Weekend with a glimpse of the apocalypse

Letter From Dublin

Not a ball rolled, not a
sliothar was hurled, not a race was run and not even the horses were permitted to gallop on the Curragh. Yesterday afternoon, with simply nothing to report, RTE radio's weekly Sunday afternoon sports programme was replaced with middle-of-the-road music. For the Irish sporting community this last weekend was a hint of the apocalypse. Life without outdoor sport of any kind.

Not a ball rolled, not a sliothar was hurled, not a race was run and not even the horses were permitted to gallop on the Curragh. Yesterday afternoon, with simply nothing to report, RTE radio's weekly Sunday afternoon sports programme was replaced with middle-of-the-road music. For the Irish sporting community this last weekend was a hint of the apocalypse. Life without outdoor sport of any kind.

To British eyes this must seem excessively draconian. Meanwhile, from an Irish perspective, that all sport has blithely carried on regardless in the country where the foot-and-mouth outbreak is in effect an epidemic, seems, as the former Irish coach and veterinary businessman Mick Doyle observed, "madness". Certainly there are startling inconsistencies at work here.

It all depends on your perspective. Historically, agriculture has always been the heartbeat of Irish industry, even if the industrial revolution has changed that to some degree. None the less, the Irish farming community remain the most powerful political lobby in the country, agriculture is a IR£5 bn (£4.25bn) industry in exports alone, which accounts for one-third of the country's GNP.

At a more spiritual level, barring the most died-in-the-wool urbanites, pretty much everybody is touched by the farming industry. The Great Famine of the mid-19th century is still the darkest period of Ireland's often troubled history. So when the foot-and-mouth disease first broke out in England gradually the potentially devastating threat this posed to Ireland's farming community and by extension to the Celtic Tiger hit home, and everyone eventually sat up and took notice.

Viewed in this light, sport was an easy target, a sort of sacrificial lamb to coin a phrase. Whether or not the confirmed case of foot-and-mouth disease in Anglesey near Holyhead (through where so many Irish fans would have travelled to Cardiff for the scheduled Six Nations match last Saturday) was the catalyst or not, it made the Government's request last Tuesday for the Wales-Ireland game to be cancelled all the more reasonable. Horse racing (the sport closest to the farming community) and greyhound racing shut down indefinitely from midnight that night.

That set in sequence an unstoppable momentum toward a blanket ban of sport, and amid an almost hysterical mood prompted by round-the-clock radio and media debate on the foot-and-mouth disease, the point of no return came with the Gaelic Athletic Association's decision on early Wednesday afternoon to postpone all their weekend games at every level. As largely rural sports, GAA games would be the most likely to transmit the virus through humans.

Thereafter other sports were morally bound to follow suit. The Irish Rugby Football Union, having been praised by the Minister for Sport, Jim McDaid, for their "exemplary" attitude in agreeing to the postponement of the Welsh game, had swiftly rearranged the March 31st All-Ireland League fixtures for Saturday. But in response to the GAA's stance, within an hour they too were formulating a statement announcing a complete postponement of all games at every level, right down to children's mini-rugby in clubs. By Friday, the Football Association of Ireland had done likewise.

Following meetings with the Department of Agriculture today, it is likely that sport will be collectively put out of its misery with a continuation of the ban for another week. With the IRFU keen to have a decision made on the Ireland-England game, pencilled in for Sunday 24 March, by the end of this week, it is probable that that game will be called off too, losing an estimated IR£3.5m injection for the IRFU and IR£20m for the Irish economy.

The prognosis in the longer-term is even bleaker. It is reckoned that the crisis could cost Ireland's mainstream sports around £25m over the next six weeks, with the racing industry hardest hit of all. Were it to last until the summer, wiping out the rest of the season the abandonment of the National Leagues could cost the GAA £2m. On a smaller scale the indefinite ban on outdoor sports will be acutely felt, with rugby clubs losing out on about £400,000 in revenue in March alone while the even harder-pressed National League football clubs could have a shortfall of IR£250,000.

Already this season clubs such as Derry City, Finn Harps, Waterford United and Sligo Rovers have reported serious financial difficulties. With wages still to be paid, and nothing come through the turnstiles, there is little doubt that some clubs could go to the wall.

The cancellation of last Friday night's televised FAI Cup quarter-final between Dublin rivals Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers cost the clubs roughly IR£20,000 and prompted the former's manager Dermot Keely to remark: "I would imagine the chances of foot-and-mouth being passed on at Tolka Park are remote. The only farm I have ever been on is Home Farm [football club]."

Invariably, sport having dutifully complied with the public mantra that everyone put their shoulders to the wheel, the question of Government compensation will rear its head, all the more so as their plans for a IR£360m National Stadium continue apace.

But, however much financial hardship and longing are visited upon sport, all the while everyone is acutely aware of the apocalyptic alternative for the farming community and the country as a while. In Ireland right now, sport knows its place.

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