Last week in my class on the history of popular sport in the modern world, we looked at Gaelic Games and the interaction of sport and nationalist identity in twentieth century Ireland. Following from previous weeks, when we discussed how segregation mitigated baseball’s claim to being the American Pastime and manifestations of religious tensions in Indian cricket, we discussed the extent to which Gaelic Games can be seen as a “national game” (or games, really) and what that concept even means.
Well, in an Irish twentieth century context it often meant reflecting the supposedly clear cultural values of the Irish people: the Irish language, pride in the Irish nation, and Catholicism. Two of these three concepts feature prominently in one of the most famous speeches ever given in Irish sport, Galway captain Joe Connolly gave a simple, short speech about how much he loved Galway and made special mention of Galway fans living outside the country either because they had emigrated themselves or because they were the children or grandchildren of emigrants. Connolly’s fellow player Joe McDonagh then took the microphone and sang a truncated version of the Irish ballad “The West’s Asleep”, sometimes referred to as “The West’s Awake” because of the rousing lyrics of the song’s ending.
The speech is an excellent example of how Irish nationalism and cultural expression had become intertwined within the world of Gaelic Games. Connolly spoke in Irish, which at the time was not a particularly rare thing to happen at an event like this. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), founded in 1884, emerged in the late nineteenth century as part of a wider movement among Irish nationalists to recover a clear Irish identity separate from participation in the British state. One clear way to do this was to stress the Irish nation’s clear linguistic difference. In 1928 the Irish Free State made Irish a compulsory subject in Irish schools.
However, the language has continued to struggle, particularly outside specific enclaves in the west of the country, in places like Kerry and Galway. Connolly’s eloquent use of the language (he is a native speaker) helped conjure a reality we do not actually inhabit, where Irish people speak their own language and celebrate a culture clearly foreign to that of our erstwhile conquerors. In this alternate reality Ireland is a united sovereign nation, where the creation of Northern Ireland and the existence of Irish Unionism is ignored. The All-Ireland championships in the two major Gaelic Games, Gaelic Football and Hurling, operate on a basis of studiously failing to acknowledge any separation whatever between the claims of county Cork on the southern Irish coast and the claims of County Antrim, a solid bastion of Unionism only miles from the coast of Great Britain, to participation in a specific vision of Irishness.
Connolly’s speech, by invoking the Irish diaspora beyond the country’s borders, also spoke to a specific interaction with Irish nationalism. The Great Famine of 1845-1849 that took one million Irish lives and saw one million more emigrate started a long term practice of Irish emigration that continued well into the twentieth century and has revived since the 2008 depression. Many of those who left in the late nineteenth century left from the west of Ireland. Including those who have left both fits in with a traditional narrative of dispossession by English hands (the end of the song declares “let England quake, the West’s awake!”) and a desire to unite an Irish “nation” that crosses international borders.
So do the various sports administered by the GAA amount to “national games”? I would argue yes, in the sense that the enterprise is by its nature artificial in any case. The question of course is what nation such an idea represents: in the Irish case this has traditionally represented something specific to particular interpretations of the Irish historical experience.