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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Dermot Bolger: No warped sense of duty needed to love this game

Stephen Cluxton
Stephen Cluxton
Kevin Heffernan the Dublin Manager and Tony Hanahoe during the Dublin v Kerry ( the winners ) 1979 All-Ireland final at Croke Park Sept.1979 INDO PIC (Part of the NPA and Independent Newspapers)

Earlier this week I did something so ordinary that only afterwards - when I remembered back to my segregated childhood world - did I realise how utterly unbelievable the image would have seemed back then.

I drove down a small street of modern houses, many of them joyously bedecked in Dublin flags, to collect the teenage son of a friend who was training with his local GAA team.

He is a fine young athlete, equally gifted and comfortable with rugby and Gaelic football. He strolled out from training with a team-mate - one casually wearing a Chelsea jersey and the other a Dublin jersey.

In my car their conversation ranged from Chelsea's poor start to the season to Ireland's chances in the Rugby World Cup, but repeatedly they returned to excitedly discussing Dublin's forthcoming meeting with Kerry in the All-Ireland final.

While loving other sports, this fixture was the big one for them, not out of any sense of nationalistic piety, or because they had been coerced into thinking it their duty to favour it, but for the passionate and simple reason that the current Dublin team has captured the imagination of so many young Dubliners their age.

This is how sport should be. Amidst all the bad things that happened here in recent years, the GAA is one thing that every Irish person can take a genuine pride in, as perhaps the greatest amateur sport in the world.

However, it wasn't always so simple to have such an array of interest in different sports.

The great players of Heffo's Army in the mid-1970s - men like Sean Doherty, Tony Hanahoe, Paddy Cullen and a young Kevin Moran - ignited a new spark of interest in Dublin Gaelic football for many of my generation.

However, back then it was a spark that needed to be reignited by something new and exciting, because zealots had virtually extinguished that spark by forcibly ramming this sport down our throats as boys.

One of my best friend's abiding memories of his primary school days in Dublin was of a fanatical Gaeilgeoir teacher running out from the staff room into the school yard because he saw a boy head a football, soccer-style.

The commentator Micheal O hEithir had a polite euphemism for any altercation on the pitch - "a shemozzle in the parallelogram".

What my terrified friend witnessed that day was no shemozzle, it was a vicious physical assault by an adult on a child.

Repressive

If the teacher's intention was to make my generation love Gaelic football he failed miserably, because his assault identified Gaelic with everything that was repressive and which we needed to rebel against.

It was a continuation of a closed mindset that, in 1938, allowed prejudiced senior GAA figures like the late Padraig McNamee to remove a revered elderly protestant, Douglas Hyde, as GAA patron, because - as part of his official duties as President of Ireland - he attended an international soccer match.

He was accused of being a turncoat to a tribe that was more bigoted than the idealised Gaelic Ireland he had peacefully devoted his life to.

This mindset of 'with us or against us' lingered into the 1970s, as exemplified by Liam Brady's expulsion from secondary school for missing a Gaelic match to play in a schoolboy soccer international for Ireland.

His international call-up was seen as an act of betrayal rather than something his school could take pride in.

The men who carried out that ludicrous expulsion were thankfully part of a vanishing world.

The great 1970s clashes against Kerry made a generation of Dubliners fall in love with Gaelic.

This was despite the best efforts of some of its biggest advocates, who in reality possessed such a lack of confidence that they felt sure we would fall away from the game if we were given options about what we could play or watch.

But we watched Gay O'Driscoll and Robbie Kelleher pit their wits against men like the late great Paidi O Se not because we loved Gaelic, but because we loved sport.

When an eclectic, rotund genius like Jimmy Keaveney could lethargically stroke home points from impossible angles, you knew you were witnessing great sport and a fierce rivalry was being born.

On Sunday this rivalry will be renewed with Stephen Cluxton (left) and the Brogan brothers igniting the imagination of young Dubliners, just like Heffo's Army ignited ours.

It is a unique sporting rivalry in that both sets of supporters will drink together and peacefully enter Croke Park together, eagerly anticipating the great game to come, but equally interested in the tapestry of other sports alongside which Gaelic and hurling easily and confidently hold their own.

Surprise

If they were still alive today, it might surprise the sort of zealous thugs who once battered children in Dublin school yards for heading a football instead of catching it, but - whether dressed in Dublin, Chelsea or Leinster jerseys - we'll be watching every second of it on television not out of cohesion or enforced patriotism, but because we want to; because this is a great sporting occasion to match any in the world.

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