Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Battle of Omagh Will Not End The War

The GAA has been the beneficiary of pretty positive P.R. in recent years. The magnificient edifice of Croke Park thrown into even more flattering relief when compared to the struggles to define the future of the crumbling Lansdowne Road and the teams that play there. The endlessly clicking turnstiles at GAA grounds, even for humble O'Byrne and McKenna Cup ties and, spectacularly, during championship summers, revealing the massive popularity of the games and the commercial success story the modern GAA has become - as do lucrative sponsorship and television deals. The GAA has also received praise for its belated progressiveness over the Croke Park issue while all the time retaining a venerated status as a guardian of Irish cultural identity.

Last Sunday, however, the one issue which consistently embarrasses the organisation and reveals the conflicting values at the heart of it raised its ugly head again, in the form of the ugly scenes of on-field violence in Omagh during the Tyrone v Dublin league opener.

The GAA president, Sean Kelly, was predictably grave in his condemnation of Sunday's events. "Some of the incidents were totally unacceptable" said Kelly, adding that a full investigation would take place. Kelly has been at the forefront of promoting the modern GAA's image of progressiveness where conservatism once dwelled. He will be well aware, then, that the pictures of Sunday's brawl will confirm in those who remain suspicious of the association the impression of licensed savagery, of the toleration of the basest thuggery.

The problem for Kelly and those who wish to eliminate these sort of violent incidents is that the very nature of gaelic football (hurling remains largely innocent of the phenomenon), and the necessary aggression it requires mean that explosions of violence are always near the surface, given the requisite spark. Furthermore, this bubbling belligerence is at the heart of the attraction of supporters to the game - not specifically to violent incidents as such, but to the passion and excitement that such commitment results in. Add the fact that almost all GAA is wrapped up in local rivalries, and the whiff of combat is never far away.

From a technical aspect, the fact that the ball is carried close to the body in gaelic football and that the tackle involves repeated blows to the midriff of the player in possession provides a further path to potential trouble, as does the traditional one-on-one marking system, which creates 14 mini-conflicts around the park.

This is not to adopt the defeatist attitude that the problem of violence in gaelic football is unconquerable: how could it be, when there has never been a serious and concerted effort to eliminate it, in the form of proper punishments for melees like last Sunday's? The tokenistic nature of disciplinary measures until now is a product of the underlying ethos of the game, and will remain so in the absence of a genuine will to change it.

So while the corridors of power and commentary boxes fill with the harsh tones of condemnation, the stands and dressing rooms will await whatever punishment is handed down with little concern that a few suspensions and fines will change a culture which is a fundamental part of the game at all levels.


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