A massive and fascinating sports brouhaha has been going on in Ireland this week. The roots of the squabble, as with all good Irish squabbles, go back centuries and can largely be blamed on the goddamn Brits. And also Ed Sheeran.
This particular squabble concerns where to properly memorialize Liam Miller, a favorite son of Cork and soccer international. A former midfielder for the Irish national team who through the years also played with Manchester United, Celtic and Sunderland, Miller died of pancreatic cancer in February. He was 36 years old.
As is soccer custom, Miller’s friends and family organized a tribute game for him. A team of Manchester United vets would take on a squad made up of ex-Celtic and national team players. Footy biggies such as Ryan Giggs, Robbie Keane, and Damien Duff all agreed to play in the game. Proceeds would go to Miller’s family.
The game was originally scheduled for September 25, at Turners Cross, a soccer pitch in Cork. Miller’s survivors quickly learned that the venue they’d selected wouldn’t hold all the bereavers. Not even close.
Turners Cross only holds about 7,500, and tickets sold out in just minutes when sales opened last Friday. Organizers then made a pitch for Pairc Ui Chaoimh, a 45,000 seat stadium in Cork, the second-largest city in Ireland. No other event was scheduled for the venue that day, but the request to have Miller’s tribute game there was rejected by the Gaelic Athletic Association, the national and nationalistic amateur sports organization that controls the big stadium.
An uproar immediately ensued. Sportsmen across the country blasted the GAA for not opening up the stadium for one of their own, taken so young. The GAA stuck to its guns, so to speak: “Sorry, folks! Pairc’s closed!” the GAA told Miller’s wannabe memorializers.
At least for soccer.
“The GAA is prohibited in rule from hosting games other than those under the control of the Association in its stadia and grounds,” read the emergency statement issued last weekend amid the outcry. The group also declared that no rules change would be considered until next February, at the GAA’s annual meeting.
This is where the goddamn Brits come in. They’re the reason for the GAA’s dumbass rule.
England, history tells us, controlled Ireland for almost all of the last 800 years, give or take. But while the Irish lacked the military might to throw the invaders out, they came up with ways to both keep their Irishness intact and annoy the occupiers. Among these was imposing a prohibition on the imperialists’ favorite pastimes.
The GAA was formed in Tipperary in 1884. And soon after its founding, way back in the late 19th century, the GAA told its members that anybody found playing rugby, soccer, or cricket would be tossed out of the group. Those sports were referred to as “Garrison games” by Michael Collins, a GAA member who later became a leader of the fight to rid his homeland of the evil occupiers. Collins asserted that the foreign pastimes “only aid the peaceful penetration of Ireland by the British.” (In Neil Jordan’s 1996 movie about his life, Collins was played by Liam Neeson, a Catholic guy from Northern Ireland.)
And so it was that the GAA’s grounds were reserved for hurling and Gaelic football, two sports that the Irish love and the rest of the world doesn’t give a rip about.
The goddamn Brits, meanwhile, saw the GAA as an arm of the Irish Republican Army, the hardcore patriots behind the guerrilla campaign that ultimately ended with the creation of the Republic of Ireland.
There was at least one awful downside to these nationalistic sporting rules: The goddamn Brits always knew they could find an all-Irish crowd at a GAA venue. And on November 21, 1920, they used that intelligence while committing mass murder. As retaliation for the killing in Dublin of several of the King’s spies—an operation purportedly masterminded by Collins—the British army showed up at a Gaelic football game at Croke Park, the biggest GAA stadium. British soldiers opened fire on the unarmed crowd. Fourteen Irishmen were killed, including Tipperary footballer Mick Hogan, and at least 60 were wounded.
The slaughter is remembered as the original “Bloody Sunday.” Hogan was memorialized by having a side of Croke Park named after him. The massacre only served to steel the GAA’s resolve to keep the goddamn Brits out of its sporting grounds. The GAA didn’t lift its ban on outsider games until 1971.
The first soccer match at Croke Park didn’t come until 2007, when a Euro qualifier between Republic of Ireland and Wales was played there. Even with the end of that longstanding prohibition of Garrison games, it’s pretty rare to this day to find a non-GAA game being played at a GAA stadium.
But while both the initial implementation of the rule and the residual hate for the goddamn Brits are understandable, the GAA quickly found that almost nobody Irish was in its corner after it rejected the ceremonial Miller game. Instead, many demanded that the GAA get over it.
Joe Horgan, a writer for the Irish Post, a news site that fancies itself as “the voice of the global Irish diaspora” and claims a big Irish following in England, compared GAA brass to “soldiers who came out of hiding in the jungle claiming to be unaware that WWII had ended decades before”:
“In a country wide open to the global world, in a country awash with international influences, just like any other western country, a ban on ‘soccer’ just seems bizarre. Hello, GAA, do you know it’s 2018? Has anyone told you about the internet in every Irish house?
Or if the ban is a relic of past times, of old hatred, of old fights, well, what can you do but feel sorry for those living in that world. If you hate the English so much you can’t even watch ‘soccer’, in the very year the whole world has just played it in a tournament, I can only offer you my sympathy.”
A great many other Irish folks, in both legacy and social media, were swift to point out all the times the GAA has opened up its stadiums for non-Gaelic events, including British concert acts. Elfin and polarizing pop star Ed Sheeran became a focal point of that campaign of Miller-motivated whataboutism. Sheeran got permission from GAA for a gig at Croke Park in 2015, and also played Páirc Uí Chaoimh for three nights in May. “There was no problem opening the doors of the stadium for Ed Sheeran,” a column in The Irish Mirror ranted. “So why can’t it be done for a good cause?”
The vitriol toward GAA that consumed Irish Twitter and somehow roped in Ginger Jesus had triggered a backlash to the backlash by week’s end. Some Irish folks, it seems, were tired of having their hyperprovinciality bashed.
In hopes of stopping this latest Irish uprising before somebody takes over a post office, the GAA agreed on Thursday to hold an emergency meeting this weekend at Croke Park. The group admits that the gathering was only convened because of the troubles surrounding the Miller tribute.
GAA officials have assured the citizenry that the permitting of Pairc Ui Chaoimh will be discussed. If put to a vote, it seems virtually certain that the organization would have to lift the soccer ban for this one-off exhibition with a good cause. But GAA bylaws are apparently so antiquated and confusing that even as of Friday afternoon nobody involved could say unequivocally that it’s even legal for the body to render a decision on the Miller matter, since such rulings are typically only allowed to be handed down at annual Congresses.
It’s a mess. Thanks a lot, goddamn Brits.
And—oh, right—RIP, Liam Miller.
(Disclosure: All my grandparents were Irish immigrants, I think both hurling and Gaelic football are boss, and I rank last year’s All-Ireland hurling semifinal at Croke Park as the most thrilling sporting event I’ve ever attended live. But please don’t ask me to explain hurling.)