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Why are so many GAA players becoming teachers? An Irish solution to an Irish problem

Teacher-ification is helping the GAA to maintain its cloak of amateurism, writes Tommy Martin in this week’s column.

Derek McGrath, left: Waterford boss says it's impossible to combine teaching with inter-county management.
Derek McGrath, left: Waterford boss says it's impossible to combine teaching with inter-county management.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE GAA IS is often accused of having a reluctance to borrow things from other sports.

For example, instead of introducing rugby’s ‘sin bin’, Gaelic football is currently torturing itself with the black card. And the area around each goal is curiously referred to as a ‘large parallelogram’ – the only time the term is used outside Junior Cert geometry class – rather than the more sensible ‘penalty box’.

One idea that the GAA has adopted is the mid-season break, normally the preserve of the major European soccer leagues (though not England’s, where players are driven cruelly through the winter like mangy huskies).

But unlike Barcelona and Bayern Munich, who get a mere fortnight to sun themselves in Dubai, the GAA’s enthusiasm for this exotic notion sees teams enjoy a mid-season siesta of over two months in some cases.

And with Allianz League action ending this weekend for many counties, the hibernation period is about to begin.

If they fail to make next week’s Division 1 football final, Donegal or Mayo, for example, would have a turnaround of seven weeks before their Championship openers. But they are the lucky ones. Many other counties are looking at nine- or 10-week gaps before their next matches, with poor old Roscommon kicking their heels for 11 weeks before blowing off the cobwebs for a Connacht semi-final on 18 June. The same gap awaits the Waterford hurlers if they lose Sunday’s league quarter-final to Galway.

The GAA’s unofficial inter-county hiatus has been widely criticised by fans, players and media alike. It is argued that it benefits clubs, but apart from the odd lonely round of club championship rattling around the cavernous spring gap, this is rarely the case.

No, the real winners with the GAA’s mid-term break, fittingly, are teachers and students, who can often be distracted by pesky exams at this time of year and who, it is becomingly increasingly clear, are the dominant demographic in inter-county playing panels.

Clearing the decks for the season of cramming and correcting fits nicely with the GAA’s teacher takeover, which was documented in fascinating detail by Philip Lanigan in the Irish Daily Mail earlier this week.

Despite Waterford boss Derek McGrath’s recent admission that balancing life as bainisteoir and múinteoir was becoming unfeasible, the motto for players remains Education, Education, Education. Lanigan points out that of Kilkenny’s 2016 All-Ireland final team, nine were either teachers or students, while McGrath’s Waterford panel has no fewer than 14 teachers, qualified or training, in its midst.

The piece also illustrates the change from teams of yore. Tipperary’s current squad boasts lots of teachers and students, but not a single tradesman; the current soft-handed bunch in marked contrast to the county’s 2001 All-Ireland winning team which included plumbers, electricians and builders aplenty.

The accusation is that the rush of players into teaching is not due to any vocational calling or passion for the Socratic method; rather that with inter-county GAA demanding ever more time and energy, a career that takes up comparatively little of both increasingly fits the bill. When it comes to inter-county GAA, those that can, teach.

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So while the GAA trumpets lucrative sponsorship deals with major brands, it’s clear who the biggest backer of the inter-county game is becoming: the All-Ireland Championships, brought to you by the Department of Education.

Brian Cody looks on Kilkenny: nine teachers on Cody's panel in 2016. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Is it right that a young person chooses a profession for the amount of time he can spend not actually doing the job in question? The cynical would argue that’s the reason many teachers choose the career anyway – they just spend their holidays backpacking rather than freetaking; catching the sun rather than the sliotar.

The Teacher-ification of GAA squads is a classic Irish solution to an Irish problem, in this case an increasingly elite sport that wants to maintain the cloak of amateurism. For many of the best players, lining out for their county was what they were put on this earth for, creating a dilemma once carefree student days are over. In their approach to their supposed pastime, top GAA players are almost professional, leaving little room for most actual professions.

But is teaching such a bad career choice for a young GAA player? It is secure and often rewarding; it places them among the young and impressionable as role models for self-discipline and fitness. They usually end up coaching the school teams, imparting their knowledge and growing the games at the same time. And it often means they can live and work in their own communities, where other professions might see them exiled to the big cities.

Sure, some may reach the conclusion that their true vocation lies elsewhere, but then mid-life changes in career direction are a common feature of modern working lives.

And anyway, there is another upside to having a large proportion of teachers within the GAA. Who better to explain what a ‘large parallelogram’ is?

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Tommy Martin

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