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The Wasting Of The Green: A Hurling Commentator’s Righteous Stadium Rant

RTÉ analyst team, from left, Jackie Tyrell, Dónal Óg Cusack and Joanne Cantwell at half-time during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Group A match between Cork and Kilkenny at SuperValu Páirc Ui Chaoimh in Cork.
Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Stadium and arena controversies seem so, well, so us. Just in the last couple weeks, we’ve had stories about the mayor of Las Vegas (briefly) telling the A’s to stay in Oakland and Virginia Democrats (briefly) telling a rich man north of Richmond to keep his teams in D.C.

But politics, greed and incompetence, the ingredients of all good stadium dustups, aren’t strictly American values.

Come with me to Ireland.

I’m a big fan of Irish pastimes, and love that the 2024 hurling national league started this month. I was sure I’d be witnessing a fab sporting event when I tuned in early for Saturday’s Cork vs. Kilkenny match. Those are the ancient Gaelic sport’s giants, with the counties winning a combined 66 All-Ireland Championships since 1888. And I got what I’d bargained for, but only after I'd already gotten so much more.

The pregame show was unlike any sports broadcast I’d ever seen stateside. Commentator Dónal Óg Cusack, a former hurling goalie who starred on several All-Ireland champion Cork squads, ignored the customary Xs-and-Os overviews and light banter found in opening segments. Cusack instead used his pulpit to mock hurling’s governing body, the government-subsidized Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), and bite all the hands that feed him. And we’re talking about the Irish sports world’s biggest hands.

The match was the first televised event from Páirc Uí Chaoimh since the naming rights for the iconic half-century-old Cork stadium, originally named for a former Irish rebel and GAA leader from the county, were sold to a grocery chain to help offset the costs of a stadium rehab that ran over budget by tens of millions of Euros. Yet even with the hottest Irish sports controversy of the day as a backdrop, bubbly presenter Joanne Cantwell surely had no idea she was pulling the pin on a grenade when she mentioned that GAA director general Tom Ryan had said the stadium's €96 million makeover “is increasingly looking like value for money.”

“Some of my American colleagues would say, maybe, ‘I’ve a bridge I’d like to sell you, Tom!’” Cusack shot back, though his fervor and Cork-accented brogue rendered portions of the rant comprehensible only to folks who watched Derry Girls without subtitles. But even my subtitles-dependent ass could tell at all times that Cusack’s words were angry and heartfelt.

Cusack called the stadium debt “a huge millstone around Cork’s neck,” and blasted GAA’s national leadership for approving the project. He said the administrators were too focused on “investing loads of money” on building projects at the expense of the financial and physical welfare of the amateur athletes who play the game.

“We’ve way too many stadiums!” he said, adding, “The likes of this place will be paid off on the backs of players!”

Cusack’s anger was contagious. While Cusack took a brief breather, fellow commentator Jackie Tyrrell, himself a hurler and All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny, pounded on GAA administrators for failing to live up to pledges to use broadcast revenues from GAAGO, a Dublin-based streaming service jointly owned by GAA and the government-owned national broadcast network RTE, to improve the players’ lot. 

“We’re hearing that the money from GAAGO is going back into the game,” Tyrell spewed. “I haven’t seen any of it!”

But Cusack wasn’t done. He took the baton back from Tyrell and used it to pound some more on GAA officials. He was particularly incensed by the attempt by GAA higher-ups to pin blame for the Cork stadium financial disaster on local hurling administrators in Cork. As if he hadn’t gone too far already, Cusack invoked the evil Brits to make his point.

"It would remind you of the Tories in the UK, blame everyone else and blaming the immigrants for their mistakes,” Cusak railed. “When are we going to see Tom Ryan with a report and saying 'I'm taking responsibility for this and I'm taking responsibility for this stadium'?”

Hurling fans aren’t unaccustomed to Cusack rousing some rabble away from the pitch. In 2002, as a member of Cork’s inter-county team, he led the first players' strike to protest the conditions of the playing and training facilities. And Cusack was the Cork players’ spokesman for a 2007-08 strike over interference from the county GAA board in lineup decisions, and the hiring of a coach the players considered to be a pawn of administrators. To settle the strike, the Cork coach and his staff were fired. Cusack was in the tabloids in 2009, when he became what was believed to be the first “high-profile” Irish athlete to come out as gay. The country had only decriminalized sexual acts between men in 1993, yet Cusack dismissed praise that he was showing any sort of bravery. When asked about a heckler spewing hate speech at him during a Cork match in a packed Tipperary stadium, he replied: “I'm playing the greatest game in the world in the mecca of the game, I'm playing with my friends and comrades for the place I come from. I'm doing something I love. Fuck it, his little problems don't concern me. I'm obviously far happier being what I am than he is."

And, because of his loud past, not all Irish pundits were swayed by his weekend tirade. But while the stakes seem lower than previous occasions where he’s put himself out front, Cusack’s stand before last weekend’s match sure seemed daredevilish. After all, the GAA-nuking diatribe came while he was holding a microphone topped with a “GAA” logo. The American equivalent would be would be Jim Nantz opening a telecast from Allegiant Stadium with a line about the wondrous scoreboard only to have Tony Romo spend the rest of the pregame railing about Roger Goodell misspending CBS money to bully Nevada lawmakers into ponying up $750 million in public funds to build this modern pyramid. In other words, righteous television of the sort we’ll never see here.

Oh, right. About the match: Kilkenny's John Donnelly broke a tie with the only point in extra time to beat Cork, 0-21 to 1-17. It was, as hurlers would say, a cracker.

Disclosure: The author pays about $150 a year for GAAGO and has actually written thank-you letters to network management for the joy the streaming subscription brings.

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