John Fogarty, GAA correspondent
Tourism Ireland couldn’t have asked for a better platform to promote The Gathering than the All-Ireland senior hurling final this year.
Proven to be the most watched sports event in Ireland year after year with a worldwide audience in the millions, the 2013 initiative received a handsome billing with relatively little cost.
Other than family and friends, there are few entities that call the ex-pat home more than the allure of watching his or her county in an All-Ireland final.
Donegal and Mayo, two counties who have contributed to the Diaspora more than most, brought thousands back to the country.
GAA director of games administration and player welfare Feargal McGill said the “exile factor” attached to the game was unprecedented and was one of the reasons why the organisation could have sold out Croke Park three times over.
Dare it be said, aside from 2006 when the Ryder Cup took place at The K Club, Gaelic games is routinely the primary tourism draw in the month of September.
The Gathering got the stage it wanted two months ago but it has come in for some stinging criticism of late, none more so than from actor Gabriel Byrne this week.
The New York-based Dubliner filleted the event, dismissing it as “a scam” and claiming Irish America was sick of being “shaken down” for money by the old sod.
The GAA can say with a degree of certainty that it isn’t involved in such unpleasant activities.
While we understood why The Gathering was championed at the All-Ireland SHC final, it was ironic that it took place at a sports occasion when tickets are as rare as hen’s teeth.
If a tourist wants to attend it, they must either have sufficient contacts or be willing to pay quite the premium but then the GAA has never needed to actively sell the All-Ireland finals to them. Demand has routinely outstripped supply.
Most definitely, the creation of the Skyline walk in Croke Park to add to the stadium tour and museum have added to the tourism experience at GAA Headquarters but each attraction is reasonably priced.
Above all else, what the GAA offers to the tourist by way of Gaelic games is something entirely unique yet hurling, the fastest field sport in the world, is completely alien to millions of people.
We get excited when the game gets a brief, derisory mention in an episode of CSI NY, Usain Bolt picks up a hurley in jest or Byrne’s fellow actor Jason Statham wields one violently in a movie. We like the promotion, sure, but shouldn’t we prouder of what we have?
What the GAA and by extension Ireland has is a dazzling marketing opportunity that remains untapped.
The Gathering, in essence, is a crystallisation of something the GAA has long been doing. Even though there is little in the way of funding behind it, the Association have got involved because they know better than most how the Diaspora feel about this country. How their heart skips a beat to see their flag unfurled.
They will play their part. At central level, there are plans to stage a competition involving international teams while there is speculation that a National League double or triple bill could be staged in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Bank Holiday Monday, March 18.
Counties are already beginning to do their bit with the likes of Cork hoping to organise a tournament involving local and international clubs.
However, the GAA’s commitment to the cause via its unrivalled community networks here and abroad shouldn’t be done just out of the goodness of their own hearts.
The tourism powers-that-be in Ireland haven’t always been so quick to recognise the genuine Irish product that Gaelic games is nor the volunteerism or other core values of the GAA.
It was only a few years ago that the All-Ireland senior club finals were excluded from the Dublin’s official St Patrick’s Day festival guide.
For something so wholly and authentically Irish, it was an astonishing omission.
The success of the recent Notre Dame-Navy game in Dublin has woken up the Government to the power of sports tourism in Ireland.
But on their doorstep is a sport that is capable of generating incredible tourism capital if the right signposts are put in place. Not only that, it would hardly leave those coming to see it feeling short-changed.
Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh once said All-Ireland hurling final Sunday should be a national heritage day.
In the week that Australia staged the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops a nation, might we think of the first or second Sunday in September being the day a game grips not just a nation but a people?
With the assistance of a Government that is using the GAA as a crutch to support its tourism initiative, that might just happen.
Hurling is much more than a single event, of course, but promoted properly it can be a gateway into the game. A win-win situation for everybody.