Engaged and thoroughly engaging about Irish sports on film

Dilwyn Porter
International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University

Seán Crosson
Gaelic Games on Film: From silent films to Hollywood hurling, horror and the emergence of Irish cinema
232 pages, hardcover, ill.
Togher, Cork: Cork University Press 2019
ISBN 978-1-78205-247-0

Gaelic sport, especially Gaelic football and hurling, has long been an important signifier of Irish national identity. Its governing body, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), founded in 1884, helped to define the Irish cultural revival and has often been assigned a heroic role in the story of the nation’s struggle to liberate itself from British rule. Croke Park, its Dublin headquarters, is both stadium and shrine on account of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre of 21 November 1920 when police auxiliaries opened fire at a Dublin-Tipperary football match, murdering fourteen people, an event represented in Neil Jordan’s biopic Michael Collins (1996). Though the massacre was real enough, we learn here that Jordan’s depiction of British armoured cars invading quintessentially Irish sporting space is historically inaccurate, an example of a director’s preference for ‘spectacle over substance’ (p. 161). This typifies Seán Crosson’s approach through this excellent book – cool, informative and scrupulously argued.

The focus is on Gaelic sport as featured on film from the era of silent cinema through to 2016 when Croke Park hosted Loughra, a multi-media spectacle staged to celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising. Moving pictures of Gaelic sport were enthusiastically received by Irish audiences from around 1900. The most significant Irish film of this early period is Knocknagow (1918), set in a fictional village during the Famine years of the mid-nineteenth century. It resonated with growing nationalist sentiment in the aftermath of Easter 1916, not least because it depicted both hurling and hammer-throwing, another Gaelic speciality. For sports historians, the period detail is instructive, notably the equipment used and the style of play in the hurling match. The film’s popularity, however, probably owed more to its hero, an Irish farm labourer, who triumphs in a hammer-throwing contest over a symbolic representative of the British ruling class. ‘I must win’, he explains before throwing, ‘for the credit of the little village’ (p. 38).

It proved difficult to build on this cinematic victory, mainly because the Irish Free State was slow to develop an indigenous film industry. For many years screen representations of Irishness were manufactured mainly in London and Hollywood. Close scrutiny of newsreels featuring Gaelic football and hurling supplies limited evidence of evolving tactics and styles of play. Crosson suggests tentatively that Gaelic footballers of the 1930s were less likely to use their feet than they had been a decade earlier. When sound commentary was added, usually delivered in the upper-class English accent favoured by British newsreel producers, it underlined a condescending attitude to the Irish and their sports. ‘It’s not quite soccer; it’s not quite rugger; it’s not quite netball; it’s a fight’, was how Gaumont British prefaced its coverage of a Gaelic football match in 1938 (p. 61). Such representations were resented and help to explain the GAA’s negative view of the cinema. This lingered until the advent of the National Film Institute of Ireland (NFI) in 1945 and the decision of Gael Linn, an organisation dedicated to promoting the Irish language, to make films for cinema distribution in 1956.

A few years later, Ford’s The Rising of the Moon (1957) famously depicted hurlers returning from a match against local rivals as if from a battlefield, prompting an outraged GAA to complain that ‘the national game’ had been traduced.

Hollywood movies could be equally problematic in that they rested on simplistic stereotypes of Ireland and its people. It was often represented as a rustic backwater with excitable inhabitants inclined to violence. The American audiences these films primarily addressed found comfort in distancing themselves from its strange and savage ways. Hurling supplied a particularly useful motif in this respect. In John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), merely talking about hurling, which is not actually portrayed, leads quickly to an argument and (almost) a fight. A few years later, Ford’s The Rising of the Moon (1957) famously depicted hurlers returning from a match against local rivals as if from a battlefield, prompting an outraged GAA to complain that ‘the national game’ had been traduced (p. 84). Ford’s intention, Crosson suggests, was rather different, but possibly the director simply got it wrong on this occasion. Of the British film Rooney (1958), which features an unlikely sporting sub-plot and ten minutes of unconvincing hurling action, the least said the better, though it does validate the argument that Gaelic games supplied a convenient cinematic shorthand for ‘familiar and problematic representations of Irishness’ (p. 99).

From 1948 the GAA entrusted the filming of its annual showpiece events, the All-Ireland football and hurling finals, to the NFI, an arrangement that continued until live television coverage facilitated wider and easier access in the 1960s. Crosson identifies these films as ‘an important part of an emerging and distinctive film culture in the country in the post-war period’ (p. 121). They were, for a time, popular with cinema audiences and were also widely used by GAA clubs for coaching purposes. Crosson highlights the influence of NFI cameraman George Fleischmann, who had previously worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Olympia (1938), finding some parallels in cinematic technique and, most significantly, in the depiction of sporting events in ways that celebrated the nation and underpinned the legitimacy of the state and, in Ireland’s case, the Roman Catholic church. This effect, he argues, was substantially reinforced by Gail Linn’s widely-viewed coaching films, such as Christy Ring (1964), which featured not only the consummate skills of a great hurler, but also supplied a positive affirmation of Irish identity at a critical juncture in the nation’s cultural history.

Television is now the principal medium through which audiences are exposed to Gaelic games. Pat Comer’s documentary A Year ‘Til Sunday (1998), which follows the Galway team to the All-Ireland football final – ‘one of the most important depictions of Gaelic games to be made over the past twenty years’ (p.157) – demonstrates the creative benefits of cross-fertilisation between television and cinema. Meanwhile, indigenous sports continue to be used in the cinema as signifiers of identity, though increasingly in ways that subvert unrealistic, tourist-friendly screen representations of Irishness while simultaneously facilitating critiques of contemporary Irish society. Crosson’s reading of Conor McMahon’s Dead Meat (2004), for example, suggests that hurling was effectively weaponised for these purposes in this distinctively Irish horror movie. ‘The hurley’, it seems, ‘is the new chainsaw’ (p. 169). The problematic link with violence – always a sensitive issue – thus resurfaces in a new form.

Engaged and thoroughly engaging, Seán Crosson’s book opens a window on Gaelic games and the cultural history of modern Ireland more generally.

Copyright © Dilwyn Porter 2021

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