John Arnold: It breaks my heart to see my beloved GAA being split in two

We have a great sporting organisation in the GAA and it nearly breaks my heart to see what we’re doing to it, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: It breaks my heart to see my beloved GAA being split in two

Blackrock players celebrate winning the Cork Senior Hurling Championship last month. Clubs are the bedrock of the GAA, says John.

“AT least we got the hay saved!” 

Well, that was about the only positive thought in my head last Saturday evening as I drove home after watching the Cork and Tipperary game below in the Gaelic Grounds on the Ennis Road in Limerick.

For the week before the match, I was nervous because when it comes to matches between hurling’s greatest rivals, tradition is important. Cork never feared Tipperary and vice versa.

During the Tipperary ‘Famine’ between 1971 and 1989, was it Christy Ring said: “Without Tipperary the GAA is only half dressed!” 

Well, in the winter conditions that prevailed Shannon-side last Saturday, being half dressed wasn’t much good.

Getting back to my pre-match nerves. I had noted that Cork had met Tipperary just three times previously in November championship hurling, and, wait for it, Cork lost all three contests! Worse than that was the fact that when first they hurled a championship game in November, ‘twas on November 14, 1897 — exactly 123 years to the day from last Saturday — talk about coincidence, lads!

That year the Munster Hurling Final was played below in Killarney on the first day of August and Cork and Tipp’ scored just 1-3 apiece.

Between the jigs and the reels, the replay took 14 weeks to get played and in Dublin. So on November 14, 1897, at Jones’ Road, Cork suffered a heavy defeat on a scoreline of 7-9 to 2-3.

We only lost by four points on Saturday but we’re still gone from the competition.

I remember my first trip to Limerick in 1972 when, on a baking hot day, the game ended in a draw. We won the reply that year and the Munster Final but were licked and mauled by the Cats on a September Sunday.

As I travelled home on Saturday, about a mile and a half from a neighbour’s house where I’d watched the game, I took some biteen of consolation that though we hadn’t ‘Tipp bate and the hay saved’, at least we got a great crop of hay in the shed this year. 

‘Twas Bryan McMahon wrote the song in praise of Ring;

‘Now Cork is bet and the hay is saved, the thousands wildly sing

They speak too soon, my sweet gorsoon, for here comes Christy Ring.

Over the years we turned that line to our advantage, whenever we could, and it became a chant — the real sign of a good summer, ‘Tipp bate and the hay saved’.

This has been a strange year, not just for sport but for life in general and for the economy of the country and the world. We’ve come a long way so hopefully now, with the ‘winning post ‘ in sight, in the form of a vaccine, let’s stay the course.

Personally, I’ve really missed sport. As ye know I was worse than useless at either hurling or football but, being enthusiastic, a spot was found for me in the GAA family as a club person.

That’s where I’m happiest but, oh Lord, I do really miss the games. Winning or losing — sure, how often can I recall the ‘ones that got away’ — and I don’t mean fish! To lose a big game by a point can be cruel but that’s sport for ya.

In reality, what I missed most during this summer was the ‘before and after’ the games, the anticipation, the journey, the pre-match excitement. Afterwards, the highs or lows, but especially at a local game, maybe under 14 or under 16, the banter and the discussion and looking forward to the next game, the next season, the next year. There’s nothing like it.

I have often been described as an old fashioned conservative, a dyed-in-the wool dinosaur and the relics of auld dacency. But shure, sticks and stones’ll break your bones but names’ll never hurt you.

Of course, nothing stays the same and change is inevitable. I know that and I know one cannot hold back the tide. What really annoys the hell out of me though is change for the sake of change or for no good reason.

Some readers here might have absolutely not a whit of interest in sport, fair enough, but I bet even non-sporting types associate the month of September with the All Ireland finals. Maybe you’ve never been to a Munster Final, let alone an All Ireland Final, but ask most people the dates for the GAA finals and they’ll know.

The tradition of the early autumn Finals took decades to build up and glamorise — not just here on this island but for Irish men and women all over the globe. Set in sporting stone they were, and I’ll freely admit, the envy of many other sporting organisations.

Obviously, some people in the GAA have never heard the phrase ‘leave well enough alone’ . The heart and soul and spirit of the GAA is the club. In rural areas, villages, towns and cities all over our 32 counties, we have thousands of clubs. For the club players, representing their own place is their ambition. They reckon about 4% of club players get to play at inter-county level — at any grade from under 17 up to Senior. Some 96% of hurlers will be club players first and last.

Think of those statistics. Then look at what the GAA are doing and propose doing over the next few years. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years the inter-county GAA scene has become a bloated tail which is wagging the ‘Club dog’.

Take the All Ireland Finals. The September Sundays have been shifted to August — this year they will be in December but that’s outside the control of any of us.

Now we have a proposal for a Split Season from 2022 onwards. This would mean an inter-county season from March until July with a Club season thereafter. No, you needn’t adjust your glasses, the proposal now is for the All Ireland Senior Finals to be played in July.

What really annoys me is that this ludicrous idea is being marketed and sold with the label ‘certainty for the club players’. Certainty my eye, and my elbow too! Years ago, when the GAA opened Croke Park up to non-Gaelic games, I said once income streams start flowing from ‘other games’ or from multi-national media outlets we’re on the road to professionalism in the GAA. I never thought ‘twould come so fast.

The Split Season proposal would literally mean that once ‘pre season’ training starts in November or December, the next time a club would see its inter-county star would be seven months later. Isn’t that professionalism — no matter what you call it?

Wouldn’t it be ironic that the GAA. which places great store on promoting Gaelic games, especially on TV and other similar outlets, adopted a ‘Grand Plan’ where there wouldn’t be a major game broadcast from July until February — crazy or what?

Earlier this year, Croke Park looked for suggestions and ideas for revising the fixtures calendar to give clubs and club players a fair crack of the whip. I sent in a submission whereby both club and inter-county competitions could progress side by side from May to September. Did I get an acknowledgement, a reply, a thank-you, a text or an email saying my proposals would be looked at? I’m still waiting — maybe ‘twill come with the Christmas card but I won’t be holding my breath!

We have a great sporting organisation in the GAA and it nearly breaks my heart to see what we’re doing to it. Am I mad? Yes, hopping and raging mad about the way inter-county team managers are now the real power brokers in this Association and the GAA hierarchy don’t seem to care.

I have given my time and effort for over 50 years to the GAA as a volunteer, but if we are going to become a two-tier organisation, volunteers will walk away and it will become difficult to replace them.

I started by saying we saved the hay well this year and thank God for that same. Ah yes, the year is really gone tri na chéile and long-made plans have had to be cancelled.

I had hoped to be in Grangemockler at Michael Hogan’s grave on Sunday morning on my way to Dublin for the emotional Centenary of Bloody Sunday. Truly, all’s changed, utterly changed…

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