This is an important sporting weekend for me. My home county, Mayo, is playing against Donegal for the Sam Maguire Cup, in the All-Ireland football final. The last time we won this competition was in 1951. We’ve been in the final many times since but just haven’t been able to go the extra mile. Hopefully that will change today. Most of you reading this will have no idea what Gaelic football is. It was constituted as a sport in 1887 and was part of a determined effort to promote Gaelic games and Irish culture on our island, while Ireland was still under the rule of the British Empire. It was founded on a strictly amateur ethos and had to compete with rugby and association football (soccer) for popularity. The most interesting aspect of the sport is its tribal nature. You’ll say that all team sports are tribal but Gaelic football is strict in that sense. To play for one’s county and win an All-Ireland, is the highest honour for a player. Only players who are born, live and work in the county can play for their county. There is no transfer system for players, unless you happen to live and work in a different county for an extended period, so as a result changing allegiance is unusual. Players do not receive payment for playing, although there are reimbursements for expenses. Players hold down full-time jobs and train 4 times per week, after work in the evening with games at weekends, and have the fitness levels of professional athletes.
Each of the 32 counties can take part in the All-Ireland Championship. The 4 provinces in Ireland: Ulster, Munster Leinster and Connacht, are involved in play-offs until a champion emerges from each province. Mayo are the Connacht champions this year, while Donegal are the champions of Ulster. There are a further series of games until the two finalists are decided. The final takes place on the 3rd Sunday of each September.
The final is played in Croke Park (Páirc an Chrócaigh), and is watched by 82,000 spectators; an incredible statistic for an amateur competition and a testament to the importance of Gaelic games in Irish life. The sport has endured even with the overwhelming global evolution of football in England and the development of rugby in terms of popularity.
Of no less importance for many Irish people this weekend is the most important derby game of the English football year, Liverpool vs Man United. Although coming from different cities they are separated by a mere 35 miles and more importantly by 1 title (United having won 19 and Liverpool 18), being without doubt the two most successful sides in English football. I’m regularly asked why it is that so many Irish are passionate about English football; Man United and Liverpool in particular. The answer surely lies in the fact that United and Liverpool both hail from traditionally working-class, immigrant cities with huge Irish populations. Another reason is that the best Irish players have always played club football in England. An example of this is Kevin Moran, who won two All-Ireland finals with Dublin and then went on to win two FA cups with Manchester United.
Paul Scholes, who Zinedine Zidane said was the finest midfielder of his generation, had the following to say about United – Liverpool games; “Manchester United against Liverpool is always the first game I look out for when the fixtures come out. Maybe the games against City and Chelsea are now just as important because they are more of a threat in the league, but United and Liverpool are the two biggest clubs in English football with huge, worldwide fan bases. It’s a massive game.”
And this for me is without doubt is one of the most significant aspects of this weekend from an Irish sporting point of view. It’s on the one hand a celebration of our culture, our identity and our stubborn determination to extol those characteristics which define us as Irish, while on the other hand a celebration of certain teams in the country of our former oppressors, which through emigration we helped to shape and build. It’s something that defines me as an Irishman, and something that makes me proud.
Come on Maigh Eo!
Highlights – Mayo vs Dublin All Ireland semi final 02/09/2012