Malachy Clerkin: The GAA should make more of St Patrick’s Day - and more of its intercounty stars

By squeezing the season and stripping the leagues of meaning, this is another lost opportunity by an association that seems to want to remind its elite teams of their place in the world

Championship starts in three weeks. Can you believe it? The temperature hasn’t reached double figures for months. The only reason there isn’t a hard-packed remnant of the snowman we built in the front garden the week before last is that the relentless rain has washed it into the drains. We’re still turning the heat on in the evenings. And Championship is three weeks away.

Three weeks! The ground in this drenched corner of Europe is still so soft they had to cancel the Cross Country race at Cheltenham during the week because it wasn’t safe enough to run horses in. Actual thoroughbreds, not the metaphorical ones we sometimes refer to our intercounty footballers and hurlers as. Time was, the start of the Championship clashed with Derby trials or the Oaks or the Guineas. Nowadays, we get going around the same time as we’re cancelling races because Minella Indo and Delta Work might not make it through the swamp.

“Players are pulling hamstrings like guitar strings at the moment,” said Jack O’Connor after Kerry beat Tyrone in Killarney, a game two of his players couldn’t suit up for having twanged hammers in the build-up. “You saw it last night as well with [Eoghan] McLaughlin from Mayo and Lee Gannon from Dublin. It’s the nature of those three games. They’re three very intense games in three weeks.

“Ideally you probably wouldn’t want that. It’s probably asking a lot of amateur players. That’s fine if you’re a professional and you have time off work to recover and everything. These boys are going working. It’s a very heavy ask of players to play three games in three weeks in sometimes heavy ground.”


Jack was talking a fortnight ago. Or, if you like, two Orange Warnings ago. Used to be you’d have to warn the kids to be sure to pack their sun cream for Championship. Now there’s more Orange Warnings than a Trump rally. Everything changes.

All across the country this weekend, intercounty matches that would once have been considered a reasonably big deal are being played out as little more than diary entries. The reigning All-Ireland champions in football and hurling are being squeezed into one of the least attendance-friendly venues in the country at one of the least convenient times of the week.

If you deliberately set out to make sure as few people as possible got to see Galway play Limerick and Dublin, here’s one way to go about it. You would send them to the traffic black spot of Salthill for a double-header. You’d fix the throw-in for lunchtime on a Saturday of a bank holiday weekend. You’d make sure there was a Six Nations decider on afterwards while most of the attendees would be in their cars trying to get out of said traffic black spot.

And yes, there are extenuating circumstances and no, it probably couldn’t be helped given the unique demands of Paddy’s weekend. But still, it fairly puts the National Leagues in their place. All four teams in Pearse Stadium this afternoon will class the year as a disappointment if 2024 finishes anywhere but Croke Park in July. Yet we’re playing off the fixtures between them like they’re teams in an underage blitz. You can’t really blame counties if they choose to sack off the league – the GAA basically tells them they’d be mad not to.

This is true even now in football, despite the link between league performance and championship ranking. As it stands, nobody has had a more miserable start to the year in the top two divisions than Kildare. But since Dublin are on the far side of the Leinster draw, there’s still a perfectly viable route into the Sam Maguire for them.

The clashes between themselves, Westmeath and Louth are what’s going to decide the All-Ireland groups, far more than league position. Same goes for Clare, Waterford and Tipperary in Munster. The format tells teams what to prioritise.

It informs them, definitively, that reaching a provincial final means more than anything they do in their league campaign. Not alone that, the losing provincial finalists are automatic second seeds in the Sam Maguire draw. Look back at last year’s All-Ireland groups – Armagh were the only provincial runners-up not to finish bottom. None of the other three won a match. That loophole for provincial runners-up has the dual effect of making the All-Ireland groups less competitive and sucking interest from the closing stages of the league.

Here’s why it matters. St Patrick’s Day falling on a weekend should be a huge free gift to the GAA. With a minimal amount of forward planning and marketing, the association could make this one of the standout weekends of the year. If the leagues meant anything at all, you could bill this round of matches as decision time. One of the great truisms of the NFL is that the season only starts on Thanksgiving. Paddy’s week should be the GAA’s Thanksgiving.

Going to a match should be a basic, traditional thing on St Patrick’s Day. We should be leaning into it too, making it green and garish and unashamedly hokey. Getting out and celebrating this unique cultural asset should be the default thing we do and the players and matches are right there in front of us, waiting to be made a fuss of. All you need to do is make the games have meaning.

Instead, there are clashes everywhere in both codes this weekend that look big on paper but don’t actually amount to a hill of beans. And being treated accordingly. Matches moved to accommodate parades, matches not on TV as a consequence, promotion and relegation battles that nobody is going to lose too much sleep over, regardless of the result. Some of the biggest stars in Irish sport, squirrelled away out of sight.

Championship is three weeks away but it feels like we’re in the dead of winter. It feels too like the GAA will take any opportunity it can to tell the elite players of our national sports that they’re only small fry and not to get too big for their boots. Squeeze the season, run the best players into the ground, strip the competitions of meaning, warn about runaway trains, grouch about the GPA. Always, always, remind people of their place.

Intercounty football and hurling are among the greatest miracles of Irish life. It would be no harm if the GAA stopped acting like it’s ashamed of their success.