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Did The Economic Collapse Create A Dublin GAA Legacy?

Ciaran Priestly discusses the connection between economic strife and the success of Dublin’s football team in recent years.

As the 2016 Senior Football Championship sprouts to life beneath the media haze of Euro 2016, much analysis will focus on repetition of recent trends and the inevitability of most results.

Informed debate now questions whether the serious competition begins at either the quarter-final or semi-final stage and there is a sense of inevitability as to which counties will be still there to fight it out.

The current crop of Dublin footballers are often credited with bringing the game of Gaelic football to a new level. The sublime mixed-methodology of possession retention, defensive rigour and ‘catch & kick’ fielding is a perfectly executed combination of the most effective tenets of the game. This team is on course to be considered as the greatest Dublin team in history.

They are a unique group born out of exceptional circumstances.

The determining socio-economic circumstances of success and failure are best expressed anecdotally in the GAA. Colm O’Rourke has often remarked on how a changing employment pattern in Meath has changed the nature of the county team dramatically. Hard-heeled grafters like Mick Lyons were workers in tough physical circumstances. Sean Boylan harnessed that energy and enabled the squad to transfer a raw brutality onto the football pitch. It set a tone of conduct that meant even the school teachers in their team could be terrifying.

GAA trends are far more vulnerable to such circumstance than any of the elite team sports currently popular in Ireland. An elite player’s livelihood is entirely prone to the same economic fluctuations as a supporter. Given the amateur status, it is more difficult to cocoon the players in a financial sense beyond loosely organised and potentially demeaning employment arrangements. An upsurge in the loss of talented footballers and ambitious young men from rural communities across Ireland has been well documented.

Adversity need not necessarily result in a lack of progress in a sporting sense, however. It is an unusual quirk of sport that when circumstances become so dire that it ought to be rendered irrelevant, sport can often take centre stage as a coping mechanism.

When Down defeated Meath in the 1991 All-Ireland Final, it was celebrated as a nostalgic throwback to the great Down team of the early sixties. Few could have predicted that it marked a departure point for two decades of Ulster domination of the All-Ireland Football championship.

Although any timeline of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is open to debate, the massacre of fourteen unarmed civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 marked a point of escalation from which it proved difficult to return. A child born on that day would have been nineteen years of age the day that Down won the All Ireland in 1991.

In the following two decades, it was the children of the Troubles that dominated Gaelic football on the national stage.

Ulster teams from within the six counties which comprise Northern Ireland competed in nine of the All-Ireland finals contested in the period 1990 to 2010; emerging victorious on seven occasions. In the previous hundred years of competition, only four finals had featured ‘six-county’ teams and it was Down alone who had actually won the title.

Perhaps the starkest reaction to the Troubles took place in a place where the GAA was most obviously affected. The British Army were a heavy presence in the Armagh town of Crossmaglen, occupying part of the GAA club’s ground amidst heightened tension and increasing violence.

In the 1996-’97 season, Crossmaglen captured their first Ulster club championship en route to their first All-Ireland club championship since the competition began in 1971. They have since captured six All-Ireland titles, eleven Ulster titles, and every Armagh county championship, with one exception in 2009.

In the recent BBC documentary, True North, Crossmaglen and Armagh All-Ireland winner and current Crossmagken manager Oisin McConville summed up the defiance of the club

“Wasn’t it great to stick the two fingers up to them and say regardless what you do, you can land your helicopters on our pitch, you can build your barracks on top of us, you can throw our clothes and our bags out on the street when you search our cars on the way to training. . . Wasn’t it great to say to them, ‘But fuck youse[sic], we’re gonna win an All-Ireland anyway”.

When asked if he ever considered joining the IRA, McConville stated glibly that he was ‘fucking terrified of them’, while assistant manager John McEntee added that he was ‘too busy playing Gaelic football’.

AIB GAA Football All Ireland Senior Club Championship Final Replay, Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan 31/3/2012 Crossmaglen Rangers vs Garycastle Crossmaglen's Oisin McConville with Enda Mulvihill of Garrycastle Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer
AIB GAA Football All Ireland Senior Club Championship Final Replay, Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan 31/3/2012
Crossmaglen Rangers vs Garycastle
Crossmaglen’s Oisin McConville with Enda Mulvihill of Garrycastle
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

The widespread suffering and devastation experienced by ordinary people of every ilk in Ulster is without parallel in modern Ireland. The cruelty of going about your life in a society in which barbarity and evil were a contending norm is difficult to imagine. To compare such a circumstance to economic hardship alone is to trivialise grief. However, young people in any given circumstance can only react to the determining factors around them; none of which were likely of their design.

