Next Royal Visit to Shangannagh Park, Perhaps?

David Adams’ article in todays Irish TimesGAA playing some lovely hurling in NI peace game” makes for interesting reading. It’s nice to see Cuala getting a mention alongside HRH in relation to recent historical developments. We can be sure too that our own HRHs (Harry Roberts’ Hurlers) will continue to play lovely hurling and do Cuala proud.

logo_irish_timesGAA playing some lovely hurling in NI peace game

The association is not simply keeping pace with the peace process but is now driving it forward, writes DAVID ADAMS

IN ITS impressive statement confirming this week’s visit by Queen Elizabeth to Croke Park, the GAA said: “We are confident that this historic visit to Croke Park will be welcomed by those who play, administer and support our games, at home and abroad, including of course throughout Britain. We hope also that it will encourage a greater interest and participation in our games by our fellow Irishmen and women of the unionist tradition.”

Fellow unionists of mine who, in reciprocal spirit, want to witness the GAA at its sporting best should do as I did last week and attend a hurling match.

My friend Terry, a Dublin man, was emphatic when I mooted the idea of going to a GAA game, “Don’t bother with the football. The hurling is where the real skill is.”

When I mentioned this to another friend, Dave – a Wexford native, who just happened at the time to be celebrating the county’s U21 football side winning the Leinster championship – he set about scanning the fixture list for a suitable game. And so it was a week ago that Dave and I, along with a hundred or so other spectators, were leaning on a rail at Pairc Uí Mhurchú in south Dublin, watching Ballyboden St Enda’s playing Cuala in the Dublin senior hurling championship.

Ranged along the touchline was a variety of men, women, children and young adults, many of the last two categories carrying their own hurleys.

At half-time they swarmed on to the pitch to practise their skills, creating an interval-long staccato sound of ash cracking on leather. Cliched or not, one couldn’t help thinking that youngsters could be doing an awful lot worse things with their free time than supporting their local GAA club.

Similarly, unionists could do an awful lot worse than support the GAA’s outreach efforts, and reciprocate the hand of friendship that it is extending.

For far too long on this island, particularly in Northern Ireland, we have lived as much of our lives as possible in hermetically sealed, tribal boxes. Such social interaction as exists between the two main traditions comes in the main from necessity rather than choice.

In the past, organisations rooted in one camp or the other have played it safe, careful not to offend the loudmouth, lowest common denominators in their midst. Is it any wonder that neither tradition knows much about its opposite number, relying instead on exaggerated stereotypes?

Recently I read a report of a political meeting in this newspaper in which – wholly innocently – the reporter remarked on how struck a student audience in Dublin had been by the affability and good humour of a Northern unionist panellist. I cringed to think what they expected a unionist to be like – Jim Allister maybe, or a pre-Damascene Rev Ian Paisley?

To the GAA’s great credit, it has kept pace with the peace process, deliberately breaking a hermetic seal to reach out to its unionist neighbours – not least by gradually introducing itself to the state school system in Northern Ireland.

It gave unequivocal support to the Belfast Agreement, dropped the Rule 21 ban on Northern police and British military members, opened Croke Park up to other sporting disciplines, and encouraged and supported its members in joining the PSNI.

As Noel Whelan intimated in a column here last month, few photographs have been as symbolically powerful as that of GAA and PSNI members forming a joint guard of honour at the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr, while senior police officers and GAA officials together carried the coffin.

As further evidenced by its wholehearted welcome to the Queen, and the warmth of its invite to “fellow Irishmen and women of the unionist tradition”, the GAA is no longer just keeping pace with the peace process, it is driving it forward. The association’s near equivalent (minus the sporting element) within unionism should take note – we cannot forever allow tails to wag dogs.

As for the match, Terry was right of course. Hurling is not, as I had always vaguely imagined it to be (in my own stereotyping ignorance), a sort of hockey-like free-for-all with a bit of legalised violence thrown in. Although not a game for the faint hearted, it is strictly refereed and indeed highly skilful.

I witnessed ground shots that would put most golfers to shame, aerial catches of feline grace, passes and shots of sublime accuracy, excellent player movement and a display of hurley and sliotar co-ordination that left me – admittedly someone with the hand-eye co-ordination of a newborn – hugely impressed.

At one point in the second half, the Cuala ’keeper dived full-length to save a shot driven from so close a range that he had no right to see the sliotar, never mind catch it. A tight match, Ballyboden eventually won 1-20 to Cuala’s 0-14.

I have been informed by Terry and Dave that there is no greater spectacle than a hurling final at Croke Park. So that’ll be the next of it: following (almost) in the footsteps of the Queen and her entourage.

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