Nothing more symbolised the relationship between the Irish Catholic Church and the GAA than the formalities in the lead up to an All Ireland final in Croke Park. To the musical accompaniment of the Artane Boys band, there was the parade of the players, then a rousing version of the national anthem, followed by Faith of our Fathers, and then the sight of a bishop throwing in the ball to begin the game.
There was always a great involvement of priests in the GAA. In rural Ireland, the GAA and the local parish priest were great partners. Times of matches and fund raising events were given from the pulpit. The priest was usually chairman of the local GAA club, sometimes its trainer or manager, and a great man to organise the raising of money for the improvements of the pitch. If he was blessed with a generous parish (and when it came to the GAA he usually was ), a great effort would be made to build a community centre. This would become the heartland for most communities as the venue for the Christmas play, 25 Drives, a weekly disco, talent shows and the numerous ingenious ways to raise money for the local teams.
Another way, but never actually said, that the priest could speed local supporters on their way to cheer for victory was to say ‘a quick Mass’ at dawn on final day. I am told there was a priest, not 100 miles away, who could, when the occasion demanded it, say a full Mass, including the distribution of Communion, a sermon, and parish notices, in 24 minutes 32 seconds flat!
Not all priests were as accommodating. The late Breandán Ó hEithir (1930-1990 ), who grew up on the Aran Islands, was a passionate follower of both hurling and football. He and his father regularly cycled from Galway to Thurles and Birr to see county finals. But the gruelling distance, and the inevitable foul weather at times, was made worse when for over 50 years Galway hurlers were repeatedly beaten. Brendan tells the story that a parish priest (who was probably slow at saying Mass on final day ), was so annoyed at men sneaking out from the back of the church before Mass was finished, he shouted a terrible curse after them as they ran away, saying: ‘May Galway never win an All-Ireland while a member of this parish is playing on the team.’
The men who sneaked out were so ashamed at being discovered, that they denied that it was themselves so vehemently that they created confusion as to where the actual parish the scandal had occurred.
In the following years, when it became obvious that the priest’s curse was inevitably coming true, very effort was made to circumnavigate the disaster. Each year the selectors ensured that a player was dropped from a different parish in an effort to find the culprit, but to no avail. Brendan wrote that ‘Although I found the story easy to believe there seemed to be as many versions of the curse as there were locations for the original happening. I was told it happened in Castlegar (“ On my solemn oath!” ), Gort (“ As sure as I’m standing here!” ), Woodford ( “May I be struck down dead if there’s a word of a lie in it!” ), and more or less any hurling parish about 20 miles distant from where the teller of the tale resided.’*
The popular belief, however, is that the offending parish was Castlegar, on Galway’s eastern side. The curse continued long after the priest won his reward in heaven (although there are many who wished the poor man elsewhere ), and was only lifted when it is believed that as a reward for Galway’s welcome to Pope John Paul II in 1979, St Patrick persuaded God that Galway had suffered enough. Castlegar won the All-Ireland Club Championship the following year.
The Catholic Church’s involvement in schools was also of great importance to the GAA. In fact the GAA owes a huge debt of gratitude to the men in black. While some schools opted for rugby over Gaelic games, many others championed the cause of our ancient sports. Many of these schools remain key incubators for successful county players. We are all familiar with many of them such as St Jarlath’s, St Kieran’s, St Mel’s, North Mon, the Carmelite in Moate and the Sem in Killarney.
The priests were hard on themselves too. Many young players were mad on football or hurling and played for their school and county before becoming a priest. But once they donned the white collar, they were not allowed play. Why this was no one is sure, except to say that it was one of the madnesses of the times. Galway had a famous Scarlet Pimpernel in the guise of Fr Paddy Gantly. After his ordination in the SMA he played brilliantly for Galway as ‘Paddy Gardiner’.
He eventually had to gave up playing for Galway after his order transferred him to Cork. But he still togged out, this time for St Finbarrs, where he won a county championship.
Loyal or disloyal
I don’t think that the so called ‘Ban’ on GAA players, which prohibited them from playing such ‘foreign’ sports as rugby or soccer, will survive as this great and generous association’s finest hour. ‘Not alone did the ban alienate sections of the community - north and south - who held an interest in rugby or soccer, it created tensions within the association itself. The rule crudely cast GAA members into one or two camps: Loyal or disloyal’.** In fact if a player admitted he watched a game of rugby or soccer he could be called disloyal.
The ban as well as a bishop throwing in the ball, is a thing of the past. But it had its amusing moments. Brendán ÓhEithir tells a story when the Galway County Selectors were looking for new talent with whom they eventually won three All-Irelands in a row from 1964 to 1966. A promising player was a student at NUIG, a keen rugby player who had played a major part in bringing the NUIG team to the final of the Connacht Cup. This fact was unknown to the GAA selectors who persuaded the player to come on board in their planned bid for the All-Ireland. Our friend accepted, but when he told his rugby colleagues that he could no longer play for them, they were so disappointed that in the end he agreed to play, on condition he was not photographed with the team.
The late Jimmy Walshe, a Tribune photographer, took a picture of the winning Connacht Cup team, but noticed there were only 14 players in the shot. One player was missing. There were rumours and an investigation was launched by the GAA selectors. Their new star confessed, and assured them that the Connacht Cup was his last rugby hurrah. From now on it was GAA all the way. All was forgiven.
A few years later our rugby turned GAA hero was, according to Brendán, travelling to a match in the company of ‘the most venerable GAA personage in the county’ (This was during the Ban years, and Brendán does not give his name, but many people know who he was ). ‘The venerable one had obviously sinned against the spirit, if not the letter, of the sacred rule the previous day, which happened to have been the day of an international rugby match, for he asked, “Tell me lads, what in the name of God is this thing they call ‘the loose head’?”
* From Over the Bar - A personal relationship with the GAA, by Brendán Ó hEithir, published by The Collins Press 2005 €12.95.
**The GAA - A People’s History, by Mike Cronin, Mark Duncan, and Paul Rouse, just published by The Collins Press, now on sale €29.99.