Gaelic Athletic Association head of communications, Notre Dame professor present on hurling
Lucas Masin-Moyer | Thursday, March 1, 2018
When it was looking for models to expand its media center and operations in Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) looked at stadiums in England and South Africa before coming to South Bend to observe the newly finished rennovations on Notre Dame Stadium.
Head of communications for the GAA — which oversees competition of the two Gaelic sports, hurling and Gaelic football — Alan Milton said what he saw blew him away.
“We decided when we were going to go abroad to look at best-case scenarios, there was nowhere better than Notre Dame,” Milton said. “We weren’t left disappointed.”
After taking a tour of the stadium, Milton — along with Kevin Whelan, the Michael Smurfit Director of the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre in Dublin — spoke Wednesday evening in DeBartolo Hall on the GAA, its operations, history and the game of hurling.
Whelan said hurling, which has traditionally been more popular in the more rural regions of the country, is deeply engrained in the Irish culture, and many Irishmen and women begin playing the game as soon as they can hold a hurl — the stick used to hit the ball in the game.
“You can’t really pick it up as an adult, you have to be tipping away at it from being a child,” he said. “ … [Irish children], they pop out with a hurl in their hands, like a bionic extension of their arm.”
The game, which George Bernard Shaw once described as “a mix of hockey and sudden death,” involves a great deal of danger, Whelan said.
“You have to be careful, [the hurl] is a lethal weapon,” he said. “ … You’ve got to be a warrior. You’ve got to be very, very skillful.”
The danger, coupled with the fast-paced nature of the game, makes it particuarly exciting, Milton said.
“I defy anyone to watch the game of hurling and tell me it’s not the greatest game in the world. It’s intense,” he said. “It doesn’t take four hours … there are 40 scores in a game and some of the greatest physical stamina of sport.”
Milton said the exciting nature of the game has led the GAA to push for expansion of hurling and Gaelic Football around the world, with a game in Boston’s Fenway Park hosting 35,000 people at a hurling match last year.
“Never before have more people played our games,” he said. “Never before have people played hurling, which is more niche because of the skill set being so much higher.”
Whelan and Milton said what makes the sports, and their administration through the GAA, most unique is that they are entirely amateur.
The best hurling and Gaelic football athletes compete not for professional teams, but for their county on the island.
“It’s without parallel … you’re born into a club and don’t leave that club no matter what,” Milton said. “We don’t have a transfer market, we don’t have a draft.”
The community basis of these sports has been apparent since the GAA’s founding in 1884, Whelan said, as an organization meant to push out the influence of British sports like soccer, rugby and golf as a way of reclaiming an Irish national identity.
“The GAA is also a cultural organization … the Irish language has always been a key part of the the GAA,” he said. “The GAA as a sporting organization is also a cultural-nationalist organization and one which prides itself on promoting Irish values and the Irish language.”
These sports link to Irishness served as a political statement during conflicts in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century, Milton said.
“In the six counties [of Northern Ireland] in particular, the greatest manifestation of their Irishness was through the games,” he said. “During the Troubles, it was a statement if you carried your hurl down the street or had a bag with GAA on it.”
Milton said the community-based games have more meaning to the people of Ireland than most sports because of these inextricobale links to national identity.
“I think a lot of modern sport has become homogenized — you can take it or leave it, its on in the background, its white noise,” he said. “But if you’re Irish … for lots of people who don’t speak the language, the greatest expression [as] an expression of Irishness is through the [Gaelic] games.”