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In Ireland’s time of peril, let’s raise a pint to sports

By Steve Coronella
February 2, 2012
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DUBLIN - As you may have heard, Ireland is going through a rough patch at the moment. The country owes international creditors a ton of cash, most of it borrowed to fund the construction of housing developments and office blocks that will never be occupied.

Having spent the Celtic Tiger years partying like spoiled teens whose parents were away for the weekend, we’re now left to clean up the mess without a broom or a dustpan to our name.

Well, the folks in charge over here aren’t likely to listen to my ideas on how to boost national morale. I’m only a lowly blow-in from Medford, after all, with a scant two decades of residency to my name. But just in case someone with clout happens to pick up on my remarks, here’s what I want to tell them.

Forget the International Monetary Fund or the European Central Bank. If the Irish people are looking for a bit of national uplift, I’d suggest trying a homegrown institution, namely, the Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA for short.

Established in 1884 in a Tipperary hotel as a means of preserving Ireland’s national identity through her native games of hurling and Gaelic football, the GAA still enjoys a grass-roots appeal that serves to bind the country together in difficult times like these.

When attempting to describe the GAA to friends back home in Boston, I like to use the following comparisons. Imagine an organization and a set of games with the historical pull of baseball, the frenetic energy of playoff hockey, and the hysteria now building toward Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Giants.

That would be the GAA in Ireland, I tell my Boston pals.

As part of my promotional package, I’m also likely to lift a scene from a book called “Green Fields: Gaelic Sport in Ireland,’’ by Irish sportswriter Tom Humphries.

According to Humphries, after leading his county team to the All-Ireland hurling title in 2002, Kilkenny captain Andy Comerford got up on a bench in the locker room in Dublin’s Croke Park and told the men he had led on the field that day: “I’ll say one thing, lads, respect yourselves and respect your families. . . .Whatever way you celebrate, do it with dignity and do it with pride. Remember that you are Kilkenny hurlers.’’

This kind of communal responsibility vanished long ago from the professional sports scene, as we witness every year when major clubs in baseball, basketball, and European soccer routinely tender astronomical sums for the services of some far-flung superstar.

My 13-year-old son follows the Hub sports scene closely, and until recently he played baseball and soccer with local teams around our Dublin home. Much to the delight of his uncle Gene, though, Brian has found his true calling on the hurling field. In fact, he has confessed that given the choice, he would rather play for the Dublin hurling squad in Croke Park than the Red Sox at Fenway.

Through Brian’s involvement, I’ve come to see that the GAA is distinctive in a way that parents like myself can appreciate. We like to think that prominent athletes might serve as role models for our sports-oriented kids. But invariably we end up cursing these demi-gods when they are shown to be just like the rest of us, only more so, given the amazing riches at their disposal.

Being community-based and genuinely amateur, the GAA has yet to run into this problem with any of its high-profile players. (Although, as I’ve seen for myself and no different from other sports, the organization needs to improve its methods of dealing with a lack of discipline on the field and the sidelines.)

So yes, Ireland is broke and demoralized for now. But one national treasure endures: the Gaelic Athletic Association.

And in a sports world gone crazy with money and celebrity, the GAA’s core values of continuity and community don’t look half bad.

Medford native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of “This Thought’s On Me: A Boston Guy Reflects on Leaving the Hub, Becoming a Dub & Other Topics,’’ which is available from The Book Oasis in Stoneham. He can be reached at sbcoro@eircom.net.

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