As the Donegal senior GAA players prepare for their Ulster preliminary round fixture against Cavan in Ballybofey this Sunday, I’m reminded of a famous quotation from a former Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly. He said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” No, it’s not. What can be more serious than life and death? But, maybe, Shankly is right. There was a time when people believed in heaven and hell. John Lennon was right and so to was Vladamir Lenin. Donegal have a very important game on Sunday and probably the most important game to date for our novices in the squad.
Still, at the end of the day, Sunday’s game is exactly that, a game. I believe that there is far too much pressure on modern teams to be the ‘best’ instead of impressing on the players to strive to be the best version of themselves. The game is now over-complicated, very mechanical and far less entertaining than it used to be.
I spend most of my day discussing Gaelic football with my clients and the general consensus is that Gaelic football has become too serious, both club and inter-county. As an avid GAA follower, I, too, can get carried away with the frenzy that surrounds championship football. I have learned to see the bigger picture though. What’s the reason for this furore that surrounds sport in general. I’ll give you some serious food for thought.
As a young inter-county player back in the early 1980s, I used to be mesmerised by the battle cry in the Donegal dressing room before a match. As the game drew closer, the cry became louder. We, the warriors were preparing for battle. It still goes on in current dressing rooms but, with a more psychological and subtle twist. It is hypnotic, infectious and convincing. What do you think went on in Jim McGuinness’s dressing rooms? Jim is a psychology specialist. I know, I was there. Not only do we engage in physical warfare, we participate in psychological battle too. Even the words and slogans that we employ are crucial to our cause. The words “war”, “battle”, “contest” and “victory” hail from our tribal past. We are tribal by nature, we are told.
H.G. Wells promoted the idea of foisting a sports culture for males. Disengage the males from society, and let the experts and intellectuals decide our destiny. Give them a team or a tribe to cheer on. When radio and television came along, it enabled our masters to keep the men busy with sport and the women busy with soaps. It’s called the ‘culture industry’ and we’re all part of this big game.
Indeed, it started way back in Roman times when it was called ‘Bread and Circuses’. Wikipedia says “the phrase means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of a populace— by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses).”
They did this by staging events such as the Gladiator Games where the gladiators, who were the stars of the show, fought each other and criminals fought wild beasts. At half-time, Christians were thrown to the lions or crucified. Our culture has become somewhat more civilised today but, Christians are still being crucified in their thousands in certain parts of the world. You didn’t hear? Oh yes but, you’re too busy being entertained to know. Our media moguls don’t want to tell you anyway. Liverpool and Real Madrid along with Coronation Street and Eastenders are much more important. Don’t forget U2 and Bono, a god in his own right, are beginning some ‘new world’ tour. The Rolling Stones are coming to the GAA’s greatest stadium of entertainment, Croke Park this month. Mick Jagger will be the great gladiator.
We in the GAA are accidental partakers in the culture industry. This Sunday in Ballybofey, you will see very important men and some women mainly from the Ulster GAA Council wearing their yellow or orange vests directing the masses into Donegal’s main sporting arena. The tribes from the length and breadth of Donegal and Cavan will merge to watch two gladiatorial teams ‘fight to the death’. These tribes will paint their faces with the colours of their respective tribes. Most will don replica shirts of their warriors too. We are the innocents in this spectacle. Most people do not realise that we inherit this tribal trait. We love our Gaelic games because they give us a chance to show our allegiance to our club and county.
No, it is not life or death that is at stake. It is pride and passion for a game that is part of our culture and heritage that we care about. Unfortunately, in places such as the U.S. and England, professional team games like American football and soccer smother us morning, noon and night. Even we in this country, have become consumed with them and indulge in sports idolatry.
At approximately, 3.50pm on Sunday, our tribal leader, Declan Bonner will give his final battle cry. His will assemble his warriors. “This will be do or die” he will say. Our warriors will respond with shouts of “Come on, let’s go and destroy them”. Let the show begin.
Tir Conaill Abu!