The Enclosure of the Cumann

The deal struck by the GAA with Sky Sports is causing a lot of consternation, and receiving a lot of media attention. I am not the biggest GAA fan in the parish by any stretch of the imagination. The last time I was at a match was maybe nine or ten years ago. I only went to Armagh matches when they were good. I watch the championship sporadically and have no idea what happens in the national league from year to year. I played football and hurling at school and was very mediocre, lacking variously the drive, the physical prowess or the desire to beat people up that might make a fine player. Normally I don’t say anything about GAA matters because there are millions of people far better informed about them than me, and I would only make an arse of myself if I started discussing team selections and such. Personally, the fact they start showing GAA matches exclusively on Sky Sports would do very little damage to my enjoyment of Sundays.

In this particular case, though, I think it is worth making a comment. I’m not going to get into jumpers-for-goalposts recollections about things related to the GAA, though I have my fair share. I have heard quite a few people on the radio and television talking about the ethos of the GAA, and how this move goes against this ethos.

I am always suspicious about the word ‘ethos’ when I come across it in Irish public discourse. Normally it refers to the Catholic Church, and elements of the Catholic Church marking out their territory on the terrain of education and health care. This ‘Catholic ethos’ has more to do with the defence of privilege – the right of social elites to exclusive schools funded by the State in preservation of the ‘ethos’, or to hospitals that exclude people on the basis that they haven’t enough money. This ‘ethos’ is, at root, about cold hard cash, property, speculation.

What about this GAA ethos then? Given that bishops used to throw in the ball at the start of big matches, and given that the GAA is another institutional mainstay of Irish society, is the GAA ethos similar to that of the Catholic Church? Perhaps, but only superficially. This ethos is said to entail things called ‘volunteerism’ and ‘amateurism’. ‘Volunteerism’, in this context, means giving of your time freely, as opposed to getting paid for it. ‘Amateurism’, in this context, stands in opposition to ‘professionalism’, that is, those who play the sport do it for the love of the game, not because they aspire to hold any particular status or make lots of money.

However, I do not think either of these words in accurately characterise the ethos of the GAA. I think the ‘volunteerist’ and ‘amateur’ labels are actually cover for something a lot more profound.

Let me explain. Contrary to how it gets represented, the GAA isn’t a monolith. It has contradictions and competing tendencies. There are people involved in it who are motivated by power and status and ego and icy cold calculation in the service of market forces. Then you have others who participate in the life of a club or school team or whatever, and give of their time freely because it is part of the essential fabric of broader community life. The former group capitalises on the work of the latter. It is no coincidence that many high-ranking members of the political establishment, including the current Taoiseach, have sought popular legitimacy for their right-wing policies on the basis of their links to the GAA. When bishops used to throw in the ball at GAA matches, it wasn’t just because the Catholic Church was a dominant force in Irish society; it was also because the bishops needed the popular classes to get the impression that they were on their side.

In Irish, the name for the GAA is Cumann Lúthchleas Gael. The first word – Cumann – has the same etymology as ‘common’, ‘community’ – and communism. The Irish for communism is Cumannachas. Now you would need to be away in the head to imagine that the GAA is, on the whole, a communist organisation. I have heard some people describe it as a mass organisation and even a socialist organisation, but never a communist one. However, there is something about the activities that take place on under the aegis of the GAA that is, in fact, communist.

The moral logic of a great deal of its activities is not the moral logic of money, but is rather informed by a sense of basic equality. GAA clubs and matches and training sessions are also focal points that allow communities to exist, and people to interact with each other, with some degree of decency and equality and sense of belonging and maintenance of a social bond. That is not to say that the whole of the GAA operates on this basis. On the contrary: the GAA of the corporate suites at Croke Park and sale of exclusive television rights to Sky is the GAA of the gombeen bourgeoisie, what some people often refer to as the ‘Grab All Association’.

So, there is a dimension to the GAA that operates outside the logic of money, and then there is the other dimension, overseen by a different social constituency, that wishes to subordinate the GAA to the logic of money altogether. It is this latter constituency that is happy to laud the GAA’s ‘volunteer’ status, its ‘amateurism’, because it sees what the GAA does in terms of something that can be commodified and eyes it up as something it can get its hands on, practically for free. As GPA spokesman put it, “people were saying, ‘Ah, if you could only bottle it, if you could only expose it to the outside world.’” This is precisely what the Sky deal is intended to achieve.

But the ‘volunteer’ and ‘amateur’ status of the GAA is also celebrated in wider Irish society, particularly by Irish elites, because it corresponds to a vision of the world where money rules, everything gets privatised, and the fallout is dealt with by what the Tories in Britain described as the ‘Big Society’: the elimination of social rights and their replacement with charity and work for free.

This same social constituency loves the GAA’s volunteer and amateur status because the spirit of co-operation and equality and solidarity and enjoyment that it calls to mind among a great many people serves as an alibi for robbery. Let’s not mince our words here: it is robbery. Though there is an excellent argument for player compensation, the simple fact is that none of these players who will now play exclusively on Sky TV screens would have got anywhere had it not been for the fact that hundreds of thousands of people dedicated vast amounts of time, freely given, to the building of a culture and a community and a way of life, on the understanding that anyone could take part and feel part of it.

Many of these people might want to go to see their county play at Croke Park or whatever, but simply can’t afford it. And now the GAA hierarchy decides that not only will these people be unable to afford going to the match, they’ll have to pony up if they want to see it on TV too. That, sadly, is the ethos of money, the ethos of Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. It seems to me pretty obvious, then, that anyone who is part of the GAA because for them it means things like friendship and solidarity and community should push back against this attempted enclosure.

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