Weekend Read: Irish and Australian football are different and that’s a good thing

By Paul Daffey

I enjoyed Irishman Cormac McCormack’s piece on the lack of humour and connection in the AFL, and although I can’t help but think that Cormac is looking at sport in his homeland through porter-coloured glasses, I agree with much of what he says.

I lived in Ireland in 1998: six months in Cork (working at Da Paper) and six months in Dublin (working at the Irish Times). During that year I became fascinated by the breakdown of sport in Ireland. Gaelic football was played throughout the 32 counties of the Republic and the North (except in Kilkenny, which fielded only hurling teams). Hurling was played in only 14 counties (mostly in the Leinster province in the east and the Munster province in the south where there was good, flat farming land). Rugby was played in the private schools in Dublin and Cork, and by all levels of society in Limerick City, where rugby took hold during the city’s years as a British garrison town early in the 20th century. And soccer was an inner-city game played mainly in Dublin and Cork, although most towns of any size somehow managed to field a team in the national soccer competition.

Mostly I was fascinated by the GAA. Australian footy began in Melbourne as, famously, “a game of our own”. It was borne of an independence of mind, no doubt, but it was not borne through any intention of thumbing its nose at our British fathers. This is entirely the reason that the GAA was formed. In 1884 half a dozen men gathered in a pub in Thurles, County Tipperary, and formed the GAA for the purpose of promoting Irish games and therefore Irish culture. In that time of British rule, the GAA was formed as a direct antidote to British imperialism.

Although the GAA claims political neutrality, the reason it came into being makes it a political organisation. That was driven home to me when I went to my first county championship game, a hurling match between Munster province rivals Limerick and Cork at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick City. Just before the game, every man and women at the ground (and I mean every one) stood and faced the tricolour Irish flag that hung from a flagpole behind one set of uprights. Then every single person sang the Soldier’s Song with emotion, with real meaning, to the extent that I found the experience to be among the most moving of my life. I was astonished to find a tear in my eye. Jo, standing next to me, had goosebumps. Everyone in the stadium seemed to have an understanding that every GAA game is a fortification of their being as an Irishman or an Irishwoman. Then everyone shouted, “Go Limerick!”, or “Go Cork!”, or “Corcoran, you blaggard!”, and the game began.

My main memory of that game is Sean Og O’hAilpin (Og means young) hurtling forward while balancing the sliotar (ball) on his hurley and then giving it a mighty whack to send Cork forward. Before seeing Sean Og play, I’d interviewed him about his Australian background. Sean is the oldest of the six O’hAilpin kids, born to a father from County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and a Fijian mother. Sean’s father worked for a time on building sites in Sydney, where he met his wife. Sean Og spent his early years in Sydney following rugby league but he also had an AFL team. He followed Hawthorn because they were on the television most often.

When Sean Og was 11, his father decided to make good his desire for his children to have an Irish education. By Irish education, Sean senior meant that he wanted his children to do their schooling in the Irish language, an opportunity denied to him as a boy in the North. There’s a school in Cork City that teaches the curriculum in Irish and so the O’hAilpin family moved to Cork.

When I met Sean Og, he was a 20-year-old commerce student who was home from Dublin City University (where he was studying his degree in Irish) to do a placement at a bank in Cork City. Sean was wearing grey slacks that were fraying around the pockets and black shoes that were beginning to talk, with holes emerging around the toes. It was at that moment I realised the true dedication of GAA players, who play as amateurs whether they’re representing the local parish team or the red and white (the Blood and the Bandages!) of County Cork.

Sean had a strong sense that his family had moved to Ireland for the purpose of celebrating Irishness. To him, it was an honour to have the chance to play Irish games at the top level. Even during a quiet lunchtime counter meal, his eyes widened when he spoke of what it meant to play hurling and football for Cork.

“You’re playing for the Blood and the Bandages,” he said. “You’re playing for your county.”

