“There’s a lot forgotten about in this pandemic that these lads have actually contracted something.” These were the words of Fermanagh manager Ryan McMenamin, speaking to RTE ahead of the Ernesiders’ Allianz League Division 2 clash against Clare. With Northern Ireland’s Covid case numbers rising sharply in the last few weeks, the Fermanagh Senior Men’s squad were among the hardest hit with at least 17 players testing positive for Covid-19. With that in mind, it was difficult to envisage how the game could realistically go ahead. However, according to RTE, Club and Games Administration Feargal McGill said that Croke Park had not received an official request from Fermanagh to postpone the game, and that it would be “very unlikely that [the GAA] will be granting any postponements in the Allianz Leagues.”
McMenamin and his Clare counterpart Colm Collins had even put forward the idea of playing the game at a neutral venue, but this too proved an unsatisfactory compromise for Croke Park. “We were told that we can’t meet halfway because that’ll wreck the integrity of the game,” McMenamin revealed. “At the same time, we’re told that it’s alright for a team to miss 20 players plus, and then expect 10 players who have contracted Covid to go out on a Sunday.”
In the end, the game went ahead in Ennis as scheduled, but Fermanagh were left with a paltry 3 players on their subs bench, while three of their starting team were under 19. Clare snatched the vital win by 2 points, but it hardly matters. In those circumstances, you can call it a lot of things, but “a fair contest” would not be one of them.
“McGill confessed that another lockdown would surely halt any ambitions of completing—perhaps even commencing—the inter-county season.”
When the Government announced the country would be moving up to Level 5 restrictions two weeks ago, it appeared as though that, as they euphemistically say, was that. Even McGill confessed that another lockdown would surely halt any ambitions of completing—perhaps even commencing—the inter-county season. Tanaiste Leo Varadkar agreed, but added: “it is going to be a decision for the GAA, they are the right ones to make it.”
In the end, the association opted to beat on, boats against the current. The decision has been welcomed by some, claiming it will facilitate a boost in the morale of the nation. Keith Duggan wrote in the Irish Times that the All-Ireland Championships would “at least offer an escape, a distraction, the illusion of normality” and that “the All-Ireland championship is amazing. It is, in the truest sense, an exception.” He is right. The GAA is an exception. Or, to be more specific, the association sees itself as an exception. And it is this exceptionalism, not teams trying to play games at neutral venues, that has truly undermined the integrity of the game.
Of course, it is an exceptionalism that has always been prevalent in the sport’s history, from its link to Irish mythical figures such as Cuchulainn to its painfully real place in history in the form of Bloody Sunday in 1920. It is a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression, a robust alternative to the “foreign games” of association football and rugby. And while other sports made the transition to professionalism, the GAA retained its amateur status, and has received international recognition as a result.
However, amateurism is precisely the reason why it is much more challenging for the GAA to follow the lead of other sports in trying to keep the show on the road during the pandemic. It would be impossible for teams to confine themselves to a bubble like the Premier League clubs or the international rugby teams, because it’s not a full-time job for GAA players. They have to work and travel to other parts of the country, and even the island, so trying to restrict their movements is easier said than done.
“It is the players who are the big losers in this whole arrangement.”
Indeed, it is the players who are the big losers in this whole arrangement. On top of having to defy public health advice and put not only themselves, but their families, at risk of contracting the virus, playing for their county will undoubtedly have negative consequences financially. Last Sunday, the association updated their travel protocols, discouraging the use of team buses and stating: “the safest way for players to avoid contracting the virus or being classified as a close contact is to travel individually in cars to games or training.”
The Gaelic Players Association had raised the issue of team buses to the GAA, and following the recommendation would reduce the number of close contacts a player may have, but having to drive individually to games would take its toll both financially and physically. The prospect of a long drive after a gruelling championship match is not an attractive prospect. Furthermore, merely encouraging teams to avoid using team buses and leaving it effectively as a choice could result in a varied approach to the issue. If not every team is going to follow the recommendations, then the whole scheme is pointless.
However, this latest development is not the first time that GAA exceptionalism has come to the fore during the pandemic. On August 18, the government, following NPHET advice, announced that all sport must be played behind closed doors until at least 13 September. The FAI and IRFU immediately set about issuing revised guidelines to ensure training and matches could take place in line with the new restrictions.
The GAA, on the other hand, set about issuing a rather surprising statement that evening, specifically aimed at then-Chief Medical Office Ronan Glynn: “Following this evening’s unexpected announcement the GAA invites Dr Ronan Glynn and NPHET to present the empirical evidence which informed the requirement for the Association to curtail its activities. The Association will tonight be issuing an invitation to Dr Glynn to meet with its Covid Advisory Group in this regard without delay. The GAA and its members remain at all times committed to protecting public health.”
“By being the only organisation to so vehemently question NPHET advice, the GAA have demonstrated an unwillingness to be a team player, so to speak.”
The association could certainly ask for clarification on those restrictions, but to call out Dr. Glynn seemed like a step too far on the GAA’s part, and shows that, for all its merits, there is also an ugly side to exceptionalism. The return to play has been a long and nervous journey, and even now, teams and organisations are well aware that their whole season could be cancelled again without much warning. The associations seem cognisant that they are better off learning to adapt and continue however they can. By being the only organisation to so vehemently question NPHET advice, the GAA have demonstrated an unwillingness to be a team player, so to speak.
The reality is that this virus remains a very credible threat and continues to wreak havoc in all sports, not just GAA. Yet, with the right approach, the GAA could have benefitted from the pandemic in a way that other sports could not. Speaking to Trinity News, broadcaster Ger Gilroy believed that the association would “actually come out of this a lot better, with a completely reorganised structure to the calendar – something which would have taken a generation to work through otherwise”. However, the scenes of celebrations at club championship finals, with pitch invasions, lack of social distancing among spectators and teams being paraded through their parish, proved to be a PR disaster for the GAA. What appeared to be a gilt-edged opportunity for the association turned into a spectacular own goal.
Perhaps this is a bit harsh on the GAA, and to paint everyone involved in the sport with the same brush would be disingenuous, at the very least. To echo the words of Taoiseach Micheal Martin: “Many people have done everything that has been asked of them. But some have not.” Passionate GAA fans will welcome the inter-county action over the next few months as a distraction from these curious times. Maybe Keith Duggan is right when he says the return will succeed in stimulating “an extraordinary level of interest and enthusiasm and – that scarcest of emotions nowadays –- national joy”. But in terms of its players and its own reputation, it appears the GAA is doing more harm than good.