Last week, the GAA amended its rules on requiring players to respect the Irish flag and national anthem, making them stricter than was previously the case. According to the Irish Examiner, the rule has been reworded so that “teams shall stand to attention respectfully facing the flag for the full duration of the anthem.”
This measure was passed in response to a growing trend in recent years among players at club and inter-county level leaving their standing position before the anthem’s conclusion to reach their starting position before the match commenced, which the GAA considered a problem. In addition to the requirement to stand to attention for the full duration of Amhrán na bhFiann, the GAA will also provide players 30 seconds following the anthem’s conclusion to reach their starting positions before game begins. Finally, hurlers are “expected to take off their helmets for the duration of the anthem.” Failure to comply with these rules leave violators subject to a maximum fine of €700.
While this latest move to ensure “greater respect” for the national anthem has gone very much under the radar in media circles and national debate, one can’t help but notice parallels with controversies involving sports stars, flags and the national anthem in the United States. The American traditions of showing dramatic renditions of the Star Spangled Banner, tributes to members of the armed forces as well as the occasional flyby courtesy of the US Air Force, often elicit negative reactions by Irish viewers, from a simple eyeroll to more vocal complaints of American exceptionalism and nationalism.
However, it is important to remember that, from its founding in 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association has been an overtly political movement aimed at preserving Gaelic sporting culture and sparing it from the fate met by its linguistic counterpart in meeting near-extinction. Seeking to foster a greater sense of Irishness (with the eventual aim of seeing Ireland become independent from Great Britain), the GAA was actively involved in instilling patriotism and nationalism in its early days, some aspects of which continue to this day. One key holdover has been for the GAA to play Amhrán na bhFiann before most league and championship matches at inter-county level.
From the point of view of the players, it is plain to see that the majority of them place greater importance on the task before them, which is to compete in and hopefully win the match in which they are about to play. Many players do not show great interest in listening to an old CD recording of the anthem which is often subject to skipping and interruption before playing a league match (which itself is widely considered to be of secondary importance to the Championship).
The All-Ireland Championship may be a slightly different story. With over 82,000 spectators in Croke Park on a (usually) warm and sunny September day, the Artane Band’s rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann in Croke Park elicits passionate singing from fans of both teams and the anthem finishes off with a roar from the stands and the clashing colours of county flags, banners and jerseys. While it is arguably unnecessary to play substandard pre-recordings of the anthem on a cold winter’s night, surely the Artane Band’s rousing rendition deserves to continue delighting fans of Gaelic games watching both in Croke Park and from their TVs at home.
Perhaps a compromise solution is possible. Instead of making top-down rules mandating greater respect for Amhrán na bhFiann and the Irish flag, the GAA should consider limiting the playing of the anthem to select occasions. At the inter-county level, these would include league finals as well as provincial championship finals and the all-Ireland final. Fans would thus be treated to higher quality renditions of the national anthem and the atmosphere would suit the occasion given the higher stakes when compared to standard league matches and the earlier stages of the Championship.