Belfast Telegraph

Association's proud achievements leave professional sports in shade

By Declan Bogue

Some 130 years ago this week, the famous meeting in the Billiards Room of Hayes' Hotel in Thurles was taking place, forming the Gaelic Athletic Association.

The driving force behind the formation was the first secretary of the Association, Michael Cusack, later to be lampooned as 'The Citizen' in James Joyce's Ulysses.

I wonder what Cusack might think of his bright idea 130 years on.

As a prominent athlete of his time, particularly in hammer-throwing, he might be pleased with the spread of GAA activity.

Although the team sports of hurling, football and camogie are by far the most popular, handball does cater to individuals. Although it might seem that the GAA and its cultural wing are in the midst of a decades-long divorce, there is also a healthy Scór scene for those not drawn to the thunder and battle of competitive sports.

The popularity of Gaelic Games is nothing short of staggering for an indigenous sport.

Take American football for example. It is one of the great sports of the world, but it is an almost entirely spectator event.

If you do not make it through the well-worn path of High School star to Varsity athlete and into the NFL, then there is limited participation open to you in the game.

There is some level of amateur football, but it does not put pride of place at its core, like the GAA's parish system ensures. The popularity of Gaelic games are assured in every locality because of this.

As a result, that kind of pride of place leads to practically every club in the land having facilities and premises that are the envy of every other sporting organisation.

American football does not have this. Nor does Australian Rules Football.

Rather hesitantly, Gaelic games is undergoing a similar transformation in profile like the aforementioned games, due to the relationship with Sky TV.

The anti-Sky lobby, headed up rather unfortunately by figureheads of the RTÉ punditry, has lost its righteous anger by this stage and the manufactured fury of that time has given way to the realisation that it was never a clever idea to hide your light under a bushel.

Financially, the enormous investment of Croke Park has now been cleared.

The GAA are now in the business of handing out money where it is needed and although the process is rather piecemeal and unsatisfactory at present, eventually they will get it right.

Sure, the county scene is bloated and threatens to overwhelm the grassroots of the Association, but there is an appetite for change.

And 130 years on, the GAA is in incredible shape. A sporting wonder of the world.

But it only takes a few wrong moves to introduce professionalism.

And after that, all bets are off.

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