These Sporting Patriots

The longer I live in Ireland the more inclined I am to take issue with the observation about patriotism and scoundrels: patriotism is not the last refuge of the scoundrel it's the first. The same green-draped bolt-hole accommodates, as a first resort, bigots, crooks, weasel politicians and various other "popular" figures. Only property developers, and members of the Donnybrook Set, and Sunday World's splendid team of writers seem immune, and therefore refreshingly honest.

This may seem an odd way of reporting the Annual Convention of the Dublin County Board GAA, but the connection between the pervasive cancer, patriotism, and the gents from the metropolitan bunker of Croke Park is easily made.

This gathering of sporting patriots took place a fortnight ago. Among the motions placed before the delegates was a plea that the rule which forbids the use of GAA grounds and facilities for other sports, i.e. soccer, rugby, etc., should be revised. (In fact, no such rule exists. What does exist is an ambiguous declaration that can, if scoured by a sufficiently narrow mind, be interpreted as forbidding alien activities. It is this thing that the motion attacked.)

Responding for the Gaels somebody called Brian McManus said he was against the idea of allowing GAA grounds to be used for soccer. "There is no such thing as an Irish soccer team. If these people haven't the guts to get together and do away with the border in sport we should do nothing to help them," McManus fumed.

Mr McManus believes, I suppose, that he is in favour of Unity, and, naturally, of Sport. His conviction that the Football Association of Ireland, who are currently fighting a losing battle with a disciplinary system that they can't operate, could, if they only wished, remove the border in sport is simply funny. This whole affair would be funny, and McManus and those who think like him could be dismissed for the nationalist cranks they undoubtedly are, if it weren't for one undismissable fact ... theirs is the spirit that prevails in Ireland's leading sporting body, the GAA.

The motion that proposed to inject a modicum of civility, decency, sportsmanship, not to mention Unity, into the bloodstream of Irish sport was defeated heavily by 132 votes to 41.

Sportsnews rarely provokes disgust, a feeling of one's stomach turning. These are, after all, only games. But this is sportsnews with a difference because in their bigotry and prejudice the GAA betray many of the symptoms of the cancer that afflicts the wider national spirit, a disease that weekly kills and maims not just Occupying Troops, but schoolchildren, housewives and disco-dancing girls.

The difference between Apartheid Irish-style and its world-wide equivalent is simply a matter of degree - the degree to which bigotry and prejudice is recognised - the degree to which it is condemned as bigotry and prejudice; and, of course, the degree to which the kind of filth that was so overwhelmingly approved by the delegates to the Dublin County Board meeting is officially endorsed.

In circumstances where foreign bigots would have kept their heads down, Mr Don Cotter, the Chairman of the Dublin County Board, was not ashamed to pronounce as follows in opposing the motion: "The GAA ... was in competition and in opposition to other sporting bodies . . . it was quite proper to refuse."

Good old Don's (you have to be a good old boy to be chairman) was the subtler version of an age-old prejudice; not the traditional up-front, green-knife-in-the-guts (a la Mr McManus, who will never be chairman), but the Sorry-Old-Bean, Love-To-But-There'sNo-Room approach favoured by sophisticated cranks.

Tom O'Riordan (Ballyboden St. Enda's) straddled the small gap between hate and bigotry with this contribution to the debate:

"The GAA should not hand over its greatest assets, or give advantage, to the opposition."

He, like Cotter and McManus - and like all Gaels, remember - seek nothing so much as the Unification of Ireland. Er ... by consent, of course!

If one leaves aside these peoples' perverted Gaeldom and considers the sporting considerations of the facilities debate, the guardians of Ireland's National Game are revealed as sportsmen of a very special kind. Whenever the question of sporting ecumenicalism is raised these days it is in relation to the loaning or hiring of Croke Park for international soccer matches. As some of the more metaphorically inclined sportswriters might put it, this is a red herring on a dead sea! There is no danger of our international soccer team being homeless and, as anyone who has ever walked across Croke Park will testify, the playing surface is not suitable for soccer anyway.

The real impact of bigoted nationalism is felt where realities really hurt - in towns and villages around the country, where young people desperately need somewhere to play. As the best established and most widely supported sport, the GAA invariably possess the best, and often the only, sports facility in town, so precious indoor arenas for winter training, or merely sporting pleasure, are denied to those who are not sufficiently Gael. But worse ... even when not in use by the sporting Gaels, they cannot be loaned to or even hired by other Irish sportsmen and women. If not against the letter of Croke Park law such fraternal acts would be a breach of the spirit of gaelic sportsmanship.

At the next All-Ireland Final, bishops, politicians and leader-writers will beam benignly upon sporting apartheid Irish-style. The sick joke is that I will be there too. I was born in to a Gaelic family. My earliest sporting memory is of Croker rather than of Dalymount. I followed Dublin all over the country in the fifties before they were called The Dubs and started eating in the Mirabeau. With my father I tramped to Parnell Park and St Margaret's, saw Tony Young run riot in county charnpionship matches against Faughs, loved Snitchie Ferguson as much as I hated Tommy Doyle and Mattie McDonagh (who taught me at St Pat's).

My grandad from Freshford gave me my most prized possession, an ash hurley when I was eight. I remember all those things and a hundred Sundays at the Canal End fondly. I don't feel the need of lessons in Gaeldorn from Don Cotter or Brian McManus. Their perversion of sportsmanship, their denial of the true spirit of Gaelic sport - of all sport - makes rne feel ashamed. Their assertion that it is okay to play host at Croke Park to Mohammad Ali and his punchbag opponent, but wrong to make a sportshall in Roscommon available to a youngster in love with soccer is an affront to decency.

As is the fact that Pairc Ui Chaoimh is annually thrown open to bands of intoxicated rockers for money but denied to sportsmen and women for pleasure.

Some Unity. Some Patriotism. Some damn country with a National Game like that.