I like many “liberal” Irish Protestants, admired Gaelic games and sportsmen like the eminent Sean O’Neill (whom Newry rightly honours among its greatest sons) and the remarkable Sean Hollywood – but the sad reality is that I could not feel that there was any real place for me in the GAA.
This is such a pity – because the Association and its games have been effectively cut off from the North’s majority community.
Yes – I know there were other political factors at work, not least the hostility of many Unionists towards any form of Gaelic revivalism. However, I can’t help feeling that the GAA must make itself more ‘Prod- friendly’, both in its own interests and in those of the wider community. I have already mentioned some key moments in my progress towards recognising my Irishness.
Another one worth mentioning was trying to find a place to stay in London in 1964 when working there in my first student summer holiday. I found it very difficult because of the white cardboard notices hanging in almost every lodging-house window: “No Coloureds, No Irish! No Dogs”.
Does the GAA have a cardboard notice hanging in its window which says “No Prods”? Thomas Davis, a Protestant nationalist (one of many!) wrote of Ireland as “a spiritual unity”, with “all her men and women … the heirs of a common past… ” full of spiritual, emotional and intellectual experiences, which knits them together indissolubly. The nation is thus not a mere agglomeration of individuals, but a living, organic thing, with a body and a soul: two-fold in nature, like man, yet one”.
I would respectfully say to the GAA that it behoves you to look carefully at the phrase, “all her men and women”, and consider its implications for our future. I have been encouraged by encountering the arguments of those progressive Gaels seeking a more inclusive and civically harmonious tomorrow. This is the vision which will enable interested young people from my community to enjoy the Gaelic heritage that was denied to me in the 1950s and 60s by political divisions – enjoy it at a genuine grass-roots level far removed from the grim “West Britain” embrace of the Celtic Tiger’s nouveau-riche.
I earnestly hope that the GAA will play a fulsome part in cultivating that dream – for the sake of generations to come.
…. End …