Outside of the virtual certainty that the back door has made strong football and hurling counties even stronger and consolidated the likelihood as to who will win an All Ireland it has had marginal benefits for some counties, presenting for some the chance to mix it with the big boys. Fermanagh, Sligo and now Wexford are some of the counties who’ve progressed in football, while Galway and Offaly have gone backwards in hurling. I made these remarks to those who like myself shared the platform on Wexford Quays to receive the victorious Wexford Camoige team last year and hard luck to them today losing their title in the last minute. Fewer counties are winning and as a result that wonderful feeling of euphoria and the need to have our own hero’s and heroines becomes rarer and makes the Matty Fordes and Kate Kellys more valuable people in our county.As a result it is with some trepidation I await next Sunday’s Wexford-Tyrone match, not because I doubt in any way the dedication, commitment or skill of the Wexford players but because for Tyrone progress in football has become an expression of identity, something which it was in the past in nationalist 2oth century Ireland but something that we have evolved away from in the south.
In the north for most of the 20th century the GAA was the only expression for the nationalist catholic minority where progress was possible. In politics, elections were rigged, language and culture was sidelined and housing was in short supply. The catholic middle class was small and served the need of a considerably large catholic working class where in urban areas there was a strong chance you’d be unemployed or if you were rural had a small holding. As a consequence expectations were limited. Indeed, one GAA fan was shot in Aughnacloy at a security checkpoint about 20 years ago, going to a game.
Progress in politics changed that. What intrigues me is that when nationalists in the north perceive an advancement it is always mirrored by success in other areas such as sport, culture or business. When optimism in the 60’s seemed to indicate that discrimination could end, Down broke the mould, again in the early 90’s as the peace process started the Mourne men were back as indeed were Derry. Since the end of the troubles we’ve had Armagh and Tyrone. We’ve seen people like the Quinn Brothers achieve the type of success that previous generations could only dream about. There is an intense pride in northern nationalists when one of their own makes their mark. So on Sunday next it’s more than a game. Yes there will be support for Wexford from other counties but as Bill Shankley famously said “it’s not a matter of life or death, its more important than that.” Tyrone understand that.
Whoever wins, and I would love it to be Wexford, will do Gaelic football a service by dethroning Kerry as All Ireland Champions. Another 36th title for the kingdom will be meaningless however for ourselves, or Tyrone, it will inject a county confidence that will make a real difference.