As I write, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is about to complete its 125th anniversary. 2009 saw many celebrations of this milestone with thousands of clubs throughout Ireland celebrating in their own unique way.

The GAA organization and its games are indeed unique in the world of sport. No other country in the world has a set of games, played by amateur men and women to very high fitness levels, and a huge degree of skill that attract massive audiences within Ireland, and yet remain virtually unknown in any country worldwide. With the exception of ex-pats organizing games in the US, UK and Australia, these wonderful games are ignored by mainstream media the world over. And boy, what are they missing!

For those who may not know of the national games of Ireland a brief introduction is in order. Gaelic games are basically divided into football, hurling, camogie (effectively ladies hurling) ladies football and handball (akin to squash without racquets). The first two mentioned are the main games, played by men.

The core of the entire GAA system is the parish club and the amateur ethos. There are over 2,500 clubs in the 32 counties of Ireland. No player in any of the sports gets paid and only at the top administrative level do officials who occupy full-time jobs get salaries and expenses.

The volunteer aspect of the organization is incredible. Mentors and officials at club and county level work passionately to ensure the continuation of the games through generations as other sports vie to attract the kids that will make the future. For a sport that is confined to the island of Ireland, the attraction and huge power it wields is a phenonomen not seen any where in the world of sport.

The amateur aspect is also the key to its success. Gaelic sporting heroes are tangible, ordinary men and women who perform heroics on the field of play, watched by thousands, and by a vastly larger TV audience. Yet, they have jobs to go on Monday, whether it is a building site, or an accountancy practice, a teaching job or a university place. These young men and women are touchy, feely people that you will meet down at the pub having a pint, largely ignored by their local peers, but mega stars in the national media. They live ordinary lives with their feet kept firmly on the ground. There is little room for posers in the GAA dressing rooms and the down to earth attitudes of most players, famous or not, is one that is implanted in them from a tiny age.

As a huge force for good in every community, whether it be a tiny village or a large town, it is impossible to calculate the enormous cultural and personal benefits that emerge from the presence of the GAA club.

At a higher level the success of the game has enabled the GAA, and Ireland, to have one of the great stadiums of the world – namely, Croke Park, on the north side of Dublin. This stadium has a long history, but the foresight of the upper echelon of the GAA to practically demolish it in stages, whilst maintaining the schedule of championship games and to rebuild it completely by 2005 with an 82,000 capacity, was a tremendous feat for an amateur organization. Not alone though is there Croke Park, but many fantastic stadiums around the country, such as the hurling stronghold of Semple Stadium in Thurles, Pairc O Caoimbh in Cork, and Clones in Monaghan to mention but a few.

It speaks volumes for the quality of the people running the organization when you see the shambles that their counterparts in the FAI have made of soccer at local and national level, despite the great years of the 80’s and 90’s, when the soccer profile was so high with the success that Jack Charlton brought to the team and the country. The incompetent imbeciles that parade as professional administrators in the FAI could take a lesson from what the soccer brigade sneer as the Grab All Association.

It should be more correctly described as the Give Away Association when one sees the funds that filter down to ground level, creating high standard amenities in every little village and townland, whilst the soccer clubs are still togging out behind the ditch and the national team are homeless!

The some what archaic administration system where the existence of County Boards, Provincial Councils, and Central Council management tiers is often criticized for the inability to move issues along quickly. There is more than a degree of truth in that, and this has often led to stalemate in trying to reach important decisions. None more so than the thorny and controversial decision to open Croke Park to facilitate the playing of soccer and rugby, games that were once alien to GAA culture because of the British occupation of Ireland at the founding time of the Association in 1884.

This mindset was reinforced by the memory of a barbaric act by the British forces in 1921 when they entered Croke Park in armoured cars, and opened fire on both spectators and players without warning. Thirteen people were killed on that day of shame, including one player, Michael Hogan, whom the Hogan Stand is now named after.

Thereafter, members of the British forces were not allowed to be members of the GAA. As the state evolved into what it now is, a Republic of Ireland of 26 counties and a separate 6- county province of Ulster, governed by the British, the ban applied up until recent years to members of the then RUC (now the PSNI ).

The most controversial aspect of the GAA rules that carried through from the 1920’s was what was known as the “Ban”. This rule prevented players of Gaelic games participating in what were termed “foreign games”, this meaning soccer and rugby. These two games were considered to be British games and therefore alien to Irish culture. It was the most ridiculous rule ever invented by the GAA and was broken so many times, by so many different methods, that public opinion forced the organisation to revoke the rule in 1972.

That the rule lasted that long is not something of which the GAA should be proud.

Thus, the controversy about opening Croke Park to soccer and rugby was rooted in the events of many years ago. It took three years to get the motion approved to allow this to happen, and showed that history can be a great restrainer of progress.

Nonetheless, one of the great memories of this writer was watching Ireland beat England in the 6-Nations Rugby Championship in 2006 at a packed and indescribable cauldron of emotion and pride.

Long may these wonderful, unique, games be with us to enjoy and as 2010 brings the GAA into its 126th year of existence, may the volunteer aspect of it always remain!

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