In 2012, ESRI figures placed the unemployment rate at 15% nationally and youth unemployment at 33% for people aged fifteen to twenty four. OECD figures put youth unemployment figures significantly higher at 45%, as involuntary part-time work and marginal arrangements were not taken into consideration. It was also stated that one in ten young people had been forced to emigrate due to the downturn. This cohort represents young people in Ireland born between the years 1988 to 1998.

Of the twenty one players used by Dublin in the 2015 final victory over Kerry, eleven are of this cohort with six more born within two years of it. There is a notable gap in age between them and the older stalwarts of Stephen Cluxton, Denis Bastick and Alan Brogan who were all born in 1981 and 1982. Bernard Brogan bridges the gap somewhat as the stand alone for 1984.

The obvious population advantage of Dublin is often referenced as a reason for the team’s recent success and this must be accepted as a primary factor. Dublin, even at low ebb, should always be able to field a team capable of competing in the final stages of the championship. At that stage of competition, quality is high and margins are fine. The hype of the Dublin juggernaut has often been detrimental in high summer when players experience the status of premier league footballers in the city on a fleeting basis.

The high profile embarrassments of recent memory should not be forgotten or assumed never to return; the linked-arm slow walk to Hill 16, the blue book or fourteen point capitulations. Dublin football is a pressure-cooker environment prone to questionable behaviour and other counties have often used this to their own advantage.

In 2005, the redeveloped Croke Park was officially opened as the world class stadium that houses the current All-Ireland series. In each year from that to Dublin’s victory in 2011, the team that eliminated Dublin went on to win the All-Ireland final. The only exception to this trend was Mayo’s failure of 2006.

The wisdom of the GAA in constructing an 80,000 capacity stadium for Gaelic games and inflating an amateur code to the appearance of professionalism could be questioned. Competing counties will be forced to reconfigure their models in order to compete. It is hardly surprising that those concerned primarily with Dublin GAA were no longer content to provide teams of strutting sacrificial peacocks or full stadiums to everyone else’s benefit. The age demographic of the Dublin squad is not too far out of line with the rest of the country.

However, a dramatic re-evaluation of Dublin football took place and a strategic plan that has paid dividends was properly implemented.

A sporting environment was created whereby young people could express their talent and ambition to the full extent of their ability; to which they responded admirably. That they did so in a social landscape in which half their peers were unemployed and one in ten left the country should not be seen as coincidence. At every juncture, people of their age had their development stunted, their ambition hemmed in or their bags packed.

The core of the current Dublin team have refined their skills to an unprecedented level through countless hours of work and focus. The economic collapse created a scenario in which players had as little distraction as a city is likely to provide. As individuals, they advanced at a time of hardship and as a team they may be creating an exceptional legacy.

The complexities of GAA politics, moreover GAA politicians, are becoming ever more prescient as the association appears to be over-taking itself from the ground up. Revised competition structures, funding for elite facilities and a fair distribution of income are crucial to the well being of the sport as a whole.

The suggestion that Dublin GAA should be broken up due to their success is a peculiar solution. It is strange to reward mediocrity in a sporting sense and it is equally viable that other counties should amalgamate in order to compete. At its core, Dublin’s footballers were kids who were good enough at club that they advanced to county. To demolish an established identity is not the solution in either case.

Times of economic strife often produce spikes in creative output. On a popular level, that creativity was expressed in a sporting sense in Ireland this time around. The combative nature of the sports stars who captured the nation’s imagination is notable; the serene realism of Paul O’Connell, the under-appreciated brilliance of Katie Taylor and the ‘dream big/ fuck you’ attitude of Conor McGregor is in tune with popular attitudes, whether we like it or not.

Conor McGregor

The often quoted ‘conveyor belt’ of the current Dublin team is backboned by scores of the young people who were deeply affected by the recent recession, who were trained to inter-county standard and formed the large training panels. In the end, they may have only got a few O’Byrne cup games out of it.

Anyone who has read John Leonard’s Dub Sub Confidential will appreciate the personal worth in what they did. Leonard was an unstable young man experiencing serious personal challenges. He used his role as Stephen Cluxton’s perennial deputy to recover from a seemingly inevitable path of self destruction without playing a single championship minute.

The quality of Dublin’s performances on the pitch are about the constant refinement of skill and the supremacy of the group in a player-led environment. This synergy can be observed most clearly in the fielding of the ball. It’s all in the fielding.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.