The GAA on film
By Cian O’Connell
Throughout the decades the technological landscape has altered dramatically, but the GAA has been a constant source on film.
It is an area that Dr Seán Crosson, who works in the Huston School of Film and Digital Media in NUIG, has explored in significant detail.
Interesting documentaries on teams and individuals are now readily available, but Crosson decided to stitch a piece of work together ‘Gaelic Games on Film’ highlighting what has taken place.
That it married his interest in GAA and Irish studies ensured it was a richly rewarding process for the Cavan native.
“I grew up in a family that was very much immersed in Gaelic Games playing with the local club,” Crosson says. “That was my initial interest, my local club is Drumgoon, the club of Aogan O Fearghaíl, the former President.
“Aogan was also our head schoolteacher when I was in primary school, he was my first coach I suppose for all of us in that class and school.
“He brought through the underage and started the underage in the club. In rural Ireland Gaelic Games is the only real outlet in terms of team sports and it is a hugely crucial part of the community. If anything that has increased since I was growing up in the 1970s. That was my initial interest.”
Recently, though, Crosson found a way to investigate sport in a manner that brought interesting results and findings.
“Professionally I've had an interest in Irish studies,” Crosson states. “That was my training, Irish history, literature and film. I did a PhD in the Centre for Irish Studies, now I'm based in the Huston School of Film and Digital Media. I specialised in Film Studies and Irish Cinema and World Cinema.
“About 13 years ago a colleague of mine in NUI Galway at that time was hosting a Conference for Sports History Ireland, a wonderful annual event which brings together historians of sport in Ireland. He asked me at the time whether there were any films or fiction films about Gaelic Games?
“I didn't have huge optimism in terms of finding stuff, but when I started to explore the topic I found there was a lot more there and a lot more to it than I ever expected.
“It began as a keynote of that Conference in 2007, but it began a journey of exploration over the following 12 or 13 years that led to the publication of the monograph last year: Gaelic Games on Film.
“That is how I got to the topic. It was an opportunity to bring my professional training in my livelihood with a huge personal interest that I have in sport, particularly Gaelic Games.”
Clash of the Ash, made in 1987, is amongst the most celebrated films on the subject matter according to Crosson.
“Absolutely and that is one of the finest examples in terms of fiction films on Gaelic Games being depicted on film, Fergus Tighe's work,” Crosson replies.
“I talk about that in length in the book. There is a backstory that covers a variety of different forms going right back. The fascinating thing for me was that there is as much of it as there is going right back to the 1910s. We have surviving footage going back to 1914 of the All Ireland replay that year between Wexford and Kerry.
“You have footage of early attempts to capture hurling in the 1910s. One of the first feature length fiction films made in Ireland was Knocknagow in 1918 where they attempt to capture hurling as it would have been played in the mid 19th century.”
Crosson was struck by the outside interest from crews from other countries who came to monitor Gaelic Games activities, especially hurling.
“From 1920 onwards you have these fascinating depictions mostly coming from British newsreel companies, who were capturing All Ireland finals in both hurling and football really from 1920 onwards,” he adds.
“Laterally you find in the Irish context from the mid 1940s through the National Film Institute which is now the Irish Film Institute, the attempts to capture the All Irelands in longer packages that were produced from that period of time.
“There is also another story happening in the United States that I talk about in the book. Understandably given the huge Irish American audience in America and the interest in Irish themes and subject matter which is evident more broadly in American cinema from the 1920s through to the 1930s, Gaelic Games featured as well as part of that engagement with Irish culture.
“So you had short films from the 1930s right up to the 1950s from Warner Bros, MGM, one from Paramount called Three Kisses was Oscar nominated as the best short in 1955. They provide these really extraordinary examples of attempts to capture and communicate and understand Gaelic Games, particularly hurling.
