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Not Just Fun and Games

Cronin’s books use sports as lens to examine Irish social, economic, political life

Mike Cronin, academic director of the Boston College Centre for Irish Programmes (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Dec. 15, 2011

Sports may not be to everyone’s taste, but its impact on national culture and heritage is pervasive — especially in Ireland, says Mike Cronin, academic director of the Dublin-based Boston College Centre for Irish Programmes.

Cronin is directing BC Ireland’s four-year oral history project of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which promotes Irish amateur sports and cultural activities internationally as well as throughout Ireland. As Cronin explains, to study the GAA — which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2009 — is to gain a valuable insight into the lives of Irish people.    

“The GAA has had a club in every parish in Ireland, as well as in places like Boston, New York and London,” said Cronin. “GAA clubs — there are about 2,500 in total, with a membership of about 800,000 — represent a tremendous amount of dedication by the community, and are a thread running through the experiences of many Irish, whether urban or rural, the Republic or Northern Ireland.”

Appropriately enough, Cronin says, the oral history project, which began during the GAA’s 125th-anniversary year, has relied on precisely the same kind of grassroots effort that has characterized the GAA: Through the assistance of volunteers from the GAA and other organizations, the project has amassed some 1,600 interviews, 3,000 hours of recordings and 20,000 photographs.

Following up on the project’s first book, The GAA: A People’s History, which was produced to commemorate the quasquicentennial, two new volumes are now complete: Places We Play: Ireland’s Sporting Heritage, written by Cronin and Roísín Higgins; and The GAA: County By County, on which Cronin collaborated with Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse, as he did for the project’s first.

While each book has its own focus, Cronin says that both are attuned to the GAA history project’s mission. “The two books are about heritage: What are the things that mean the most to the Irish, which stand out in collective or individual memory? What aspects of this heritage are emphasized, and how, and does their meaning change over time? So on the one hand, yes, the books are rich in detail about Irish sports, but they also point up some very interesting social issues and questions.”

Published earlier this fall, Places We Play is an overview of Ireland’s many and varied sporting venues. These include the thoroughly modern Aviva Stadium — formerly Lansdowne Road — Ireland’s new home for international soccer and rugby and the most expensive structure ever built in the Irish Republic. The book also explores once popular, now neglected racing courses or handball courts, and even unlikely settings such as the mountains of County Louth, where players from GAA hurling clubs gather for the traditional poc fada competition, in which they must propel the ball (sliothair) over a three-mile course with as few hits as possible.

Fascinating, sometimes troubling stories abound in many of these current or former sporting sites, Cronin notes. A GAA stadium in Killarney was built with the assistance of inmates from a local asylum — a contribution belatedly acknowledged years later with an historical plaque. The famed Baldoyle racecourse had to close down in the 1970s due to structural problems and became the site for a housing development during Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” economic surge — but then came the crash, Cronin says, and today the remains of the derelict course sit anonymously amidst the unfinished development.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Irish sport, Cronin notes, involves the role of the British during their long-time domination of Ireland. “If you look at the location of Irish golf courses in relation to the railroads and the site of former British army bases, you’ll see a clear connection. As popular as the sport is in Ireland, it probably wouldn’t have taken root here without the British Army.

“It’s questions like this we find throughout the study of sporting sites: What do we choose to preserve, and to remember? Do we appreciate these sites for what happened there, for their architecture, or perhaps for their ties to tradition and community?”

County by County, set for release later this year, is exactly as its title implies: the story of the GAA from the perspective of each of Ireland’s 32 counties — as well as its so-called “33rd” county, the immigrant populations around the world, including Boston (the site of the first game played under GAA rules outside of Ireland, in 1886).

As with Places We Play, sporting anecdotes in County by County are a lens with which to examine social, economic, political and other elements of Irish life. Because the GAA All-Ireland competitions in soccer, hurling and other sports are organized by counties, Cronin notes, players and their communities sometimes have had to put aside longstanding rivalries from club-level GAA activities — or deeper, more complicated causes — to represent the county. It’s not always an easy thing to do: In 1931, simmering tensions aggravated by the still uneasy post-Irish Civil War climate tore apart the Tyrone Gaelic football team before its match with Cavan.

The county system also has been controversial because not all counties are created equal when it comes to abundance of talent and skill, whether because of population size or organizational strength, or both. Kilkenny and Kerry have longstanding traditions of sporting excellence; Leitrim, by contrast, is an Irish version of the Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh Pirates — seemingly fated to be out of contention before the games begin. But Leitrim pride has persisted, the book notes, recalling how one Dublin sports star elected to play for Leitrim in the All-Irelands because his father grew up there.

County identification also was paramount to Irish immigrants when they became involved in overseas GAA branches like Boston’s, says Cronin. “You didn’t simply have a ‘Boston’ team, you had ‘Boston Dublin’ or ‘Boston Tyrone.’ It was important to have that distinction.

“You look through the interviews and anecdotes, and it’s very interesting to see how people choose to identify themselves, and what the extent of that identification is.”

For more on the GAA project, see