One of the aspects that fascinates me most about Ireland is its sports culture. Every town has its own Gaelic Athletic Association (or “GAA”) club, which serves as a center for local events (bingo nights!) as well as youth sports specific to the island like Gaelic football (a sort of soccer-rugby-basketball hybrid) and hurling (ditto, except with sticks). From these smaller, community GAA clubs, the best players will go on to join teams that represent their county in countrywide competition.
At the highest adult level, athletes in these sports are celebrities. Sport celebrities, of course, are no surprise to this American — I remember being at basketball camps growing up, remarking on the fact (or spreading the rumor?) that the face of Michael Jordan was more recognizable in the world than that of Jesus Christ. What is surprising, though, is that the GAA stars are amateurs. Doctors, teachers, and beyond, GAA athletes have to keep their jobs and have very limited opportunity to profit directly from their athletic endeavors. Moreover, because one’s team is decided based on his or her hometown, there is no trading of players or free agency period that allows richer clubs to sign away your favorite local star (sorry, Yankees fans). It is, to me, a perfect arrangement that facilitates regional loyalties while simultaneously investing in youth sports locally.
Since arriving in Dublin, I have been lucky enough to become friends with a number of people integral to the country’s GAA setup. In late September, I accompanied them to the women’s Gaelic football final at Croke Park, the legendary GAA venue north of the Liffey in Dublin. More than 30,000 spectators watched perennial powerhouse Cork take on the local Dubs side, which has been to a number of recent finals without a championship to show for it. I was struck by the large numbers of young girls dressed in their local GAA teams’ colors attending the match with their parents and coaches. My friends told me that the GAA has, in the last decade, started to focus more on girls’ sports, reflecting broader changes in Ireland that have made it a place of rapid social changes in gender rights. Ultimately, despite my own “Come on you girls in blue!” (#coygib) cheers, it was Cork again holding the trophy at the end of 70+ hard-fought minutes.
After the match, my GAA VIP pals brought me to the post-match reception in the club level at the stadium. Between pints of Guiness, I was introduced to President Michael Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach fondly called me “one of Trina’s boys” (in reference to US-Ireland Alliance founder Trina Vargo) before proceeding to roughhouse some other lad into a headlock. Striking was how easily approachable and conversational both politicans were, with minimal security detail or insistence on officialdom.
My afternoon at Croke Park may have been the end of the women’s Gaelic football season, but it was the start of my own GAA fandom. A few weeks later, I invited some other Mitchell Scholars to a pub to watch the men’s final; now, when the next season starts, I’ve got a whole crew with which to watch.