Bringing the country together: The genius of the GAA

Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, died 15 years before Ireland was partitioned
Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, died 15 years before Ireland was partitioned Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, died 15 years before Ireland was partitioned

IN Ballintubber and Ballina they’re talking about ‘The fella from Ballygawley’, in Coalisland and Cookstown they’ll be discussing the strengths and weaknesses of ‘Yer man from Castlebar’.

Mayo people are plugged into Tyrone and Tyrone people feel connected to their brethren out west in a way that is only possible because of the GAA.

Michael Cusack would be absolutely delighted by that.

When Cusack, the founder of the Association, called for order at the first meeting in Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles way back in 1884, Ireland was of course one country and the Association he and the others founded was intended to: “Foster an awareness and love of the national ideals in the people of Ireland…”

Cusack passed away 15 years before Ireland was partitioned so he couldn’t have foreseen how the GAA in the six counties would have to overcome the many barriers put in its way.

But he’d have been thrilled with the passion and panache that teams from the ‘Wee Six’ have brought to the GAA from the Down sides of the ’60s and the ’90s, Eamonn Coleman’s Derry, Joe Kernan’s Armagh, Mickey Harte’s Tyrone to great days for Antrim and Fermanagh.

It is now 100 years since the formation of Northern Ireland but the spirit of the GAA transcends the border and brings together men, women and children from the north with their kin in the east, west and south. That ability, one which couldn’t even have been imagined when the GAA was founded in 1884, is the Association’s greatest gift.

That the GAA is the green glue that holds this country of ours together was never more apparent to me than this week when I drove through Tyrone towns decked out in red and white on the way to Mayo where the red and green was everywhere.

Fans from the counties will meet and have the craic in the Dublin pubs (make sure to bring your Covid certificates) and on the streets but once that ball is thrown the talking will stop and the serious business begins.

When Tyrone fans headed to Croke Park during the great days of the noughties they had absolute belief that they’d be returning home with the Sam Maguire but that confidence was absent three years’ ago when Mickey Harte’s men took on Dublin.

The Red Hand faithful made that trip more in hope than expectation and, on the day, the Dubs were just too strong. But there’ll be no uneasy feeling when they hit the road tomorrow because Tyrone know this final is a game they can win.

Of course, the Mayo fans will feel exactly the same and earlier this week I had a sense that the western people were just about able to keep a lid on their emotion.

They can win, they need a win and they’re on the brink of roaring: ‘WE’RE GONNA WIN’ but recent history, when anything that could go wrong did go wrong, has taught them the value of restraint. Mick Byrne, owner of GAA watering-hole Byrne’s in Castlebar, went through near miss after near miss followed by misfortune and bad luck and then asked me: “Do you not feel we deserve a win?”

Yes I do Mick, but that’s not the way it works because in sport you’re only as good as your next game.

Don’t get me wrong, Ulster teams never have it easy in Croke Park but there’ll be sympathy and support for Mayo throughout the world and in every corner of Ireland tomorrow apart from in the Red Hand county and a small green space just off Jones’s Road that’s 145 metres long by 88 metres wide.

If Mayo don’t produce their best on it tomorrow, Tyrone will beat them and shake their hands and wish them “All the best for next season” as they go off to lift the Sam Maguire.

So ‘deserves’ doesn’t come into it.

Perhaps the best example of that is poor oul Jimmy White. ‘The Whirlwind’ was the unofficial people’s champion during his snooker career and undoubtedly the best player never to win a World Championship.

It wasn’t for the want of trying though. The Londoner reached six finals with the first of those in 1984 when he lost to Steve Davis but the real agony for him was his run of five finals in-a-row between 1990 and 1994. He lost the lot.

The most sickening of them all was the last one when a classic against his nemesis Stephen Hendry went to the final frame. White was leading by 13 points in the decider and only needed to keep his head to win the title and bring the house down.

Pressure! He missed a black off the spot and didn’t get another shot. Hendry cleared up to clinch the title and Jimmy never reached another final.

Of course there have been many occasions when the old adage of ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’ has rung true. Sergio Garcia finally winning a Major in golf at the 74th attempt is one but my favourite is Tony McCoy’s victory in the Grand National of 2010.

The Moneyglass jockey began his racing career in 1992 and despite broken bones and countless stitches he won race after race – 4,348 in all in Britain and Ireland and was Champion Jockey every year from 1995/96 until his retirement in 2015. He had a truly brilliant career but the one that always eluded him was the Grand National, the race everyone watches every year.

There had been near misses – Blowing Wind was third in 2001 and 2002 – and bad luck when Clan Royal was pushed out by a loose horse when in front and going well at Becher’s Brook and he’d had 14 goes at the Aintree classic before he set off in 2010.

Don’t Push It jumped the last just ahead of Black Apalachi and McCoy stepped on the gas, pushing his willing mount all the way to the finish post. He crossed the line with an unforgettable roar of delight.

So will it be White or McCoy for Mayo tomorrow? Against any other county, Tyrone fans would probably cheer James Horan’s men on but it’ll be do-or-die at Croke Park when that ball is thrown in – it can’t be any other way.

In a 50-50 game it’s hard to call the winner but one thing is for sure: It’ll be another piece of timeless GAA drama and the only pity is Croke Park won’t be full to witness it.

It’s a final Michael Cusack could only have dreamt of all those years ago.