Before the hurling match between Limerick and Cork, Jo and I joined the thousands who spilt in and out of the pubs along the road that leads to the Limerick stadium. In Ireland it’s a tradition before every county championship match to meet friends in the pub and enjoy the craic. We in Melbourne meet friends in the pub before an AFL match, but it’s just not on the scale of the Irish experience. Ireland’s county championship is a knockout competition. The build-up to games is like the lead-in to the Geelong and Collingwood Preliminary Final in 2007. You get to the pub early and you revel in every minute of the craic because a county match is a rare and glorious occasion.

As Jo and I cradled our pints outside a pub, I’ll never forget the sight of the Cork players’ bus inching its way towards the stadium. Sean Og was in a window seat, eyes agog, looking terrified as he watched men and women from Limerick and Cork hurl abuse (witty rather than coarse) or encouragement at the bus. Having spoken to Sean Og, I imagined he was thinking of this match as one of the most important events of his young life. Of course he did himself, his family and his county proud. Cork beat Limerick in a canter.

While the Irish treat their national games with great respect, they also revel in life’s absurdities and they know that sport is as absurd as anything, perhaps more so. This was brought home to me during an All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Offaly and Clare at Croke Park in Dublin.

GAA referees, like the players, are amateur. The players give them little or no grief because they respect the fact that referees give their time to make their games possible. The players and referees are united in the GAA family. They’re united by a sense of Irishness.

In the GAA (as in soccer), referees keep the time. When the referee for the Offaly and Clare match blew the final whistle a few minutes early, with Clare in front, there was general befuddlement. Spectators on the terraces around me creased their brows.

“That can’t be right…”
“What time do you have?…”
“What the feck?”

After a prolonged period of confusion, where everyone waited for the referee to emerge from the beneath the grandstand, blow his whistle and say, “We’ll be getting on with it now”, it became apparent that the match would not recommence. A handful of Offaly fans hopped the fence and sat on the pitch. Thousands followed. Teenagers walked among the seated fans waving the green, white and yellow flag of the Banner County, as Offaly is known. Some fans sang. Most fans laughed. It was a sit-in protest of distinctly high spirits.

On the terraces, confusion gave way to merriment. The fans loved the fact that one of the county’s biggest sporting occasions had descended into the equivalent of the parish priest slipping into a drunken coma at the village’s annual picnic.

“This is great craic.”

“Oh, great craic.”
“Poor ref … the silly fecker!”

I imagined the outrage that would surround a simple, honest mistake like this in the AFL. Around me, spectators were hunched over in laughter. The GAA is amateur and GAA people accept all that this entails. The fans delighted in this unexpected twist in their afternoon.

The referee, a Galway man, later admitted his mistake and the game was rescheduled to be played again the next week. Offaly turned the tables on Clare and sealed their passage to the All-Ireland final.

In the lead-up to the final, the Irish Times featured a profile of Johnny Pilkington, one of Offaly’s best players, who admitted to drinking up to 17 pints and smoking a packet of gaspers on the day before a match. The entire Offaly team was drawn from a handful of clubs around the town of Birr. The players were all friends for whom hurling was great craic. There was something about the false-finish shambles that agreed with them. Offaly’s eventual victory in the All-Ireland final, over the mighty Kilkenny, was a win for the ages.

Cormac would be right to say that there would never be a shortened-final fiasco in the AFL. The hand-wringing after the St Kilda and Fremantle siren debacle in Launceston in 2006 would convince anyone of that. Yes, the AFL is a different beast to the GAA. And, as I found during my time in Ireland, Australia is assuredly not a southern version of the Emerald Isle (despite the claims of my Catholic brethren of Irish heritage).

In the past decade or so, Northern Europeans have taken up buying stone cottages in the west of Ireland. One of the things that baffles the Irish about these visitors is that they travel from A to B in a straight line. An Irishman jinks here and there. He finds a diversion. Australians are like the Germans and the Dutch. We take the most direct route. In fact we’re a nation of ramrods. We don’t quite get the concept of the craic.

