Brendan Crossan: Jarlath Burns gives GAA history lesson to BBC

The social and economic impact of the GAA on Irish society being assessed by academics

Newly elected GAA president Jarlath Burns, right, this week voiced his opposition to increasing the association’s contribution
GAA president Jarlath Burns, right, watching the Northern Ireland women's soccer team at Windsor Park (Liam McBurney/PA)

LARRY McCarthy visited St Enda’s GAC, Glengormley three years ago to officially open the club’s new indoor facility Halla Éanna and to remember former chairman Gerry Devlin on what would have been his 60th birthday.

Gerry was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in December 1997 as he locked up the club’s premises on the Hightown Road. He was 36.

On the day, Larry also helped re-dedicate the club’s top pitch to Gerry’s memory – now called Gerry Devlin Park.

Larry is a thoroughly nice man, but you could tell from the early stages of his GAA Presidency that he just wanted to work away in the background at committee level – undoubtedly a worthy pursuit - visit as many clubs around the country as possible, present a few cups and avoid media interviews.

I attended McCarthy’s visit to St Enda’s that morning and asked him about his views on the Casement Park rebuild and where he saw the ‘Gaelfast’ project going after the GAA’s initial £1m spend to reinvigorate Gaelic Games in Belfast.

These were, in essence, soft-ball questions.

He didn’t have a view on either topic - or if he did, he wasn’t going to share them with The Irish News.

For a while the GAA Presidency had become a ceremonial posting where the incumbent travelled around the country visiting a thousand clubs, cutting ribbons, pressing the flesh and smiling for the cameras.

But they didn’t really engage in the big issues of the day, although in fairness to McCarthy, he came out very strongly in the last days of his presidency to back the pursuit of justice for the family of Sean Brown.

You would never have caught any of the last few GAA Presidents on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme and being grilled about all the perceived pockmarks of the Association.

But it was no surprise to find Jarlath Burns in the Talkback studios, albeit indulging a tired, predictable, semantic format, where the corporation continually throws a magnifying glass over how much it’s going to cost to rebuild Casement Park, the GAA’s perceived lack of outreach and the naming of GAA grounds after IRA volunteers who were also GAA members.

We all know these areas are ratings winners; it’s the kind of discourse that resourcefully finds difference and discord.

Enquire, for the zillionth time if you must, about all these things - but not to a patently disproportionate level.

Of course, the Silverbridge man was well able for the debate and, to use a sporting term, went on the front foot several times in the Talkback interview whenever the mood took him.

“Remember what the history of the GAA is and how in many respects we have been used as a battering ram when the British government wanted to send a message out to nationalists, they did it through the GAA,” Burns told host William Crawley.

“For example, they did it on Bloody Sunday in Croke Park in a game between Dublin and Tipperary, the Black and Tans came in and murdered 14 people in our main stadium. Michael Hogan [was murdered], our stand is named after him.

“Two children – one aged 11, one aged 10 [were murdered] – right up to Sean Brown in 1997, Gerry Devlin, Fergal McCusker, Patsy Kelly… The occupation of Crossmaglen, the occupation of Casement Park by the British Army.

“All of these things are part of our history and for us growing up – and remember this important point – the GAA was there in south Armagh at a time when our area was being occupied by the British Army – Irish people being occupied by the British Army – to say, if you play our games, you can be Irish, you can have your Irish identity in a non-violent and positive and progressive way without having to do anything else.”

The GAA has been crying out for a President – a dynamic leader – like Jarlath Burns for quite some time and he’s already moved the office away from its harmless, ceremonial and largely irrelevant status.

If you didn’t know what the GAA stood for and listened to the BBC’s perpetual line of questioning on Wednesday - and the many occasions before that - you would never have come close to getting a feeling for what the Association actually represents.

Put simply, it’s the greatest sporting, cultural creation to emerge on this island. Rather than obsessing over well-worn, adversarial topics, the GAA is the lifeblood of a nation.

In an era of rampant capitalism and greed, the volunteering spirit of the GAA shines like a beacon. It’s everyone’s soothing balm in the modern age; it occupies a place in our hearts and minds where the common good has never been lost or misplaced.

I travelled to meet Peter Canavan earlier this week for an interview that will appear in Saturday’s edition.

The multiple Allstar winner is heavily involved in his club Errigal Ciaran, occupying the role of vice-chairman and minor football coach.

“The advantages men, women and children are getting out of our games now are massive,” Canavan said.

“In Tyrone, the clubs are in a really healthy position in terms of the amount of work that’s going on at underage and for all the difficulties that children and young people are facing, sport is still the shining light in keeping them out of trouble, keeping them together and building a proper friendship base – not one on a laptop or an ipad.”

In his research into the social, economic and health benefits of the GAA to society, English university professor Simon Shibli was “blown away” by the association’s impact on a local level.

When sifting through accounts of clubs, Professor Shibli began to quantify the return on money invested and how it continually multiplies through GAA volunteerism.

“A similar UK model has a return on investment of 4:1, a lot of the Irish studies are showing 12:1 and 19:1,” Shibli noted.

“There is clearly something unique about Irish sport and particularly Gaelic Games… There is a lot of unrecognised volunteer effort that goes into the process which may make the multiples on return on investment a lot higher because they are not paying out so much in wages.”

The social, economic, cultural and well-being impacts of the GAA are astonishing and it’s important that the academic class is now delving into these areas of modern life to measure the association’s true value to Irish society.

There’s definitely a radio programme in that. If anyone’s interested...