I don’t consider myself a fan of the GAA, having grown up in a part of the United States where awareness of Gaelic Games is non-existent. But I’m deeply intrigued by the relationship between spirituality and sporting excellence, so the new book by Tyrone Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte was a compelling read.
The title of the book, Presence is the Only Thing, is the first signal that it won’t simply be about training, matches and winning. In the book, ‘presence’ operates on a number of levels, from Harte being present for his players, to Harte’s memory of the presence of Paul McGirr and Cormac McAnallen – Tyrone footballers who perished in tragic circumstances, to Harte’s awareness of the presence of God.
We are not talking here about coaches and athletes ‘using’ God to boost their performance, or claiming that God has helped their team at the expense of others. British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, who has become an atheist since his retirement from competitive athletics, notoriously said that he now believes the God of his athletics career was false, something he drew on like a souped-up brand of sports psychology.
In contrast, what Harte conveys in his book is a sense that the world he inhabits is imbued with a profound mystical meaning. This is less about winning or losing than it is about finding significant lessons for living in the tragedies, defeats and victories that have come Tyrone’s way.
Harte’s approach has been moulded by his involvement in charismatic Christianity, which in Ireland has been one of the few religious movements to cross boundaries between Catholics and Protestants. He also describes how he meditates while driving, and the rosary beads and relics he keeps in his car. He tells us that the Presbyterian who services his car takes great care to make sure these relics stay safe, and that this same Presbyterian prays for the Tyrone footballers in his own church.
If Harte seems to possess a surprisingly ecumenical personal spirituality, his descriptions of the everyday mixing of the GAA and Catholic religious practices betray a lack of awareness of the quiet sectarianism of the GAA. Harte even mentions that he wrote a master’s thesis demonstrating that the GAA is not sectarian, a conclusion he drew based on the finding that players were motivated to play football for the love of the game – not for specifically sectarian reasons.
But Harte also describes Catholic masses before matches, and priests visiting the team. It is difficult to imagine any Protestant – rare as such a creature is within the GAA – completely comfortable in this sort of team setting. The Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel project tried to raise awareness about the quiet sectarianism within the GAA, while cases such as that of Fermanagh’s Darren Graham, a Protestant who quit the GAA in 2007 due to sectarian taunts from rival players, have demonstrated that sectarianism is not always so quiet.
That said, the existence of quiet sectarianism is not something that Harte can be expected to account for. Rather, the spirituality Harte conveys in this book is impressive for its awareness of how Tyrone’s sporting adventures connect with people from all walks of life. He realises that successful local sports teams can raise the spirits of an entire community. He also explains how, because of his trials dealing with the gut-wrenching deaths of McGirr and McAnallen, he is now regularly asked to speak to the grieving families and friends of other young men who have died unexpectedly. Most have perished through that scourge of rural Ireland, road traffic accidents. This spiritually is best summed up in Harte’s own words (page 17):
Sharing time with the people I have met because of the experiences I endured through Paul and Cormac has changed my life. It opened my mind to a whole new avenue of thought and reflection that impacted on my spiritual life and my life in football. As you think, so shall you be. Don’t let the future be defined by circumstances or fear. That simple sentiment brings us all hope and illuminates a whole new set of possibilities for us.