I noted with interest Cormac’s boyhood memories of GAA games. I have similar memories. My grandfather would always arrange a dozen empty beer cans into a little platform arrangement to give me extra height when were in the outer at Arden Street or Princes Park. I remember seeing cigarette smoke curl into the air above a sea of heads. I remember the shouts and cries, the aggression and the humour, the sense of being alive.

In Australia, our sense of being alive has never been shaped by our battle against an imperialist neighbour. Our sense of humour, rather than being influenced by Celtic mist and whimsy, has been shaped by an arid land. Our country is different and our sport is different. It’s time Cormac stopped comparing and started to enjoy the good things about the sport, the footy competition and the culture in front of him. He needs a new avenue to absurdity. He just needs one afternoon with an unexpected twist.

Comments

  1. Daff – magnificent stuff. It is too hard to compare life experiences and therefore sport experiences. Lets celebrate the differences.

    Though I reckon they say “What the fook”, not “What the feck”. Any Irishman out there care to settle this?

  2. I should clarify – I mean the “oo” sound as in “cook”, NOT as in “spook”

  3. Rod Gillett says:

    This is terrific stuff Daff!
    I have always had trouble understanding why rugby and soccer were played in Ireland – when they’ve got their own game. I can see now that like in Australia, social factors come into it, viz., rugby league is essentially a working class game and rugby is for the toffs – it doesn’t matter which way you cut the cloth.

    Got to see the 1984 All Ireland football final at Croke Park when Offaly caused a major upset to beat the Kerry men – fantastic atmosphere – you have captured all that pre-game mood in your piece. My mate and I drank at the Jim Clarke pub – which we delighted in because Jim Clark had been our coach at Rochester…

    I think the in-house Almanac lawyer/linguist “Dips” has got the sound right for the expression mentioned above: I heard it used that way all last night over a few pints at PJ O’Reilly’s in Abu Dhabi before the boys left to take a 2am flight to Dublin for the summer.

    BTW, Peter Lenaghan the Irish boys in AD – who talk about all sports (except cricket) and know a lot about our game reckon Tyrone is the team to beat in this year’s GAA football championship.

  4. pauldaffey says:

    Rocket,

    Don’t know the Jim Clarke, although there is every possibility that I had a pint there. I didn’t particularly like the pubs around Croke Park. I liked it better after the game when you could take your time and walk across the river to Mulligan’s. Now that is a pub and a half. Ten years ago it would have been my favourite pub in the world — and I can’t see that much would have changed since then.

    Dips,

    The word “feck” is a polite way of saying “fook”. Just by pronouncing it with an “e” means that mothers and grandmothers and the lady who works in the newsagent can say it, whereas such pillars of society might baulk at the full-bodied version (although maybe not). As someone who’s countenanced a pint before communion has even been served during a Mass in Ireland, I thought you might know these things.

    Daff

  5. I’m not completely sure what my mate in here means in his second point, but here’s what he thought:

    “thats a good article, although I don’t know how much the lads respect the ref these days!

    And the cork lads were protesting cos they wanted a different manager! “

  6. pauldaffey says:

    Ben,

    Your mate might be right about the treatment of refs these days, but it’d still be much better than the treatment of refs in most sports around the world. The treatment of officials is generally better in amateur sports.

    I’ve got a friend who plays rugby union in Melbourne and he gets worked up about the treatment of umpires in Australian football. I’ve explained that, as “a game of our own”, a game that broke away from British mores, footy has featured a distrust of authority from the outset, and this extends to umpires. It’s part of footy culture to rag the umpire because he’s the representative of authority.

    My rugby union mate dismisses that as nonsense. Apparently rugby refs have enormous power. There is a real culture among the players of accepting decisions and getting on with it. Is that true?

    When I was a player in local footy competitions in Victoria, I always yapped at the umpire. Some of it was just for the sake of keeping myself involved, some of it was because I thought I knew more than the umpire, and some of it was fun. There was nothing better than an ump with a witty rejoinder.

    I remember Cork did want to change their manager (he had a double-barrelled first name; quite a feature in Ireland) in 1998. But the Rebels still won that day at Limerick.

  7. Daff – feckin’ good point you make.

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