Opinion: listening to Gaelic games on the radio is a way for many of the Irish diaspora to maintain their sense of Irishness

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By Daithí McMahon, University of Derby

Emigration has long been a feature of Irish heritage with the Irish diaspora ever-present in traditional locations such as the UK, US and Australia, and more recently in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. In short, the Irish are everywhere, and a common theme amongst this geographically-dispersed group is the preservation of connections with home to keep up with political, economic and cultural developments in Ireland.

Of these, sport plays a valuable role in Irish culture. Significant sporting events, notably GAA championship matches, offer those abroad a chance to celebrate their Irishness and cultural heritage, and connect with family and friends back home.

Listening to radio from abroad, whether community, commercial or public service, lets the audience feel part of a live occasion that instils an immense sense of pride that reaffirms their identity as Irish people with a shared culture, history and ancestry. This is especially true when one's home county is competing. Identity becomes very parochial, engrained in their county and local community.

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From RTÉ Archives, Michael O'Hehir talks to RTÉ News reporter Mícheál Ó Briain in June 1984 about some of his favourite GAA moments

Until recently, expats living beyond Britain only had TV to turn to for GAA coverage and even then, finding a hostelry showing the match at unholy hours of the morning or night was an unwanted inconvenience for many. But since the arrival of the internet, radio has had the capacity to reach audiences anywhere in the world via streaming. Listeners can live-stream their local radio station's coverage of intercounty matches in the comfort of their homes, cars or on the go on their smartphones.

With radio, the appeal is the live and visceral experience of listening to some of our most celebrated and talented sport broadcasters – Michael O'Hehir, Weeshie Fogarty and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh to name a few – provided such engaging commentary and visual cues that listeners often felt as if they were actually sat in the stadium. Even domestically, it is not uncommon for audiences to watch the action on television with the volume down while tuned into the commentary on the radio.

There is also something unique about our sense of hearing and how it is connected to our emotions and everyday lived experiences. Our national broadcaster is advertising coverage of the GAA championships this summer with the line 'Nothing Sounds Quite Like It’, highlighting the importance of our aural sense to the enjoyment of the sporting occasion.

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The aural experience consists of two main elements. There are the matchday sounds, which include the roars and reactions of the crowd, the band performing the national anthem and the famous clash of the ash. Secondly, the match commentary with detailed visual descriptions of play, on and off the ball, communicating the ebb and flow of the game, with insightful and entertaining background information and analysis.

These elements combined offer the fan a different experience to television viewing as they must form their own unique visual representation of the match in their mind. Listening to the game is often an emotional and memorable experience that is repeated each championship season and retained for future nostalgic recitation.

Living abroad for an extended period can contribute to distant feelings, regardless of the actual geographic distance. Over time, one’s sense of national or ethnic identity can become strained or eroded as one assimilates to their adopted country, often embracing some cultural traditions at the expense of Irish ones. This makes regular engagement with Irish cultural events via Irish media so important. Exposure to the voices, accents and wit of their native people offers something deeply emotional with affective attachments for the listener.

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From RTÉ Radio 1, Micheal O'Muircheartaigh looks back on some of the favourite moments from the RTE radio archives

Through his case studies in South East Asia and elsewhere, the Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson discovered the press had the capacity to help build national identity by creating what he called 'imagined communities’ of individuals who, despite not knowing one another shared a sense of collective identity. Similarly, radio has the potential to draw together and coalesce listeners of similar identity and strengthen their bonds. Listening to one’s local radio station can have that powerful effect of drawing together cultural communities and tapping into a tribal mentality with deep-rooted pride.

With the prevalence of social media today, traditional media is competing for audience time and attention. But radio is arguably the most social medium. Whether gathering around the wireless, as people did in the old days, or listening on their own, as is usually the case today, audiences know they are not alone as they listen and are in fact sharing a unique ephemeral experience with thousands of others, some of whom they know. This can help individuals maintain relationships with people back home, and supports local identity through connection with one’s native community. Being able to unpick and debate the key moments post-match with those in your social network can be a valuable bonding experience also.

Listening to Gaelic games is a ritualistic experience for the Irish diaspora that holds important value in the construction or negotiation of identity – their sense of ‘Irishness’. However, radio is often overlooked and unappreciated from the viewpoint of new media, and is currently under serious threat from digital media. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Irish audiences the world over will continue to rely on this old medium for their live sporting fix for the advantages it holds in terms of reach, atmosphere, quality of commentary and lived experience.

Dr Daithí McMahon is a Senior Lecturer in Media at the University of Derby.

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