Analysis: Gaelic games arguably keep alive the last remnants of a British sporting tradition, namely amateurism, while also being open to innovation

It is fair to say that Donal Óg Cusack's defence of what he perceives as "innovation" in hurling tactics on The Sunday Game last weekend caused quite a stir. His contention, that the tail-end of a "British culture" was underpinning the resistance to change within Gaelic games, has divided opinion.

For many, this was an unnecessary distraction from the analysis of a superb game between Tipperary and Wexford. Others objected to what they saw as an "uneducated rehearsed agenda completely off topic". Was he justified in reaching so far when making his case that "innovation is the lifeblood of any game"?

In his defence, Cusack’s follow-up contention that British sports (soccer and rugby) "struggled to accept and adopt to the wider influences in their games" has some historical foundation. The dispersion of British sports to Ireland in the mid to late 19th century was, to some extent, aided by the progression of boys educated at elite English public school to Trinity College Dublin.

A Victorian ethos of the gentleman amateur was at the core of soccer and rugby in their early decades of codified existence, and the public schools were the nurseries of this tradition. Notably, when analysing the roots of soccer and rugby in popular tradition, British sport historian Richard Holt claims that "they were innovations rather than inventions". For sport in modern Ireland, the continued amateur ethos of the GAA is one of the clearest examples of continuity with the British sporting culture of the 19th century.

However, any conflation of modern sport with its traditional Victorian ethos is not so easy to disentangle. Originating in elite public schools, rugby in particular was arguably never intended for vast consumption or participation. The moral desirability of a purely amateur ethos was in practice a means of class exclusivity. Indeed, as early as 1894, a split between the Rugby Football Union and the Northern Union led to the formation of Rugby League. Rugby Union’s public school base could not countenance "broken time" payments for manual workers in the north of England (a compensation for loss of wages incurred by the time off from work needed to train and play matches).

Rugby League vs Union - The Game That Got Away, Roger Mills' 1969 documentary about rugby league in the north of England

In the Irish context, soccer and rugby's most notable struggles with a strict Victorian amateur ethos would occur in the 20th century. The football associations of the United Kingdom (including the Irish Football Association) quit FIFA in 1924 over that same issue of "broken time" payments at the 1924 Paris Olympics. The Football Association of the Irish Free State, at this time in dispute with the UK's Football Association, saw this as an opportunity for a first taste of international competition in what was a clear break from the prevailing British sporting culture. The Irish Rugby Football Union was still resistant however, and turned down an invitation to compete in Paris, which followed the example set by the Rugby Football Union in London.

The co-operation between Irish governing bodies of sport with their British counterparts (the "home nations") can be discounted from this analysis. With soccer and later rugby becoming truly global sports in the 20th century, such co-operation and integration was essential, both in terms of prestige and in the revenue generated from international fixtures.

Indigenous to Ireland, Gaelic games differs from the British sporting culture in that consideration. The "spirit of the game" is evidently at the heart of the debate regarding innovation in Gaelic games. This has historically been at the core of the British sporting tradition. In cricket, for example, distinctions between "amateurs" and "professionals", or "gentlemen" and "players", was based upon social position rather than the morality of making money from playing the game.

In retaining its amateur status, it is difficult to compare Gaelic games with those of British origin when it comes to "the spirit of the game". For codified sports with an official rulebook, the definition of "the spirit of the game", and resistance to or criticisms of innovation, will continue to be revised in line with the "wider influences" of that time.

In the case of the GAA, it is perhaps fairer to compare its development with international sporting developments of recent decades. With there being no grounds for comparison on the issue of professionalism with other games, the advent of live television coverage and the acceptance of sponsorship see the clearest alignment between Gaelic games and those of British origin.

Given that Victorian ethos resistant to change, the Rugby Football Union unsurprisingly banned the televising of international matches on Saturdays in 1953, believing it would kill their club game. By the 1990s, however, soccer’s link with Sky TV to finance the English Premier League’s meteoric rise had arguably eroded the last strand of the Victorian sporting culture that had defined British games since the 19th century.

READ: The roots of hurling, the greatest game on earth

Arguably, it is Gaelic games that keeps alive the last remnants of a British sporting tradition and culture (amateurism) whilst simultaneously accepting two of the key components of the modern sporting revolution of recent decades (television and sponsorship). With a foot in both camps, it is clear that local or national controversies regarding the "spirit of the game" have been, and will continue to be, subject to how they accept or adopt to wider influences.


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