Not long after the start of the Munster final between Cork and Waterford last Sunday morning, I received a tap on the shoulder and a question.
“Who are the guys in the lab coats?”
The speaker was a 47 year old American whom I had brought along to the Ancient Order of Hibernians to watch his first-ever hurling match. Almost immediately, the men in white hugging the goalposts caught his eye.
“Those are the umpires.”
“Do they have powers to make decisions?”
“Eh no, they can just tell the ref stuff.”
“And then he acts on it?”
“Sometimes, not always.”
“But they are refs too right? I mean they must ref games when they are not umpiring?”
“No, usually they are just friends of the ref who’ve come along to help him out.”
At this he was scratching his head and I was quickly realising there are certain things about the GAA that are difficult, nay impossible, to explain to foreigners. The idea behind bringing my pal Cosimo to the game had been simple enough. With the World Cup coming to an end, I promised him a sporting experience to rival anything on show in Africa. He had seen hurling before, recalling snatches of it from ABC’s Wide World of Sport back in the 1970s, and the early points from Cathal Naughton and John Mullane had him purring at the stickwork and the accuracy.
The more impressed he grew though the more the questions proliferated, and the more obvious the culture gap became.
“You tell me all of these guys are amateurs?”
“But how come they are so fit?”
“They train 150 times a year and have been working all their lives to reach this level.”
He paused to exhale at the wondrous sight of Shane Walsh putting a sideline cut directly over the bar. Then the interrogation resumed.
“How much are tickets for this?”
“Not sure, I think around 40 euros for a Munster final.”
“And these guys (he was pointing at the screen as Sean Og split the posts for a score) aren’t getting any of that.”
“No. But they do get a free holiday at the end of the year.” I figured this might placate him on the pay for play issue. It actually made him laugh uproariously. He thought this was so derisory an attempt at compensation as to be worse than not paying them at all.
“They’ve never gone on strike in order to get paid for this.”
“No, not to get paid. But some of them have gone on strike.”
“For what reason?”
“For the right to pick their own coach (Americanese for manager).”
“Hang on a second, they’ve downed tools for the right to pick their coach but they have never gone on strike to demand cash.”
“That would be correct.”
After I gave a long and involved explanation of how the money generated percolates through the association to local clubs, my buddy settled down for a while. It might not have been a vintage first half for most viewers but if it was your first live hurling match, it was a spectacle to be savoured. As the players trooped off at half-time though, he noticed something and was off again.
“On the front of their shirts there, are those logos?”
“Yeah, both teams are sponsored by cell phone companies.”
He shook his head and smiled in disbelief, a not unexpected reaction given that in American sport, sponsors’ logos on jerseys are somehow considered a commercial step too far.
“They advertise corporations on their chests but they don’t get any wage for that?”
“I told you no, but I think they get free phones.” My tone betrayed my increasing exasperation at having to repeatedly justify the Corinthian ethos of these hurlers.
“What about the coaches? Do any of those guys get paid?”
“Well, now that you mention it. Some do and some don’t.”
“How does that work? Some coaches are pros and others do it for fun?” This he was struggling to comprehend.
“Eh that’s just the way it is.”
“How much do the coaches get?”
“Nobody knows for sure but it wouldn’t unknown for one at this level to be getting 30 to 50 grand a year.”
“And the players don’t mind that? They get nothing and the coach makes money off them.”
“They don’t usually complain.”
“Maybe he secretly shares some of the cash with them?”
“I’m not sure about that. I’ve never heard of that.”
More shaking of the head, more struggling to understand certain aspects of the fastest field game in the world. Fortunately, the increased tempo in the second half meant he was too preoccupied with the action to focus on the contradictions at the heart of the GAA. Most of his comments from that point on tended to be of the more easily answered “How did he do that?” variety. Needless to say, he was impressed by the dramatic denouement.
“This is an incredible game. It must be great to live in a country where everybody plays this.”
“Well that would be overstating it a bit.”
“I thought you told me it was one of your two national sports.”
“It’s just more popular in some places than in others.”
“After a game like this though, surely every kid in Ireland gets out those sticks and starts playing.”
“To tell you the truth, huge numbers of kids won’t even have known the match was on.”
“But you said it was the national sport.”
“Let’s just say it’s not as national as it should be.”
(first published in The Sunday Tribune, July, 2010)