Kenny Archer: Spreading GAA gospel doesn't have to be done from barstool
WHERE I’m from, people used to marvel about the length of Cookstown main street and the number of bars per head of population in Aughnacloy.
Dubai certainly wins out in terms of the former, but whether or not it loses in the latter regard is a matter of opinion. You could travel the extreme length of the UAE city and struggle to find alcohol outside of hotel bars.
If you do find it, it might be tempting to consume petrol, given the cheapness of fuel and the expense of alcohol. Tramping around the yacht-packed marina in the Saturday afternoon heat, even hard-bitten hacks were happy to settle for a soft drink.
The UAE was a fitting venue for the football Allstars tour for several reasons. Both were officially founded in 1971 and Dubai also hosted the revival of the Allstars tour in 2001.
The combination of the Allstars game and this particular venue - a country where a majority of the population is made up of ex-pats - also perhaps reflects the changing face of the GAA, at least abroad.
GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail talked about that altered image, dismissing fears that the growth of Gaelic games outside Ireland would have an adverse effect on the association back home.
Quite the opposite, in fact, he suggested: “The embassy [officials] are able to show that a majority of the young people in GAA clubs are coming home.
"They’re transient. They are spending a few years and, when they go back home, already we are seeing that they are straight away active again and improving GAA clubs.
“They’re changing the face of GAA in the same way that Irish music was changed when it went to America and came back home. It’s a great relationship, it’s wonderful. It’s blossoming in places like this. It’s giving them comfort.”
The sense of community the GAA has always provided is especially important abroad, he feels: “It’s the only thing that makes them very happy, they enjoy the work, the tax-free status, but it can be drudgery - but the GAA club is the whole social scene. It’s very important.”
It’s equally important that tax-free salaries aren’t simply, ahem, poured away, that enjoyment doesn’t lead to constant excess. The GAA is inherently Irish, but ‘being Irish’ can’t just equate to getting drunk all the time. You can have great craic without getting sloshed.
I’m not going to preach against ‘the devil’s buttermilk’ et al - I’ve been guilty of more than a few incidents of embarrassing drunkenness in my life, and fairly recently too. I’d probably fall off a high horse if I tried to clamber aboard one.
However, as you get older, with more responsibility, you realise the cost of excessive alcohol consumption, in physical, mental and emotional terms.
Even when I was younger, I was aware that it was vital to be honest about one’s relationship with alcohol. It’s dangerous when you start to ‘need’ a drink. Denial of a problem means it will never be rectified.
More than a decade and-a-half ago, I happened to be in a New Jersey bar when a local Irish-American overheard my accent. He came up to me and was immediately up in arms about Bill Clinton’s comment about the Northern Ireland peace process being like two drunks leaving a bar but always turning round and going back in again.
When I gently suggested Clinton might have a point, the local guy argued vociferously - despite being as full as a sheugh in the middle of the afternoon.
Picture by Sportsfile
Back to Dubai in the present day and if a new city is a mystery to be unravelled, there was no surprise whatsoever that the Allstars game was merely an exhibition match.
It’s not necessarily a problem the Allstars game is ‘only a bit of craic’, a ‘contest’ that hasn’t been taken seriously for a long time. Asked if anything could be done to make the game more meaningful, the GAA president initially replied “There has to be an edge to a game, I suppose”, before quickly moving onto a perhaps more pragmatic assessment of the Allstars tour.
“Sometimes you sit back and look at it and ask, ‘Do we need to look at the concept or not…'. This is just a reward for players. This is an end-of-season down-time and the locals just value them being here.
“I was very keen to hear what the locals felt and I met with the chair, secretary and treasurer of the Middle East board… They were quite happy. They had the Allstars here, they got to meet their youngsters.
“It doesn’t have a cutting edge competitive game to it, nor do we pretend it does. Maybe it doesn’t need that. There are some that feel it does, I am not too sure it does. I think that the unit you visit, in this case the Middle East, they get a lot of pleasure from it. They see their Allstars here.”
Yet, the better promotional tool for the GAA may be the GAAGO streaming service, offering the opportunity for real games, competitive games, to be viewed worldwide.
An important aspect of GAAGO is that Irish ex-pats - and others interested in the games and only the games - no longer have to go to a pub to watch matches. That’s a key factor, especially where children are concerned.
It’s reflective of the GAA’s altered approach to alcohol. There’s always been a strong Pioneer element within the association, but there’s also that Irish fondness for drink.
While countries like the UAE, for cultural and religious reasons, have little tolerance of alcohol, people anywhere should consider their tolerance for alcohol. That varies from person to person, but peer pressure can make some suffer in order not to look out of place.
The GAA has been doing its bit to alter attitudes to over-indulgence, ruling out drinking out of trophies as part of celebrations, moving away from alcohol sponsorship, although many clubs are still backed by local pubs or nightclubs. Ironically, that’s the case even in the UAE.
The clubs out there are clearly competitive, though - the Middle East GAA were winners in both senior football and hurling in this year’s GAA World Games in Croke Park.
Yet, the balancing act everywhere has to be that, if the GAA becomes less about its ‘Gaelic’ side, it doesn’t have the ‘Athletic’ aspect washed away too much by the ‘social’ elements of the Association.