A question of sport and culture - crossing the divide

It is not often you get the GAA President, a former Ireland Rugby Player and a well known sports pundit into a tent for a chat in Ballinamore about sport and culture. But last Thursday night, August 2 in a marquee on the grounds of Sean O’Heslins GAA Park, Liam O’Neill, Trevor Ringland and Colm O’Rourke did just that - they were there to open the first ever Cross-Border Readers Symposium.

It is not often you get the GAA President, a former Ireland Rugby Player and a well known sports pundit into a tent for a chat in Ballinamore about sport and culture. But last Thursday night, August 2 in a marquee on the grounds of Sean O’Heslins GAA Park, Liam O’Neill, Trevor Ringland and Colm O’Rourke did just that - they were there to open the first ever Cross-Border Readers Symposium.

About 200 people attended, a small crowd for big names, but those who attended certainly did not regret it. All three gave insights, stories and reflections but best of all, they were honest and frank.

Tommy Moran and Sean O’Suilleabhain lead the panel which touched on cross border issues and the importance of sport for integration before it quickly dug into rugby being played at Croke Park, the infamous Meath ‘goal’ against Louth and the need for hawk eye technology in GAA.

Liam O’Neill started off the fun saying that this was “probably not the best time for a Laois man to come to Leitrim,” but told Colm O’Rourke that “we put the lessons we learned in Carrick-on-Shannon against Meath!”

O’Neill said the GAA are looking to expand and some of the issues they must look at includes the sustainability of Scór and also if the Irish language is seen as a “means of unity instead of disunity.”

Leitrim has often claimed Colm O’Rourke as one of it’s own, but the former Meath county player and sports pundit said he is a true Meath man. His family moved from Leitrim at age 9 and he said he didn’t remember a lot from his time in Aughavas. But before the symposium, he said he took a visit to his old National School Rossan which is closing down.

Trevor Ringland who earned 30 caps for Ireland in Rugby provided some insight into his life and spoke about his father as an RUC officer, despite playing during a time when the troubles were at their height in the 80s, Ringland said he “only experienced friendship” this side of the border.

Giving an example of how sport can cross the divide, he said that he has it on “very good authority” that when he scored a try against England “both wings of the maize prison cheered!”

On to rugby being played in Croke Park, Liam O’Neill said Ireland V England in Croker was the GAA’s “best day - aside from our GAA finals.” Colm O’Rourke told the crowd laughing “We (Meath) played rugby long before the GAA allowed it in Croke Park!” O’Rourke also said he felt Croke Park should have been made a “national stadium for all sports.”

O’Neill stated we were not an “adult nation” until we could stand and hear ‘God save the Queen.’ “We have to be brave” he went on “so many have put behind much more.”

When asked about the “toughness” of Meath players back in the glory days, O’Rourke said it came from a team who were predominantly from rural backgrounds and farmers.

“Being from big families helps - it knocks the selfishness out of you!”

Trevor Ringland told the crowd about a successful initiative in Northern Ireland which is gaining success amongst children - the game of three halves, has kids playing rugby, soccer and GAA in some of the nationalist and loyalist areas. While it was tough to introduce, Ringland said the games have become a success gaining praise all sides of the divide. It was suggested that it could be rolled out across the whole island.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” was the GAA President’s answer to the question of Hawk Eye technology for GAA games. He said one of the big issues with it is that “our games are too high and too fast.” He said the speed of conveying the message from computer to the referee is most important. O’Neill said the GAA are looking and negotiating with technology, but will not implement anything until they are “100% sure it works.”

Colm O’Rourke said he didn’t think the technology was necessary, he said it is too expensive and “we just need good umpires.”

On to that infamous Meath ‘goal’ against Louth, O’Rourke said it has “soured“ relationships between Meath and Louth - “that sourness will last over a generation.” He said the decision of a replay should not have been left to Meath to decide, he said GAA HQ should have made the call. “It has done a lot of damage.”

Talking about expanding the GAA brand, O’Neill said they are looking towards Ladies football to carry the GAA internationally. “57 universities in the UK play Ladies GAA, that is not counting Australia and America.”

There were comments from the audience about the disappointing TV coverage of intercounty games, and the tiny “two minutes” of highlights shown on the Sunday Game. O’Neill said contracts will be renewed in 2014 and that will be discussed. Both O’Neill and O’Rourke said a balance must be found between TV coverage and getting people to attend games.

The evening was finished off with great chuckles as Carrigallen’s Seamus O’Rourke took the stage with his recollections of rural life and his hilarious characters. Those who attended, left realising that sport wasn’t just a magnificent try or a winning goal, it is a culture, a tradition, a community and also a means of crossing the divide.