My first memory of going to a “big match” in a proper stadium is St Patrick’s Day 1976. I went with thousands of locals from around Dun Laoghaire to see CBC Monkstown in the Schools’ Senior Cup at Lansdowne Road.
CBC, the local school, was not a posh school but it was a rugby school. Back then, the “known world” to my nine-year-old self was the coastal stretch from Blackrock baths as far as the ramparts in Dalkey. It was a rugby and football place. By football I mean soccer, not GAA. And nobody played hurling here.
Had you told us that a Dalkey team would be All Ireland hurling champions, we’d have laughed at you.
For us, hurling was a dangerous game played by fellas from the country. It was the foreign game. Football was our first love and rugby came second. While some of us may have played GAA in national school, GAA’s roots were not deep here. Sure it was always played here, but for us, the FA Cup was a much bigger day than the All Ireland football final. Whatever about football, hurling never figured. Even most national schools, run by GAA-mad teachers, didn’t attempt hurling with only a tiny minority daring to champion the game. These lads were usually the sons of hurling obsessives who brought hurling up to Dublin when they left home to find work in the capital.
In fact, you could say that back then sport was genetic. You played what your dad played. The only devotee of GAA on our road was one Des Cahill who tried repeatedly to convert us from soccer and rugby to GAA with no success. Des’ father was the principal of the local national school.
In the early 1950s, my dad co-founded Dalkey United, and so my sport was soccer. Both cultures lived in harmony side by side but soccer was king.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Dalkey United shared its ground with a small GAA club called Cuala. Dalkey United was the senior partner in the shared ground. In fact, Dalkey — the soccer club — actually “gave” Cuala the extra pitch beside it out of sympathy for the GAA club, which in the 1960s didn’t have a permanent pitch.
Fast-forward to today and Cuala, the small GAA club of my memory, is ubiquitous in this former rugby and soccer stronghold. There are Cuala red and white flags everywhere from Monkstown to Dalkey. Cuala is the first Dublin club to reach the All Ireland hurling club final and what’s more, Cuala are now champions! There is a real buzz around the club getting into the final. People who wouldn’t know one end of a sliothar from the other are talking hurling. It’s a brilliant success story. And guess who is a big wig at the Cuala GAA club? Well, the very same Des Cahill, RTE’s ballroom dancer, who failed to convert us to GAA in the ’80s.
But how did this happen? How did hurling get a toehold in deepest south Dublin? How did the national school I went to, Johnstown National School, which didn’t have a hurling team in the 1970s and 80s, end up providing seven of the first XV for the Cuala team that played in Croke park yesterday?
More interestingly, from a cultural perspective, how did the middle class in this neck of the woods end up having to make a choice between the RDS Stadium and Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day?
Yesterday’s choice was between the Rugby Schools’ Senior Cup, the traditional middle class St Patrick’s game in this part of the world — Blackrock versus Belvedere — and the new middle class sport here of hurling and the club final between Dalkey’s Cuala and Balyea of Clare.
I am interested in the economic and demographic forces that have played out in coastal south Dublin in the past few decades. These forces have changed the cultural composition of the population and have manifested in the emergence of hurling as a significant cultural force here.
To understand this, we have to understand that the last two or three decades have been a time of enormous social upheaval in middle class Dublin. The main force has been the emergence of a rural professional class that has come to dominate Dublin’s professions.
These upwardly socially mobile punters from the country are the major winners in the Irish professional meritocracies of medicine, the higher levels of the civil service, the law, accountancy and banking. The failed bankers of Ireland were dismissed as “not very bright rugby players” in the boom, but if you care to look forensically at the backgrounds of the major players in the banking collapse, you will see far more fingerprints of Christian Brothers’ boys on the make, with corporate boxes in Croke Park, then the more-easy-to-lampoon south-side rugby jocks.
So what’s going on?
Like all cultural phenomena, the rise in hurling in alien territory has a major economic dimension to it. The main economic factor behind rise in hurling in coastal south Dublin can be traced to the 1960s and free education.
The class that benefitted most from free education in the 1960s and 1970s was not, as you might imagine, the industrial working class, but the small farming class. It is their grandsons now playing hurling in south Dublin.
A few years ago, two economists — Damian Hannan and Patrick Commins — wrote a paper called the ‘The Significance of Small Scale Landholders in Ireland’s Socio-Economic Transformation’. If anyone wants to understand the economics and the social patchwork that is Ireland today and why south Dublin plays hurling, this paper is invaluable.
The writers chart the extraordinary success of the sons of Ireland’s small farmers in the social revolution of the past few decades.
Mr Hannan and Mr Commins found, astonishingly, that the single most important determinant, on a county-by-county basis, of a county’s educational achievement in the 1960s and 1970s was the number of small farmers in each county. This is quite extraordinary and unique to this country.
The more small farmers in a county, the better educated the children were and the better they did in their Leaving Cert. They even found that the single most successful subsection of the Irish population was the children of small farmers in East Galway, the home of hurling in Connacht.
Compared to their urban, working-class counterparts, 30pc more children of small farmers did the Leaving Cert and 50pc more went on to third-level education.
They turned into the teacher aristocracy, bringing with them to Dublin a love of the GAA, squeezeboxes and Farah slacks. Their success in education also catapulted them into the public service in great numbers. Now they are retiring as the best-paid public servants in Europe. Their kids have gone up a notch on the social hierarchy to become doctors and lawyers. Some of them have adopted rugby, the sport of the old hierarchy, but they have also kept their allegiance to the GAA.
So as they bought houses in the coastal parts of south Dublin, they joined GAA clubs, not rugby or soccer clubs, leading to an explosion of GAA in this part of the world. As is so often the case in economics, the law of unintended consequences plays out. The unintended consequence of free education and related upward mobility is that Dalkey are All-Ireland champions. There won’t be a cow milked in Dalkey tonight…