Christy O'Connor: GAA has a special relationship with St Patrick's Day

From the Railway Cup to the All-Ireland club finals, March 17 matters to the Association
Christy O'Connor: GAA has a special relationship with St Patrick's Day

Nemo Rangers Jack Donovan on the ball with Conor Horgan and Kevin Fulignati during the AIB All-Ireland football final at Croke Park on St Patrick's Day. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

LAST St Patrick’s Day, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivered a national address on the evening news outlining the threat of the pandemic, and the response required from every citizen in the country.

Watched by more than 1.6 million viewers, Varadkar began his speech by focusing on the historic day in which he was delivering his words.

“This is a Saint Patrick’s Day like no other,” said Varadkar.

“A day that none of us will ever forget. Today’s children will tell their own children and grandchildren about the national holiday in 2020 that had no parades or parties, but instead saw everyone staying at home to protect each other.”

At the time, everyone was fearful of what was coming. Nobody knew how long it would last but most people hoped it would be the last St Patrick’s Day spent without parades and parties.

A year on though, and another national holiday will be spent in lockdown, another St Patrick’s Day when the day will just bleed into another week, showing little or no difference from the previous day or the next.

For decades, GAA people associated St Patrick’s Day with the All-Ireland club finals, but that ceased last year when the finals were moved to January. The GAA were lucky to have made that move when they did because the pandemic would have shut the 2020 finals down if they had remained on their traditional slot of March 17.

Action from Newtown's 2006 clash with Portumna on St Patrick's Day. Picture: Larry Cummins
Action from Newtown's 2006 clash with Portumna on St Patrick's Day. Picture: Larry Cummins

Every genuine GAA supporter would give anything now to watch a competitive game on TV, never mind have the opportunity to attend a live match. In that context, memories of past All-Ireland club finals on St Patrick’s Day will never be more relevant than they will on this March 17.

All-Ireland club finals will never take place again on the national holiday, especially now with the impending introduction of the split season.

Yet, even under the old system, staging the club finals on St Patrick’s day had become even more anachronistic with the GAA’s desire to tighten up the fixtures calendar and untangle the perennial fixtures mess.

It made no sense for finals to run two-and-a-half months into the following season, especially when some teams — particularly the Galway and Ulster hurling champions — often had to wait around for over three months to play their next match, an All-Ireland semi-final.

There were also multiple other collateral costs; increased expense on clubs; players having to forego other opportunities, like Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup fixtures around the same time; inter-county players becoming burned out after such elongated club seasons.

There were clear risks with moving the club finals, but last year’s double-header in mid-January was a significant success; two excellent matches were watched by a crowd of around 20,000. That was half of the club final record attendance of 40,000 in 1999 but just 10,000 less than the average attendance of just above 30,000 over the previous 10 years.

OPENING

The GAA needed to fill that gap but replacing the club finals with All-Ireland U20 football semi-finals was never going to stimulate the same emotional connection. The GAA never got the opportunity last year to see how attractive the U20 double-header may have proved, but it certainly wouldn’t have lured as many annual day-trippers as the club finals routinely did.

The club finals always offered something extra on March 17, especially when the club provided that perfect representation of local community on Ireland’s national holiday.

Staging them in Croke Park went even further. “If you want a representation of Irish-ness for a tourist in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day between the parade on O’Connell Street and the club finals in Croke Park you have it all,” said Professor Mike Cronin of Boston College in 2019.

Cronin, co-author of Wearing The Green - A History of St Patrick’s Day, didn’t see the value in the calendar changes that were being proposed at the time. He thought they were potentially damaging.

“If they (the GAA) are ‘The National Association’ it makes sense that they do a major set-piece event on ‘The National Day,’” said Cronin.

When we did our study of St Patrick’s Day celebrations going back to Boston in 1727, I was surprised by how often Gaelic games walked across the stage. 

"The GAA took advantage of that day globally with all kinds of formal or informal gatherings.”

The split-season is especially necessary for club players, but it has also opened up another debate now around St Patrick’s Day: how can the GAA fill that slot to reflect their massive local and global cultural identity on our national holiday?

Trying to express itself on St Patrick’s Day will be an even greater challenge again in a split season in the future because the club season will be in cold storage, while the inter-county season will only be warming up on March 17. A double-header of league matches in Croke Park would struggle to stoke up much interest or emotional connection.

What the GAA know for sure though, is that there is a clear appetite for GAA matches on St Patrick’s Day. That was first obvious from the halcyon days of the Railway Cup before that attraction eventually died away and the GAA became disconnected from that crowd.

It took a while for the GAA to re-establish that connection to the national holiday, but they eventually did with huge success through the All-Ireland club finals. Yet the big question for the GAA around March 17 in the future will be trying to re-establish that meaningful presence for Gaelic games on the national holiday once again.

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