Thursday, April 3, 2008

The GAA "Mes que un club"

FC Barcelona likes to claim it is "more than just a club". To some of its fans and players, it is a symbol of Catalonia. "To defend Barca is to defend Catalonia".

Many Catalans define themselves through their club. Much like the GAA, particularly in Northern Ireland, it is an expression of their cultural identity. History moulded the club into a civic entity and an extension of politics. From the beginning, FC Barcelona (Barca) had an active cultural and political programme. The club participated in the most significant movements for Catalan autonomy campaigning for Catalan schools, for Catalan language courses for club members and, no doubt, some forms of Catalan dancing too.  Barca's identification with Catalan independence and nationalism were bound together permanently by the Franco dictatorship; with the Catalan flag and language banned, their only sanctuary was the Nou Camp stadium where Catalan's could evade Franco's oppression and express their vision of a Catalan nation with its own identity.  

Historically, the Spanish national football team has not had much appeal in Catalonia. The lack of enthusiasm is highly political. Their distaste for the Spanish national team is proportional to their desire for Catalan independence. Disapproval of the GAA in the Unionist community is somewhat similar. They feel uncomfortable, if not threatened, by the political overtones of the sporting organisation and its representation for a united Ireland.

Fermanagh GAA player and journalist Colm Bradley wants that to change. He would like to see the GAA do more to reach out to Unionists. His appeal seems reasonable. He's not asking the GAA to dilute its cultural aspects, like the promotion of the Irish language or Gaelic culture, just to tone down certain rules like Rule 2 for example, which states: "The Association is a national organisation which has a basic aim of strengthening the national identity of a 32-county Ireland through the presentation of gaelic games and pastimes".

One doesn't have to read too far down the comments on Slugger O'Toole's posting on this topic to see that it's an explosive issue. If it's debate Colm Bradley wants then I wish him luck in keeping it civil. Cleansing the GAA of politics and symbolism would be a minefield--the names of GAA grounds, like Robert Emmets, the singing of "The Soldier's Song" and the flying of the Tricolour. Even just sniffing around these mines is enough to set people on both sides off.

There never will be agreement. There never will be an identifiable point when both sides consider the connotations neutral. Are some of the songs sung by Celtic FC supporters in Scotland "sectarian" or "Irish"? It depends who you ask. 

There's always going to be an "our" story and "their" story. You can't separate the GAA nor FC Barcelona from notions of community and identity. Yes, the GAA can and should take the first steps to be welcoming to Unionists, but there has to be some understanding and acknowledgement of the history and heritage of the GAA from the Unionist side, too.  

GAA still a cold house for Protestants, GaelicLife
A Different Ball Game--The Future of the GAA in Norther Ireland (Part 1, Part 2).

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