Opinion: if we want to talk about sport's role in the cultivation of a community identity, we have to define what community actually means in the first place

Sport has frequently been celebrated in this country as a key resource in facilitating and affirming community. It’s a feature that is relevant to all sports in Ireland, though there are few more fervent and enthusiastic expressions of Irish communal identity than those associated with followers of the national soccer team (as we saw with last month’s victory over Wales).  

The lad who put the ball in the Welsh net

But what do we actually mean by sport’s role in the cultivation of a community identity? One should say initially that there is an implicit value judgement evident when you either talk about the importance of community or lament its breakdown. While the latter is not necessarily an entirely new phenomenon, the nostalgia for past communities may well be misplaced if such communities sustained intolerance to those that were considered different or did not fit neatly into narrowly defined interpretations of identity (as regrettably happened too often in Ireland in the past). 

Indeed, several international studies have raised questions around the effectiveness of programmes established to foster community in association with particular sports. One study of the UK government’s employment of sport to facilitate community building found "ill-defined interventions with hard to follow outcomes". Sociologist Sean F. Brown noted that where "sport has been used for community creation, it has been successful only selectively and in ways that replicate power differentials found throughout the larger society, namely race and gender." 

The growth of the GAA in Ireland owes much to the ability of the organisation to provide a focus for communal identification

The communities that sport may facilitate are not necessarily communities we would wish to encourage. Indeed, they can amplify already exclusionary processes within particular societies. Sport may often not provide the positive focus affirmations of "sport and community" may suggest. As evident in distinctive team strips, songs and defined geographical spaces, sport has inherent practices that are as much concerned with dividing groups as bringing people together. 

Part of the challenge here is how we define community in the first instance. There were already over 100 distinct and differing definitions available by 1955 within sociological literature alone. The expansion of the discipline and the arrival of the internet have added considerably to this list. 

The definitions that do exist broadly align with two positions: one views community relating to a particular territory (e.g. GAA attachment to one’s county of origin) and the other relates to individuals with common interests who may not share a common physical space (such as those living in Ireland who follow any English Premier League team). How we define community with regard to sport also depends on a huge range of further issues, not least the relationship of each individual with sport. How a player experiences community differs considerably from a supporter, spectator or volunteer.

The dream never dies

The importance of community building is often invoked by organisations as a key function of sport. The GAA, for instance, places "Community Identity" as the leading value in its Mission Statement contending that "community is at the heart of our Association. Everything we do helps to enrich the communities we serve". 

The growth of the GAA in Ireland owes much to the ability of the organisation to provide a focus for communal identification. The recognition and importance of county identification can be partly  attributed to the popularity of Gaelic games and the framing of the elite level of Gaelic sports along county lines. At an even more local level – the parish – GAA clubs are the key point of communal association in many instances, particularly with the decline of church attendances. 

When we have a sense of belonging to a particular sporting community, few other experiences provide the emotional intensity of witnessing our favourite team succeed

This extends well beyond the football or hurling games themselves. The local club can provide a crucial focus of support and recognition when members of the community die, particularly in tragic circumstances. GAA clubs are part of the mechanism through which a community gathers and grieves, whether with the guard of honour provided at the church or the events the club organises to remember the individual concerned. 

These practices within GAA clubs point towards the key attraction of sport: our need to belong. Most followers of sport will admit that the entertainment value found in individual games (and many Irish soccer fans will likely concur) can often be quite limited. However, as evident in the frequent use of "we" in association with one’s favourite Premier League club by individuals who may never have visited the stadium or city concerned, it is the sense of belonging to a group outside ourselves that contributes to the intensity of our own human experience. 

Liverpool fans at Dublin's Aviva Stadium during a friendly match against Shamrock Rovers in May 2014. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Archive/PA Images

When we have a sense of belonging to a particular sporting community, few other experiences can provide the emotional intensity of witnessing our favourite team succeed. This is particularly so when our team is not expected to do so, as is often the case in the Irish experience. 

Sport can provide the opportunity for many to meet and connect and share extraordinarily intense human experiences, as many of us did when James McClean played the ball superbly into the corner of the Welsh net. It is important, though, that we reflect critically on sport as an institution and its role in society. We should celebrate when it is used to positively support processes of integration, understanding and belonging – and we should be prepared to reject those who would employ sport to primarily celebrate difference.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