14 March – 125th Anniversary of the Gaelic Athletic Association – Cardinal O’Fiaich Library, Armagh
CARDINAL O’FIAICH LIBRARY AND ARCHIVE
CATHOLICISM & THE GAA: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
SATURDAY 14 MARCH 2009
I am very pleased and honoured to be asked to contribute to this book. I congratulate the Association and the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library and Archive for compiling such an impressive volume from an array of contributors. A collection focusing upon the GAA is very appropriate and timely because in an age where individualism is rampant, and volunteerism is on the decline, it is good to reflect on the benefits and advantages which working for the community brings. It is good to recognise the joys to which such work gives rise. It is important not just to pay lip-service to the value of community work. It is also important to identify the things which threaten those ideals of amateurism and to oppose them.
When I consider the landscape upon which the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library rests I recall the first occasion I arrived here. It wasn’t in the cause of religion. It was way back in 1954 to the MacRory Cup Final. We travelled, by train, from St. Patrick’s College in Cavan to play Abbey CBS, Newry. Unfortunately the referee died during the match and so it had to be, of course, called off. We were winning at the time but unfortunately we lost the replay.
This short paper gives me an opportunity to thank the GAA for the enjoyment I have derived from so many activities offered by the Association. Not just from playing but from coaching, training, attending meetings, administration etc. I am very grateful also for the friends I made in the Association, especially the friends who give, and gave, so generously of their time down through the years.
As a Cavan man myself, and in the context of 125 years of the GAA Ireland, you’ll forgive me if I draw attention to one of the greats of Cavan football, Mick Higgins. He was admired for his exploits on the field of course, having played in several All-Ireland finals and winning three All-Ireland medals. But he was admired also for what he gave to the Association after he retired from playing. He managed teams, at County and Provincial levels; he refereed at the very highest level. I remember him speaking with Seán O’Neill about the battle of Ballinascreen in 1968 when he was in charge of the Down versus Derry match in what would have been a day out for the yellow and the red flags now! I was struck be the fact that quite soon after he retired he was already involved in other activities and I admire him for that. For example, I remember, as a minor, being brought by Mick and the late Victor Sherlock to minor trials. I wonder is that happening now? Are young men, immediately after they retire, putting enough back into the Association?
I am grateful for the friends I made and the opponents I met and learned to respect throughout my involvement with the GAA. I am grateful too for the moments of nervousness and anxiety which I endured before matches and which I now realise were preparing me, possibly, for the other challenges and, indeed, for the defeats of life. One of the great things about taking part in games is that you win some and you lose some. You realise that we all have God-given gifts which enable us to win but we are also limited – very limited. We are sometimes weaker than we care to admit whilst we will always meet people who are better than we are, and that is an important lesson.
After spending a lot of time as part of an organisation that places such emphasises on the community and on the Club, it was a great consolation to me personally to discover that one of the basic principles of our faith is the principle of communion. Our way to God, and God’s way to us, is a communal way. What does that mean? Our religion brings about an encounter between ourselves and our God. It is a personal and individual meeting with our God. But this encounter is made possible only with the help of a community of faith. So for that reason I don’t regret the many hours spent, especially in the 1970s, attending meetings, coaching teams at club and college level. I know that is exactly why the GAA people are often the back-bone of the parish. It is good to be part of a team – that loses occasionally and reveals our limitations.
When I was preparing this paper, I had to attend a meeting in Belfast. It was hosted by six leaders of the main Christian churches here in Ireland: The purpose of that meeting was to provide people with a means of expressing their rejection of violence and of the killings and the murders which took place in March 2009, which threatens to take us back to a place we do not wish to go. It was a call to pray – a call to pray in the privacy of your own heart or in your families or in your church or in the church of another community, that the peace which we have been enjoying in this part of the world for the last number of years may not be disrupted. There is far too much at stake here at the moment and we cannot just take the peace for granted. We have to play our part in consolidating it and indeed, I want to pay tribute to the Association for its part in the building of that peace.
During my own GAA career, growing up as a young lad in Cavan, I played for Laragh and a couple of other clubs as well and that was due to a thing which is very much in vogue now called ‘strategic planning’. It wasn’t ‘strategic planning’ on my part but on the part of other people. But it reveals a side of the GAA which is very real and, I think, after the profound examination of the Association and of its motivation and ideals, it is no harm to take a look at another side of it which, I know, you will appreciate. It came about like this:
In 1956 in Cavan there was a rule which allowed a parish – for minor purposes – to pick players from any parish that bordered it. The parish of Killinkere is famous in the history of Cavan football because it was the birthplace of the late, great Jim Smith, who captained the first Cavan All-Ireland winning team, was a holder of 13 Ulster championship medals. Anyway, Killinkere is surrounded by six parishes so a strategic planner in 1956 decided that this would be the team to enter in the minor championships and then we could have seven parishes and those parishes included Bailieborough; Mullagh; Virginia. So it was that I was lucky enough to get my place on that team and to win a Cavan Minor Championship medal in 1956. By 1960 I was a member of the Laragh, Sons of O’Connell. By the time I came home from Maynooth the Laragh Sons of O’Connell were already out of the Junior Championship as was their wont.
