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Cahair O'Kane: Nurturing our communities will keep GAA's lifeblood flowing

Memorabilia marking the history of St. Colm's Drum and St. Mary's Primary School Gortnaghey 

FATHER Harry Bohan, former Clare hurling manager and one of the country’s most famous clerics, once said that modern society in Ireland was facing its most extreme ‘ism’.

In a paper written in 2006, he recalled how Ireland’s unbreakable sense of community had sheltered it for two centuries from ‘isms’ such as “colonialism and Catholicism”, but that capitalism was now its biggest enemy.

“It attacks the very roots of community by making the individual the centre of everything and suggesting that once individual wants and needs are met there is no need for other people,” he wrote.

It takes generations to build the sense of community spirit that became the beating heart of not thousands of only villages and towns, but the GAA itself.

Its importance to Irish society remained curiously understated in general histories of modern Ireland, according to NUIG professor Gearoid Ó Tuathaigh.

He published a series of essays upon the GAA’s 125th anniversary in 2009 and lamented a “continuing under-valuing of the GAA’s social influence” of a body that stood only second to the church in terms of its impact on Ireland’s associational culture.

Every step that the leadership of the GAA takes down the road hand-in-hand in its widely-accepted affair with professionalism is a move towards the erosion of community.

It really hit me at the weekend when I heard and saw the special way in which my own mobilised.

Hundreds, from the youngest to the very oldest, came together to start the celebrations of a special year.

Our local primary school, St Mary’s Gortnaghey, is celebrating the 125th year of its existence.

The club, St. Colm’s Drum, is 80 years old, and the new community hall opened in 2007 and is celebrating the end of its first decade.

On Sunday afternoon, mass was held in the local chapel, celebrated by Bishop Donal McKeown, parish priest Fr. Kelly and former curate, Fr Mongan, a lovely man who had shook the hangover from officiating at my brother’s wedding 24 hours earlier.

The chapel was decked out with all kinds of memorabilia marking the three anniversaries, and the community centre readied itself for a magnificent display of a proud history.

The capacity of 400 was far exceeded. Every seat taken, the back walls lined right around. An event conducted with such grace and class.

Young Mia Gallagher, four years of age, presenting flowers to 96-year-old Bridie Wilson, the oldest surviving former pupil that attended the mass, was one instance. Everything was thought of.

Such was the crowd that the community centre needed help with the tea, so the school was opened as well. Standing room only in both.

Bedecking every wall in the new centre were hundreds of photographs of young and old. And it was only in looking at them that you realise what the word ‘community’ really means.

I took a walk around the hall yesterday with my mother and present were two stalwarts of the community; Myra Moore and Kathleen McCloskey.

Myra, neé Brolly, used to serve us dinner at school. A far more wholesome existence than that, but that’s the first thing comes to my mind. She spies an old black and white photo of herself and you’d swear it’s her daughter Rachel staring out at you.

Kathleen, a Bellaghy woman by grace, moved to the area when she married Mickey. He was a gargantuan figure in the Gaelic club before he suffered a debilitating stroke in the early 1990s, when we were just kids. He was at the mass on Sunday, proud to see his son Cormac chair the club in such a momentous year.

These are our people and this is our place in the world.

The real indicator was in the primary school’s class registry from July 1891. 22 children registered for the first year. The surnames: O’Kane, Colgan, Brolly, McCloskey, McReynolds, Doherty, McCartney. 125 years on, those same surnames still backbone the community.

Children of children of children. You see our under-10 team now and it’s O’Hara and McLaughlin and McCloskey and Hasson – their grandparents, in some cases great-grandparents, all from the bosom of Gortnaghey.

There’s never been a greater sense of community. On March 3, over 600 people will descend on the Tullyglass Hotel to celebrate the anniversaries all over again at a gala dinner.

The star attraction will be the Derry Down’s Syndrome team, special guests of the club. They have been in our hearts since early last year when they were the star attraction at our club’s 3D day.

The three Ds stood for Down’s Syndrome, Dementia and Disability. In 23 days, our senior footballers raised £8,109 selling £1 tickets, of which every penny went to local charities.

The improved version is ongoing, with £1 tickets for a prize of five nights for two people in Las Vegas flying out the door (and still available online!).

And so when Gaelic clubs complain about their fixtures or the other issues they face, you must realise that it’s not the inconvenience of a Sunday evening throw-in they’re actually complaining about.

It’s the erosion of the GAA’s importance within a community. The drop-off rate is huge and getting bigger. And with every decision that benefits the association’s financial power, the trade-off is another shot fired at the knee of clubs.

It is hard work keeping a small community together. The church’s pull has waned, leaving the school and the GAA club.

The more difficult it is for the latter to convince its players to hang around, the tougher it is to survive. And if the club doesn’t survive, how does the community?

What brings the young and the old together? What makes you recognise a neighbour’s grandparents from a photograph taken in 1915, if you don’t know the neighbour themselves?

Ireland’s associational culture relies on the GAA making its decisions based not just on the clubs, but on the communities that house them.

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