Opinion: the growing market for GAA merchandise and various historical milestones has meant a rake of commemorative jerseys

GAA jerseys unite teams, clubs, counties, players and supporters on the field as well as off it. They serve as a performative mode of expressing collective identities and as a visual signifier of the GAA's importance. The growing market of GAA merchandise paired with various milestones in the history of Gaelic Games and the Decade of Centenaries has prompted a series of commemorative jerseys. Are these jerseys a useful canvas for commemoration or an opportunistic marketing ploy by manufacturers?

The growth in popularity of GAA jerseys has developed alongside the association itself as well as with changing fashion trends. Jerseys are constantly being redesigned, not only for aesthetic and commercial reasons but also modified to adapt to the advancement in designs and the skills of Gaelic games with the arrival of the player fit style. For supporters, the public performance of wearing a GAA jersey has a deep meaning: it connects the wearer with a particular team or place or even player.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Dave Fanning Show in 2014, interview with O'Neills' head of jersey design Alison Underwood about designing county jerseys

Commemorative jerseys have become a trend in recent GAA seasons and take various forms from simple changes to crests and written slogans to a complete overhaul of jersey design. Having previously launched jerseys to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising, Cork senior footballers and hurlers wore specially designed black jerseys during their league campaigns in 2020 bearing the images of Lord Mayors Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney.

Last November to mark the centenary of Bloody Sunday, the Tipperary footballers wore special commemorative jerseys in white and green, a replica of the jersey colours worn by the Tipperary team which played Dublin in Croke Park in 1920. In a poignant win on the centenary weekend, Tipperary ended an 85-year wait for Munster football glory by beating Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, safeguarding the commemorative jersey as iconic within the Tipperary football tradition.

Cork's commerative jerseys to honour Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney who both died while serving as Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Recently, O'Neills teased details of a commemoration jersey that 'pays tribute to an Irish revolutionary, soldier, and politician who was a leading figure in the early-20th-century struggle for Irish independence'. This new release includes the words 'The Big Fella’ across the back collar and presumably an image of Michael Collins featuring elsewhere.

This design comes after their range of 'GPO Commemoration' jerseys with images of rubble of the GPO across the front and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on the back launched in 2016 to coincide with the centenary of the Easter Rising. These designs present historically displaced images in an opportunistic deviation from team-based GAA jersey designs, which undermine the value of jerseys within the commemorative process.

Yours for €55 (plus delivery fee): O'Neills' 1916 GPO commemoration jersey

Once the commemorative status of a jersey emerges through the deliberate incorporation of a particular political figure within the design, it moves beyond sports into the realm of the political. Those purchasing such jerseys are aware that they are no longer buying a regular team jersey. The extent to which different consumers will identify with the politics of those depicted on the jerseys will vary, as will the importance they place upon the reaction of fellow supporters, who themselves may or may not be able to identify with the individual or event being commemorated.

Placing the image of a political figure on a jersey, whether to mark an anniversary in living memory or a centenary, risks alienating many supporters. Jerseys should be considered with deep meaning for the lives into which they are embedded. With this in mind, careful consideration of both the past and the present must take place in decision-making over individuals and events being commemorated on jerseys.

The recent rise in commemorative GAA jerseys casts inter-county players as mannequins for the Decade of Centenaries. Yet these jerseys have become products which are now marketed through a sometimes jarring combination of history and nostalgia. The nostalgia strategy is intertwined with a proclamation of the team’s distinct identity through its heritage and perhaps an attempt to satisfy an affinity with a more successful era in a team’s history.

The Wexford football centenary jersey from 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the county's four in a row. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Between 1915 and 1918, Wexford won four straight All-Ireland football titles, defeating Kerry, Mayo, Clare and Tipperary in the finals. In a nod to the historic first four-in-a-row All-Ireland titles in GAA history and in the hope of summoning the spirit of their all-conquering forefathers, the Wexford footballers wore special commemorative jerseys to mark the 100 year anniversary of an era when they were the undisputed kings of football. However, the one-off jersey design was the only commonality between the 1918 and 2018 teams with Wexford still chasing that fifth ever All-Ireland football title a century on.

Commemorative designs have an obvious imprint upon the appearance of jerseys but they should not obstruct the basic obligation of jerseys. In their 2021 league opener against Tipperary in the Gaelic Grounds, the Limerick hurlers wore a commemorative jersey, to mark the centenary of the county’s 1921 All-Ireland win, the first year that the MacCarthy Cup was presented to the winners. However the green and white striped jerseys posed a difficulty in reading the player numbers on the back. This was an issue not only for television viewers but for match commentators on whom spectators have come to rely on greatly to narrate the live action as matches continue to be played behind closed doors.

Limerick hurler Kyle Hayes shows off the county's commerative jersey. Photo: Limerick GAA

Discussing the meaning of commemorative GAA jerseys also requires consideration of the manufacturer, who is unlikely to be motivated to engage in commemoration for purely historical reasons. Rather, their aim is to provide a level of commemoration that will attract consumers. To many supporters, enormous personal value is held in their commitment to a team, and they view wearing the most recent jersey, including commemorative ones, as affirming that loyalty. To others, commemorative jerseys may be unnecessary or needlessly indicative of political attitudes.

The relationship between commemoration and GAA jerseys can have many positive effects in maintaining traditions, raising interest and awareness of the past and consolidation of local identity through these designs. Regardless of motivation for these commemorative gestures, GAA jerseys have gained new roles and are now being used as symbols and platforms for our relationship with the past to be performed.

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