Being born and raised in Tyrone, I can hardly be taken as an impartial commentator when it comes to Gaelic games. I was delighted to be in Croke Park on Sunday to see the senior footballers crowned All-Ireland champions. It’s hard not to have sympathy for Mayo as their long wait for elusive All-Ireland success continues – but to the victors the spoils. It was Tyrone’s day, and while everyone understood the agony Mayo fans were going through, we were caught up in our own ecstasy and sense of pride in what these young lads had achieved.
Gaelic games go right to the heart of who we are as a people. It is bound up in the idea of the place where we come from. Every year during the championship, you will see flags of every county on display in far-flung places – a sure sign that a Kerryman lives in Tyrone or a Corkonian lives in Dublin.
While Ireland continues to change, one thing remains constant: the importance of a sense of place. Tir gra, or love of place is an abiding Irish characteristic and the parish is central to that sense of belonging.
A priest I know spoke for all of us at the weekend when he described the GAA as the glue that holds our parishes together. There is much more than sport involved here, GAA clubs were central during the pandemic ensuring that those who were self-isolating had everything that they needed. The clubs were able to deploy an army of volunteers to assist. And I know that in the part of the world where I come from, GAA clubs were instrumental in churches being able to re-open whether it was co-ordinating car parking or the strict limits on people allowed to attend Mass.
To be successful in sport, is to embrace the deeply Christian idea of self-sacrifice that Jesus spoke about in the Gospel last weekend. Anyone who achieves a modicum of success in the sporting arena is someone who has given things up. Whether it is Saturday lie-ins, a good night out, time with family or holidays – people who are single-minded in their pursuit of success know about sacrificing. They also know – as Kipling observed – that success and failure are both imposters. Sporting success is perfected in learning from setbacks, defeats and unrealised dreams.
The fans know this as well. To be invested in sports is to know both good days and bad days. I have sat at Gaelic grounds and seen grown men weep in both sadness and delight as they have followed the ups and downs of their teams.
Embracing the truth that nothing worth having in life is achieved without some degree of self-sacrifice is character-forming. Knowing too how to deal with success and failure serves us in every facet of our lives.
Whether it is Gaelic games, the Olympics or the Paralympics the noble ideals of sport, the perfection of the craft and the accompanying sporting sense of fair play is something to be proud of and shows our human nature at its best.