Opinion: the GAA's nationwide appeal means it can play a major role in the search for a more meaningful existence in people's lives

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded in 1884 at a time when many factions of Irish society were actively resistant to British rule. The foundation of the GAA was part of a wider "nationwide campaign to resurrect the physical stature of the manhood of Ireland, which was deemed debilitated because of the combined effects of British rule and the Great Famine". 

Built upon the pillars of politics and religion, the GAA served to build up both the physical and mental stature of young men throughout the country. It quickly succeeded to integrate small parishes in rural and urban locations, inducing "tribal loyalty" in its members. Irish historian Diarmuid Ferriter believes this passionate commitment to parish identity to be the GAA’s greatest success.

Well over a century later, the GAA remains a pivotal focal point for parishes and counties throughout Ireland. UCD professor of sociology Tom Inglis has noted how the GAA had contributed to the way in which sport had become the "language of the community". It used to be that to be a good member of your community you had to be a good member of a church but, says Inglis, "you have honour, dignity and respect" now by being a good member of the GAA. The relevance of the organisation is further emphasised by reports showing Gaelic games is now the most popular sport in Ireland, according to the Teneo Sport and Sponsorship Index for 2018

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, Hugh Cahill and Alan Cawley look at the Teneo Sport & Sponsorship Index for 2018 with Kelli O'Keefe

Given the geographical dispersion of the GAA throughout the minor villages and major towns of Ireland, combined with its continued relevance and popularity, could it be time to step up once again and "save" the young men of Ireland?

This past week saw World Suicide Prevention Day raise awareness of suicide prevention around the globe and you may have shared a green heart on social media in solidarity with the cause. Stark statistics reveal that a person dies every 40 seconds by suicide. Statistically, most of us have been, or will be affected by suicide in our lifetime. In Ireland, men account for 80% of all suicides, with young men between 20 and 24 years of age being particularly vulnerable

The GAA already do significant work within their communities to support men’s health issues. This includes partnerships with the National Office for Suicide Prevention, Movember and the Men’s Health Forum in Ireland.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Elaine Keogh reports on how Co Cavan club Kingscourt Stars has become the first club in the country to draw up a mental health policy

While it can be difficult to determine why some are more vulnerable to suicide over others, a number of contributing factors have been identified. Among these are social isolation and hazardous lifestyles, including excessive alcohol or drug use. In my own research with GAA players, the issue of teammates dropping off from minor squads is highlighted. Pubs, discos and alcohol are some of the distractions discussed.

It was found that players with a deeper entrenchment with their club and to the sport exercised more self-discipline for the greater good of the team. This included forfeiting the self-indulgences of Saturday night to instead dutifully represent their club the next morning. Those less embedded members defected more easily and eventually dropped off completely.

French philosopher Michel Foucault's work on power and society is useful when considering the relationship between self and sport. In the context of GAA players, those that identify as integral members of the team have a code of conduct upon which they can critically reflect upon and then decipher how best to conduct themselves in response to this code. Moral compasses and ethical codes of conduct are few and far between these days, yet sports clubs are one of the few organisations that can still provide positive structure and discipline for vulnerable young men.

From RTÉ Radio One's Countrywide, a report on Meath GAA's health and well-being programme

In keeping with their community-led ethos, the beauty of the GAA is the effort to include players of all sporting capabilities. The concept of lifelong participation is what makes this community unique. There is value to be placed on each member regardless of their stage in life. This creates an opportunity for all young men to forge an identity and build meaningful relationships within this inclusive environment.

Of course, we must remain mindful that sporting clubs are by no means a utopian space and have been accused of tolerating toxic behaviour in young men. The GAA is no exception. Former hurling player Timmy Creed bravely tackles such issues in his one-man play Spliced which challenges masculine stereotypes traditionally caught up in sport culture. Creed courageously questions the lack of language around men’s emotions and feelings within the organisation.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Timmy Creed talks about Spliced, his play staged in a handball alley which aims to shine a light on identity and mental health in the GAA

The cultural revival during the late 19th century, from which the GAA emerged, was deemed necessary to provide the Irish with a distinct Gaelic identity separate from all things British, and to create "a new Irish man". Such identities were quite purposefully designed and communicated throughout Irish society.

Perhaps the 21st century necessitates a new cultural revival for our country? After a century shedding ourselves from oppressive political and religious shackles, and consuming our way to "liberty", we need to regroup and think about who are we now. As we start to articulate what this entails, community-led sports organisations like the GAA can play a pivotal role in this search for a more meaningful existence in Irish people’s lives. 

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