by Joe Brolly
Barry McElduff sent me a referee’s report once from a game played in the 60s in the Tyrone league. The referee was a literary man from Carrickmore who signed his name on the report as P. Haughey.
After the preliminaries are set out, teams, venue, etc, the body of the report reads as follows: ‘Given the notoriety of previous clashes between these opponents, I gathered both teams in the centre of the field before throw-in and exhorted them to play the game in the true spirit of the Gael, at which point I was struck an almighty blow to the left ear which rendered me unconscious. In the circumstances, I have nothing further to report.’ Not much has changed.
The referee at last Sunday’s Connaught club final between Corofin and St Brigid’s was hounded into the corner of the pitch after the game by a mob of Corofin supporters. Luckily for him, the St Brigid’s mentors came to his aid, or he might have ended up like Mr Haughey.
Shane Curran, the flamboyant ex-Roscommon keeper was one of his protectors. For his troubles, he got, as he described it, ‘a clip on the ear’ as he escorted the ref to safety. It is not good.
The problem is that on the one hand, the GAA is built on fierce devotion to the local community, which is a great thing. But on the other hand, this is boiling over far too often into violence.
The 1982 county final between Dungiven and Ballinderry has gone done in history. An ambulance had to drive onto the pitch in the drawn game to remove the wounded, one from each team.
It was our men against theirs and we roared as they fought it out. The replay was worse, prompting the immortal line in referee Patsy Mulholland’s report that “ had it not been a county final, I would have abandoned the game after five minutes, by which time there were several fist fights going on in various parts of the field.”
The game has become part of the mythology of both clubs. In Dungiven we say it was the first time anyone stood up to that Ballinderry team.
Meanwhile, Ballinderry boast that they prevailed by a point in the replay. The fact they were subsequently disqualified is a mere footnote.
It has always been this way. After all, Gaelic games replaced the old “wigs on the green” when men came together on fair day to fight for the honour of the parish.
A fortnight ago in Ballymena’s grounds, Lamh Dearg from West Belfast played St. Mary’s Rasharkin in the under-21 football semi-final.
Lamh Dearg won comfortably. With a few minutes to go, a St. Mary’s player punched his opponent in frustration and was sent off. Two of his team-mates quickly followed.
The Ballymena club had to erect a high wire fence round the pavilion some years ago to prevent damage from sectarian attacks.
When the referee, Ray Matthews got into the area between the wire and the changing room door after the game, he was cornered by a mob of Rasharkin supporters and attacked.
The witnesses at the Antrim Board’s investigation described a terrifying scene. Ray was saved when mentors and officials from Lamh Dearg jumped on him and put a cordon round him. “We have no quarrel with you boys” shouted one of the assailants.
The Antrim Board acted swiftly, imposing two lifetime bans and suspending Rasharkin’s adult hurling and football teams from all competitions next year.
I agree that firm action was needed. I completely disagree with the blanket ban on the adult teams. It is indiscriminate and only causes festering grievance.
Individuals should be identified and fairly punished. What happened in Rasharkin, however, had nothing to do with 99% of the adult members of the club, playing and non-playing.
Imagine the IFA or some other local sporting body imposing such a draconian penalty? The only place it would happen is in your imagination.
Last Sunday, with their hated enemy, Dromore strolling to victory in the Tyrone league final, some of the Carrickmore men cut up rough.
The trouble spread to the stand. A man with a golf umbrella can be seen on the footage striking out at Carrickmore players over the perimeter fence before being engulfed.
Dangerous folk these golfers. Around 15 or 20 spectators were involved in the melee that ensued. One spent the next day at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald having his ear sewn back on, after it had allegedly been bitten off.
There is much to admire about all of these clubs. They are fiercely proud of their traditions. The game is the most important thing in their lives, an expression of who they are.
But these events demonstrate an unacceptable, darker side that has always been there. The tide however is turning. In the past, when the GAA was criticised in the media for violent incidents, we made excuses. In the North in particular, we attacked the BBC and UTV and alleged that they were only too happy to beat the GAA with any stick they could lay hands on.
This has not happened after either the Rasharkin or Carrickmore incidents. Instead, there has been universal condemnation. There is, by the same token, no need for the authorities to over-react. The individuals involved in the Dunmoyle trouble can be clearly enough identified. Deal with them, but leave the innocents alone.
In the old days, no one heard about the violence. A few minutes after the final whistle was blown last Sunday, photographs of the Tyrone affray were posted on the internet and the story was twittering around the globe.
It used to be that only the men played and went to games. When I was a child, we stayed at home when my father went to the match. Not any longer. One of the most widely published images from the Tyrone final is of frightened women in the stand holding children away from the melee.
Gaelic games are now family games, where men, women and children play and participate equally. There is nothing romantic about violence. The reaction of the wider GAA community to recent events shows that we are finally on the right road. However, the authorities shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.