The Influence of the G.A.A. in Irish Society

Munster Hurling Final program, Semple Stadium, Thurles, July 12, 2009


In a collection of essays published in connection with the 125 anniversary of the foundation of the G.A.A. (The Gaelic Athletic Association 1884-2009 (Dublin, 2009), NUIG Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, believes that significant progress has been made in recognising the importance of the G.A.A. in Irish society. However, he goes on to state that whereas the issue has been addressed in histories of the association, club histories and other specialist studies of the G.A.A.'s history, the social importance fo the G.A.A. 'remains curiously understated' in general histories of modern Ireland.

Ó Tuathaigh adds: 'This continuing under-valuing of the G.A.A.'s social influence may well be due to a general neglect until recent years in professional historical scholarship of the role of sport in Irish social and cultural history. But it is strange, nevertheless, that a more substantial body of work has not been published on an organisation that stands second only to the Churches, and perhaps the trade unions, as a force in the associational culture of Ireland for a century and a quarter. This may seem a large claim, but it can be supported.'

The G.A.A. has some 2,600 affiliated clubs dispersed across the island of Ireland with a further 242 clubs among the Irish diaspora overseas. Its active adult membership was estimated in 2004 at circa 300,000, with more than twice that number estimated as membership and active supporters combined. It has a larger membership than any other Irish sporting organisation, and its spread of membership across age groups and social classes is broader than any other sporting body. Over 40 per cent of all sports volunteers in Ireland are G.A.A. volunteers, with a relatively high percentage of active women volunteers, not only in the separate organisations concerned with camogie and ladies football, but in the core organisation dealing with male sports. The G.A.A. owns and has developed an impressive network of grounds and club facilities, and its national stadium – Croke Park, rebuilt at a cost of some €260 million between 1992 and 2005 – is among the finest in Europe. Over 60 per cent of the total attendance at sports fixtures in Ireland are accounted for by G.A.A. games.

The main Gaelic games – football and hurling and, increasingly, camogie and ladies football – enjoy extensive media coverage, print and broadcasting, at national and local level. The quality of its leadership and its general level of organisational competance is highly regarded by informed commentators on sports culture internationally. The leading senior players of the main games enjoy high public recognition and, in certain occupation categories with a prominent public relations dimension, enhanced employment and career prospects, while their G.A.A. background, as players or as high-profile officials, regularly serves as a promising launching pad for a career in politics, at local or national level.

Ó Tuathaigh goes on to discuss the question, is the G.A.A. an organisation or a movement?

'In truth, it is both,' he replies. 'It is clearly an organisation – and a highly efficient one – for the running of games, at all levels, combining a cohort of full-time, salaried professional administrators with an army of volunteers, giving their services freely (or with no more than modest expenses) out of commitment to the games and a love of the camaraderie of the social life that involvement in the association brings. But this latter socialising function is also part of what makes the G.A.A. a movement, in the sense that it seeks to embody a cultivate a sense of community loyalty and pride – at parish, county and national level – and deploy that 'community' sentiment in the creation of significant social capital, a network of community facilities and amenities, and a sense of discipline and civic responsibility as something to be valued by players and the wider membership. These virtues are, of course, espoused by most sporting organisations driven by idealistic volunteers; but the identity of the G.A.A.'s network of clubs throughout the island, at parish and local community level, gives it a particularly influential presences in Irish social life.'

Ó Tuathaigh concludes on a very optimistic note: 'In short, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the G.A.A. finds itself more broadly representative of all sections of Irish society and more highly regarded, for its organisational capacity, progressive leadership and dedication to community development, than in any previous era in its history. It has also substantially shed the rhetoric (and rules and regulations) of ethnic exclusivism which critics regularly emphasised in their explanations of their antipathy towards the association or their inability to participate (or to feel at home) in its activities. A more open attitude towards the complexity of cultural traditions and identities in Ireland, and a move towards engaging with versions of a more inclusive civic nationalism (without abandoning its own special commitment to distinctive forms of Irish cultural expression) together with a commitment to contributing to cross-community tolerance, respect and, in time, shared cultural activities, including cross-community participation in Gaelic games, leaves the G.A.A. well-positioned to prosper in the more pluralist Ireland that is emerging. At a time of unprecedented change in virtual every aspect of Irish social and cultural development, no other organisation has been as impressive as the G.A.A. in terms of its capacity to adapt and manage these changes in a manner that strengthens its own influence in Irish society.'