Masters overcome obstacles to find their niche

An Cailín Rua

MASTERS OF THEIR DESTINY Pictured are the Mayo Masters team, who won the All-Ireland in 2017. The champions celebrated their success at a function in the Castlecourt Hotel. Captain Declan Sweeney, and special guest Billy Fitzpatrick, hold the cup in the middle of the front row.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

A friend of mine togged out for the Cork Masters last weekend, against Dublin. At the time of writing, the game hasn’t yet been played, but in very un-typical Cork fashion, he was less than optimistic about the result. You might think he’d caught the yerras from his next-door neighbours, but the Cork team in fact was making history, as the first Rebel side to compete in the Gaelic Masters Association All-Ireland Championship.
For those unfamiliar, the Gaelic Masters Association (GMA) promotes competitive inter-county Gaelic games for senior players – players aged over 40. The association is not affiliated with the GAA, who previously sanctioned and ran the competition, but disbanded it in 2009, with various reasons cited - insurance, indiscipline, elitism. Indeed, many in Mayo will be all-too familiar with the sagas of subsequent years, and the unsuccessful efforts spearheaded by Burrishoole man John Pat Sheridan in 2010 and 2011 to have the competition reinstated. The Masters decided to go it alone, setting up the GMA in 2012, and Sheridan is now chairman. He is not the only Mayo figurehead – the President of the Association is Dr Mickey Loftus. Mayo has a proud history in the competition, having won All-Irelands in 2006, 2009, 2016 and 2017 (and perhaps more – it’s hard to find records).
Going it alone was a gutsy move. The burden of running a Gaelic games competition, without the GAA officially facilitating training or matches on their grounds, was hardly insignificant, with the headaches of insurance, financing, logistics, preparation and even finding spaces in which to train and play to consider. But they persisted. In 2018, negotiations reopened between the GAA and the GMA, and agreement was reached to clear the way for the GMA to avail of the use of club and county grounds.
The objective of Masters football is straightforward. It is to help participants maintain health and fitness, while enjoying the social and competitive aspects of competition. Masters is open to anyone that wants to participate, and with running substitutions, everyone gets a chance to play. Given the value the GAA apparently places on inclusion and health, it seems remarkable that so many barriers have been placed in the way of those wishing to still compete at a more advanced age – if that’s what we call 40. It is even more remarkable when you consider the fact it is now becoming rare to see senior-intercounty players competing past their early 30s. The mental – and indeed, physical - challenges that confront many players as they adjust to life post-retirement have been well documented. Why is the opportunity to transition and remain involved, and the value they can bring to competitive sport disregarded? It perhaps reflects the unhealthy way in which we view ageing in general – with fear, casting aside the richness of experience older people offer society, blinded by the magnetism and shallow sheen of youth.
Johnny O’Connor, PRO and selector with the Cork Gaelic Masters, says it’s about participation, and the Masters team evolved from a Social GAA initiative they’d set up as an opportunity to give men an outlet playing non-competitive sport. The Masters also offers an enticing and highly attractive opportunity for players who might not have had the chance to shine at senior level a meaningful opportunity to wear their county colours, often alongside former greats, as we’ve seen in Mayo. Cork has players aged from 40 to 60 in their panel, and while Saturday’s game represented a milestone in simply getting the project off the ground, it’s easy to see the social and health benefits Masters football can offer.
Similarly, the LGFA’s Gaelic4Mothers-&Others initiative offers women the opportunity to participate in Gaelic football, but in a non-competitive, social environment. Women are not restricted by age, and it offers an opportunity to exercise and socialise.  It’s curious opportunities like these don’t form part of the GAA’s mainstream offering.
Those involved in the GMA have done an excellent job in paddling their own canoe, and perhaps they are happy there now, where you remain young as long as you’re playing. As anyone who has ever attended a Masters game will tell you, they make for fine entertainment. But it shouldn’t have to be this way.