At this stage the strategic planners in the Laragh Sons of O’Connell realised that there was a danger that I might be poached, I suppose you would say, and that I would go to Stradone. You know how we GAA people love one another, especially our nearest neighbours. Some strategic action had to be taken to ensure that that didn’t happen! Somebody, who was creative with the truth, came and told me that Father Gargan, who was formerly my Dean in the College and a priest in the diocese, wanted me to play for Cavan Gaels. So, out of respect for my former Dean, I went in and said I would play for Cavan Gaels. The result was that I ended up being a member of Cavan Gaels, not for very worthy motives, I admit, but that is how it happened and these things do happen in our beloved Association.
I like this story of Tomas Ó Fiaich. One night he was introduced to a man called Father Larry Hannan. Tomas thought for a while and he said: ‘Larry Hannan’ he said, ‘I marked you in a challenge match between St. Patrick’s Armagh and St Mary’s Dundalk in 1937 when you were playing left-half back and I was playing right-half forward’. And Larry Hannan said: ‘You are quite right’. This is just the kind of memory that the GAA evokes.
I grew up in Cavan in the 1940s and 1950s. Living in a county that won eight Ulster Senior titles in the 30s and nine in the 40s it was a kind of hard not to be interested in the GAA. I would attribute my knowledge of the GAA principally to the Anglo Celt, the Cavan man’s bible. I can well remember when I got my first football. My father and mother went to town in the horse and trap – my brother and I must have known what they intended to buy. I clearly remember going out the lane as far as my neighbour’s house to meet them on their return and my father throwing the football out to us as we passed. It was that same neighbour’s house where we gathered late one September evening for the broadcast of the Polo game. The kitchen was jammed to the door. The radio was on the window sill and the overflow was on the street. I am sure Aoghan described this match in detail that night. I recall that Bob Garvey was playing havoc in the opening stages. Obviously the Cavan defence decided some remedial action was called for and some time later it was proclaimed: “Bill Garvey has gone down injured’. One of my less charitable neighbours was heard to say: “I hope to blazes he never gets up”!
Many of the places I visited when I was appointed to this diocese were also GAA strongholds, which I recalled visiting when I was involved in youth football. I remember visiting Ardboe, Coalisland, Killeavy, Eglish, and Dungannon for example. The generosity of those clubs in making their pitches available to college teams was remarkable and for that I am very grateful.
A memorable, but very sad event in my native parish when I was growing up was the untimely death of PJ Duke. He was our hero, our icon, a role model when we were young boys. By the age of 25 he had won every honour in the game: 2 All Irelands, 3 Sigersons (captaining one) whilst his last appearance in Croke Park was on St. Patrick’s Day 1950 before he sadly died on 1 May 1950. I can still remember the shock that his death created. Worse was to come in 1952 with the death, after a short illness, of JJ Reilly. His passing meant that two of that famous half-back line of PJ Duke, JJ Reilly and Simon Deignan were dead.
By 1960 I was, for a short while, a member of the Cavan Senior Football Panel. Cavan lost the League Final that year having been beaten by Dublin by three points. Later that year, in October, I was asked, by Bishop Austin Quinn, a native of this diocese, if I would like to go to Rome to continue my studies for the priesthood. Upon my return in 1967, I joined the staff of St. Patrick’s College, Cavan and began working my way up the GAA ladder from there. Do you know how difficult it is to work your way up the ladder in the GAA? I won a hotly contested election for a place on the Central Council in 1980 only for another Armagh man, Cardinal Ó Fiaich, to intervene and send me back once more to Rome! It is one of my regrets that I only survived long enough to qualify for Ard Comairhe tickets for one All-Ireland.
The GAA is my family. I feel very much at home in the GAA but because of this I also feel comfortable about saying a few things about the Association. The first one surrounds the amateur status. My heroes are, of course, the footballers that play on the field but there are also the people who turn up much earlier in the day to open the gates, who stand in cold and dusty turnstiles, people who still support their club but who might not have a son or daughter near the team. I also applaud the GAA for its initiatives surrounding drugs. I pay tribute to Dónal McAnallen for a motion on alcohol that he brought forward at a Congress a few years ago. I am sure you recall that Good man!
What do I not like about the Association? Not a lot. I like the GAA very much butI am not happy with the win-at-all-costs mentality. It sometimes comes across that winning is all that matters. Winning is not all that matters because half the time you win and half the time you don’t. I would also appeal for your help in keeping Sunday special. Sunday is a day of rest. It is a day of worship. If we don’t worship God, we end up worshipping ourselves and that is a very dangerous situation. I commend things like Scor. The GAA is not just another games-playing organisation. It is about culture. It is about real life and it is about history. It has a soul and we need to go back to that soul every so often and be nourished.
I want to finish by quoting a poem, written about the late great PJ Duke that was written by Pádraig Purcell and it moves me every time. It still gives me a lump in my throat because it goes right to the heart and that is what the GAA is about.
As I was walking through Dublin city,
One pleasant morning in the month of May,
Near Steven’s Green I met a student,
With tear-dimmed eyes this to me did say.
This morning early as the birds were singing,
And Mass bells ringing in fervent tone,
To His great promise the Lord took from us,
Our fearless champion from sweet Stradone.
The banshee keens by Breifne’s border,
Beyond Lough Sheelin in the morning breeze,
By lake and river the rushes quiver,
In silent sorrow for one so young.
No more he’ll trod the green soil of Croke Park,
But we see him still; his manly feeling
And manhood pealing
And red hair flying in battle still.
New stars may rise in the years before us,
but none like him will they then bethrone,
The boy from Breifne, the pride of Ulster,
God rest you P.J in sweet Stradone.