Ireland again worships at GAA altar

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A resurgent nation has been returning to traditional games as a testament to its faith in community

This weekend, an ancient Irish ritual resumes: the Gaelic football season. "Gaelic" - a fabulous game halfway between rugby and soccer - is Europe's most successful indigenous sport. Dublin's Croke Park, the third biggest sports stadium in Europe, sometimes packs in 82,000 spectators, and the stands are so high that some of them get treated for vertigo. The Gaelic Athletic Association is Ireland's largest organisation after the Catholic church, notes the British historian Mike Cronin.

It isn't what you would expect to find in the "new" Ireland. This is the world's fourth-richest country, and its most globalised, according to Foreign Affairs magazine and A.T. Kearney. Surely soccer - the global game - should have crushed Gaelic? Hurling, an Irish stick-and-ball game dating back to the 8th century, should have had no chance at all. Yet Paul Rouse, another historian of Gaelic games, says they have "never been more popular". This reveals something about Ireland.

Many Irish play Gaelic simply because it's fun: had Ireland rather than Britain established an empire, the world would now probably be playing their game instead of soccer. Played on a huge pitch, with ample space for moves, Gaelic is more fluent than rugby or American football, and produces more attacks than soccer. Since you can use both hands and feet, it's more varied too.

Yet Gaelic was never just a game. It was always tied to an idea of rural Catholic Irishness. The GAA was founded in 1884 as an Irish nationalist organisation, charged to protect the native games from the British sports of rugby and football. Gaelic's ties to nationalism deepened with time: one end of Croke Park, "Hill 16", was built from rubble from the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1920, on the original "Bloody Sunday", British forces killed 12 people during a match at the ground.

Each club was tied to a parish, overseen by the local priest, the games watched by a congregation fresh from Mass. On muddy parish pitches on Sunday afternoons, Gaelic became an Irish Catholic rite almost like holy communion. Before All-Ireland finals, GAA officials would kneel to kiss a bishop's ring.

Later some traditions faded: the bishops went, the ban on "foreign games" was lifted in 1971, the GAA stopped meddling in the Northern Irish conflict, and permitted players to make money from endorsements. Women have been allowed to discover the games. This April the GAA may lift its ban on soccer and rugby being played at Croke Park.

Yet it's remarkable how many of Gaelic's traditions survive in the new Ireland. Although droves of Irish have left the church, often slamming the door behind them, Sean Kelly, the GAA's president, told me one Sunday morning before Mass: "Obviously the parish priest would normally be involved in the game." Although soccer stars now earn millions, Gaelic clubs still pay nothing. When I asked Kelly why amateurism was important, he replied: "Why is it important to keep breathing?" Although many Irish villagers have migrated to booming Dublin, they are still encouraged to trek "home" for hours each weekend to play for their parish of birth.

The strange thing is that many of them do. Today's globalised Irish display as much "pride of place" as their parents did. They love the fact that they'll have known players in their county team since childhood, that these stars have normal jobs, that cousins or brothers play together. You don't get that in Premiership soccer.

Gaelic gives the new Irish a sense of unchanging community. Kelly says: "Everybody needs to hold onto their roots. And we're their roots." That's why Irish software companies have corporate boxes in Croke Park, and why television now shows live games every weekend.

In short, the GAA has ditched the old Catholic nationalist Irishness, and attached itself to a nostalgic fantasy of Irishness. It's the Irishness you see in a Guinness ad for hurling, which shows giants playing over a map of Ireland: a new, happy-clappy, rural, pagan Irishness with the old sharp edges filed off. It's the Irishness depicted on the walls of Irish pubs in Singapore or Moscow, the Irishness the world loves. "Being Irish is cool," as Kelly says.

Now he is promoting the game abroad. If the Irish keep buying the world's apartments, Gaelic could conquer the globe.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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