their rights.

My own local GAA club in south-west Dublin, for which I played and was a member of for many years, now boasts a cohort of estate agents among its ranks – estate agents who work for one of the largest property companies in the city, helping to drive up the “market rate” on rents and housing units throughout Dublin.

Yet, because they play on the local GAA team these estate agents can project themselves as “great lads” and upstanding members of the community, thus concealing how their activities drive many people in that same community, and further afield, into housing despair.

Maybe none of this should be surprising. The GAA is, after all, a mass sporting organization and one which never based itself on any particular class or class analysis. In recent years, it has been depoliticized of even its nationalist underpinnings.

Nevertheless, overall, the GAA still exhibits many positive qualities as a vehicle for mass voluntary participation and social solidarity – numerous cases of “good deeds”, communal work and charitable drives by local and inter-county Gaelic football and hurling teams abound.

However, as Irish society tears at the seams under the pressure of a rapacious neoliberal economy and property market, the GAA could well become (or, perhaps, it already has become?) a vehicle for a type of social consensus which masks the ugly and grossly inequitable side of Irish life.

As with many institutions in Ireland, it is up to the grassroots members to push back against the further neoliberalization of the organization. Where that impulse might come from, though, remains to be seen.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.