If ever one needed proof why Ireland’s top Gaelic footballers and hurlers could never be considered a pampered elite, then last weekend provided it.
Less than 24 hours after being feted at the inaugural Opel GAA GPA All-Stars awards in Dublin’s impressive new Convention Centre last Friday, most of the county players honoured were back in championship action with their clubs.
Many more of the remaining footballers whose club commitments had ended for the season hopped on a dawn flight out of Dublin heading for Australia where they will represent Ireland in the forthcoming International Rules Series.
Several of Dublin’s football nominees present at the ceremony were playing in the county quarter-finals on Saturday while Kilkenny’s All-Ireland hurling heroes lined up against each other the following day in apocalyptic weather conditions in Nowlan Park.
Bernard Brogan, whose brother Alan emulated Bernard’s 2010 achievement by being named the 2011 footballer of the year, helped steer his club, St Oliver Plunkett’s, into the Dublin senior football semi-finals.
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Despite a long season of total commitment to his county’s cause Henry Shefflin, who picked up a record 10th All-Star on Friday, rescued his club Ballyhale Shamrocks with pointed free four minutes into injury time in a dramatic Kilkenny hurling final.
Almost single-handedly, in driving wind and rain, Shefflin battled to keep his club’s hopes alive while his county team-mate Eoin Larkin was doing likewise for their opponents James Stephens.
This gripping Kilkenny decider summed up the dual role played by county players whose loyalty to the local cause is undiminished by county glory.
Shefflin might have been centre stage at the GAA GPA All-Stars banquet but the bright lights were a million miles away on Sunday when he fearlessly battled to the line in Nowlan Park earning Shamrocks a deserved replay. On a shocking day, Shefflin was unflinching.
And this sums up what Gaelic games means even for the elite player because unlike most other professional sports, the amateur GAA star is still grounded by place.
This contribution to local community is one of the extraordinary aspects of Gaelic games and one that has for many years now has underpinned the rationale for the Government Funding Scheme to assist county GAA players with their commitment to the games.
Introduced in 2008 after years of intensive lobbying by the Gaelic Players Association, this funding is similar in principle to that provided to elite Irish amateur athletes in other codes. It is hugely important for GAA players to be recognised by the State in this way as it affords them parity of esteem with other sports.
However, the funding, originally worth just under $5 million to the playing body of over 2,200 players was slashed to $1.4 million after only one year due to Ireland’s economic crash.
When distributed among the players it is a small token of support for the hurlers and footballers who, as evidenced by their actions last weekend, make such an enriching contribution to Irish society.
And with Ireland’s economic difficulties showing little signs of improvement in the short term, this reduced funding is now under further threat.
The GPA continues to argue strenuously for its retention, both on the grounds stated above but also because of the economic argument.
In an economic impact study carried out by international consultants Indecon for the GPA in 2010, conservative estimates show that inter-county hurling and football are worth over $270 million to the Irish economy annually.
Watching Shefflin and Brogan in action for their clubs last weekend following epic seasons for their counties, there should be no need for the economic argument.
Yet when taken together, the GPA believes the case for retaining Government Funding to assist players with their extraordinary commitment to Gaelic games is watertight.
And it is a case that has been supported for many years by both Fine Gael and the Labour Party when in opposition.
With the books being forensically examined in advance of another swingeing Irish budget, let’s hope that support is as unflinching as the bravery shown by the All-Stars who put their bodies on the line for their clubs last weekend.
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