“That is one of the recurring things that is very evident, hurling is by far the most depicted sport in international films that touch upon Gaelic Games. Perhaps because it is such a distinctive sport, but also because there was a perception, rightly or wrongly, wrongly largely, that hurling seemed to be shorthand for established stereotypes about Irish people.
“The association with rural Ireland and the association with violence, that cliche of the fighting Irish. When you find it, particularly in those short films made by MGM and others, it is the violent potential of hurling above all that is emphasised within it.”
Crosson assisted in the making of the splendid The Game hurling documentary. Old and new footage, passionate interviews were all part of the widely regarded show.
“I had a small involvement, I was helping them out in terms of the archive, identifying and sourcing the archive footage,” Crosson comments. “A lot of that is made up of archival footage of previous games. So there was a little bit of work involved.
“I think that is a wonderful documentary and series, it really captures it with great contributors. It was the aesthetic he brought to it in terms of capturing the sport itself, the intensity and dynamism within the various skills involved in hurling.”
When assesing the GAA’s activities on film Crosson believes that much changed in 1998. Pat Comer and David Power’s A Year Til Sunday illustrated the potential about what could be achieved in a GAA documentary.
Galway’s All Ireland dream was captured beautifully. That Comer, the substitute goalkeeper, had such access aided the approach significantly.
“Absolutely, there has been a huge growth,” Crosson responds about the GAA documntary form. “Pat Comer's A Year Til Sunday was perhaps a key moment. Documentaries had been developing as a form in terms of the engagement of film.
“You can look at those short films made by the National Film Institute from the 1940s on as being documentaries in some respects. From the arrival of RTE in 1960, you found increasingly, Louis Marcus for example the work he did. Whether it was Peil or Christy Ring or latterly films like the centenary documentary on Gaelic Games in 1984.
“There was a whole range of work and even his commemorative work in 1966 has a section on Gaelic Games. From the arrival of RTE and the work of Gael Linn there was an increasing use of documentaries as a mode to explore, examine, communicate, and promote Gaelic Games.
“That process was added to and the distinctive element Pat brought to it was - a lot of the previous work was done by people who had an appreciation of Gaelic Games, but perhaps weren't intimately involved in the playing of those games.”
Crosson stresses the value and importance of identifying and reflecting the importance of local heroes and what sport can mean to people.
“Pat, of course, was as a sub 'keeper in that extraordinary year of 1998 when they won their first All Ireland in some 30 years,” Crosson remarks.
“He has made a lot of subsequent work on Gaelic Games, a piece on the O hAilpins, the Dublin Ladies Gaelic Football team. What he brings is an insider's perspective that has been continued by others. Even the extraordinary work done by TG4, the specialisation on documentaries around Gaelic Games.
“That is bringing these intimate portrayals - Laochra Gael for example is probably one of their most popular programmes and the way in which they have brought a very distinctive approach to how they have filmed Gaelic Games. Innovations in the way in which they have filmed Gaelic Games and engaged with the deep connections.
“The way they have followed the club game and brought that into their programming, following the club championships across the country right up to the All Ireland.
“Also going into the communities, giving us a deeper understanding which Pat had pioneered in A Year Til Sunday. The way he followed Ja Fallon and others around. Ja as a postman on his rounds in Tuam, and so on. You get an appreciation of how embedded sport is in the various communities.”
A thirst for information and GAA stories exists. With no action due to the Covid 19 crisis nostalgia is occupying a central role currently.
“We are living in an extraordinary moment right now with the Covid crisis where sport is more or less isn't happening,” Crosson states.
“Every sporting event has been cancelled bar Belarus. For the rest of us it makes those recordings and moments as many people are watching depictions of sport. If you listen to Off The Ball as I do it is nostalgia, going back looking at the greatest XI in the Premiership, or the greatest team to come out of Kilkenny?
“You are looking for those depictions of the great moments. Those recordings we have and those documentary depictions have become even more important right now than at any point.
“They are a way for us to keep alive the spirit and what it is that draws us towards them and what makes them important in our lives.”