Welcome to Part 3 of my series about how the Gaelic Athletic Association can increase interest and participation in their sports here in America. Now on to the entry …
In Ireland, hurling and gaelic football are largely, though not exclusively, played by Catholics, and as the Gaelic Athletic Association works to expand in the United States, it needs to use this tie to its advantage, rather than play it down as it does in Ireland.
First off, it’s important to understand how the GAA was created. Way back in 1884, the organization was founded to preserve Irish sports and Irish culture. The (essential) reason that both came under threat was that the English rulers of Ireland were actively promoting English culture and, at its worst, actually outlawing various aspects of Irish culture. This attitude prevailed throughout much of the next century.
As the anti-English sentiment transformed into violence in the form of the Irish Republican Army, the GAA as an organization was even outlawed for a time. To further dampen interest in the sports, occupying British forces were banned by their own government from playing gaelic games. The animosity between the Irish and English was quite intense and resulted in riots, beatings, ambushes and vandalism, some of which were directed at GAA players, coaches or spectators. There’s several instances, for example, of vandals pouring broken glass on GAA playing fields to limit their use.
During this turbulent time, some actually considered the GAA a terrorist organization, or, at the very least, a front for a terrorist organization. Whether that is true is a case for historians to sort out, of course, but the English certainly saw strong connections.
Fast forward to modern times, and the GAA rightly and exclusively promotes itself as a cultural organization (which it has always been) and not a religious one (which it has never been). That’s a perfect position to maintain in Ireland, where the wounds of the era are still strong, but at the same time the GAA shouldn’t ignore the massive 68 million Catholic base in America, many of whom are struggling to find their cultural and ethnic identity.
Of those 68 million U.S. Catholics, a substantial percentage can trace their heritage to Ireland, and those are the people that the GAA needs to reach out to and say: “Look at what your grandparents did back in the home country. This is a sport they played to build up their community, and you should play it too so you can be part of something too.”
Back to school: In particular, the GAA should create an educational program that highlights the organization’s history, the history of its sports and their historical (though not direct) association with the Catholicism. In Ireland, they already have youth outreach progams, so it’s not too big of an effort to brush it up for Americans.
But here’s the key: Once they have an Americanized program ready, the GAA should market it to America’s Catholic schools. As of this writing, there are more than 7,000 private Catholic schools in the United States, and every one of them is going to eagerly embrace a game that was often used to champion the Catholic cause, even if their school isn’t entirely Irish Catholic.
Just consider this as a sample course of study, which could stretch over the years American kids spend in their local Catholic schools:
- Athletics: Starting in the earliest grades, the GAA should provide equipment and instruction material to American Catholic schools. Hurling, in particular, is a game that takes many years to master, and teaching kindergarten and first-grade students is going to eventually build some excellent American players.
- History: Starting with the gaelic games origins hundreds of years ago, following through to the founding of the GAA and its evolution into its modern form is actually fascinating reading. Layer that with the fact that the games’ players are professional in skill, but totally unpaid, is an amazing story of its own in a modern world where people are paid tens of millions of dollars because they can throw and catch a ball.
- Politics & Geography: Along with the story of the Irish political situation that resulted in the creation of the GAA, there’s also another set of politics that comes into play on the field. Players for gaelic sports aren’t traded or lent out. They can only play for their home team. This results in heated rivalries between neighboring towns and counties, and a good lesson in geography for those interested.
Right now, Catholics in America are vehemently proud of their heritage. They celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with abandon. They flock to Irish festivals. They have essentially claimed Columbus Day as their day.
Why not give America’s Catholics their own sport as well?
And once you do, the GAA might spark interest from America’s non-Catholics and non-Irish population.
When and if that happens, the gaelic games will truly go global.Read More