Is GAA the new religion?

The Cast Stone

FOR THE LOVE OF SAM The Sam Maguire Cup, the object of much devotion.

The Cast Stone
Michael Gallagher

On January 6, 1839 a savage windstorm tore across Ireland and most of Europe. What became known as ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ began in early evening and growled through the night, tearing swathes through everything in front of it.
In Ballycroy, huge damage was inflicted on homes across the parish, and in the village of Gortbrack, the local catholic church was destroyed. In the days that followed, the locals shook themselves back into life, surveyed the damage and set about building a new, much-improved church, which stands proudly today.
That rebuild was achieved quickly during very trying times in our nation, with the Famine just around the corner. However, building a church was of paramount importance because it was central to people’s identity and pivotal to their existence.
At the same time in Ulster, my maternal ancestors were moving across the province from Armagh, through Monaghan, Fermanagh and eventually into Sligo, building churches everywhere they temporarily settled.
Churches were a huge symbol of heritage, culture and belonging. The institution gave people a foundation in life, no matter what other challenges they faced.
However, things are very different now. The importance of the Church in Irish society has dramatically diminished to a point where it’s irrelevant in many lives.
Admittedly, almost 80 percent of the population still identify as Catholic, and with about one in three Irish people saying they attend weekly church services, we nevertheless remain one of the most churchgoing nations in Europe.
Yet the residual influence of Catholicism in Irish life does not mask the collapse that has occurred and is likely to accelerate.
Church attendance has fallen dramatically in recent decades. Church congregations are larger in Ireland than elsewhere, but they are also greyer, and there is a more-pronounced generational divide.
Vocations to the priesthood plummeted decades ago and are not recovering. A sign of the problem can be seen in recent figures showing that four times more men were studying for the Catholic priesthood in England and Wales than in Ireland.
The real significance of this trend will be seen in the coming years, when huge numbers of Irish parishes will likely be without a parish priest.
In Ballycroy, we have Fr Chris Ginnelly minding the flock, but for the first time in history we share our weekend Mass times with Bangor. One week, we have Sunday Mass, and Bangor celebrates on Saturday evening, the following weekend it alternates.
Every second Sunday is now a dead-zone in Ballycroy. There’s no after-Mass gathering in the local shop or pub, there’s no banter, no chance to bump into friends and have the craic – unless the GAA boys have a match.
At a meeting in Castlebar last week a leading businessman was of the opinion that in many communities the GAA has taken over from the Catholic Church.
“It’s parish-based; it’s in every community on the island; it has huge membership and it’s attracting big numbers to matches at weekends and many weekdays,” he said.
“There was a time when the weekend revolved around religious services and we even went to the Nine-Fridays now and again, but there’s very little heed on that type of thing now. These days, the family is immersed in the GAA. It’s the new religion. If they’re not playing, coaching or training, they’re going to games as spectators,” he added.
It was an interesting opinion – a personal comment that was agreed with by many in the room. It will require much more learned men and women than I to understand the massive societal change we’ve lived through, but it’s intriguing.
The Catholic Church, which was central to community life in many parts of Ireland, has been relegated, and there are many reasons for that.
However, there are negatives to the relegation too. I recall great community men from my childhood – Fr Mark Diamond campaigned vigorously for all of Ballycroy to be connected to the ESB supply in the ’70s and a few years later Fr Patrick Tuffy was the driving force behind the building of a new community centre.
However, those days are long gone.
I sometimes wonder what the people who survived the Night of the Big Wind would think if they were dumped in 2022 for a while. Their identity was tied to their religion and everything else was secondary. That certainly isn’t the case for the majority of people today.