GAA Football

Rural-to-urban switch provides more problems than provisions for GAA

Urban developments such as Gaelfast, where £1m is being invested in Belfast, are not all that simple.

WHEN Ireland was struck by the famine in 1845, the country’s population was 8.2million people. By 2050, it’s estimated that figure will have been surpassed.

On the most basic level, that should look like an opportunity for the GAA. Bodies equals potential. But its issues in this regard are two-fold.

Take rural Tyrone. Pat O’Neill, the owner of Powerscreen, a Coalisland-based firm that has become one of the world’s biggest in crushing and screening machines, recently estimated that there are over 300 engineering firms in east Tyrone alone.

The local economy has become self-sustaining because of their ingenuity. While the governments either side of the border continue to invest their every brass cent in Dublin and Belfast, others have had to find their own ways to live.

Mark Conway, founder of Club Tyrone, refers to the ‘white van stuff’ that offers a great contradiction in Irish life.

Every Monday morning, the white vans line up to empty the county of its young men. To Dublin, to Belfast, to England, to Scotland. But each Friday, they’re full again to bring them home.

Little of this construction work takes place around home. Unless you commute or move to Belfast, there are very few public sector jobs (the Mid Ulster council area is the worst in the six counties for public sector job provision).

Throw in third-level education that primarily takes place in Belfast, Coleraine, Derry or further afield, and there’s a significant portion of young footballers who aren’t about home.

“There are no DCUs in Tyrone. There are no Malone Dub facilities in Tyrone. There’s no Waterfront Halls, there’s no Grand Opera Houses, there’s no Macs, there’s no Lyric Theatres. Metropolitan Ireland gets all the goodies,” says Conway.

The white van model is a different kind of emigration, one that allows the local economy to flourish, that keeps homes getting built and staying together, and yet makes it no less difficult for GAA clubs to run their affairs. Training doesn’t work without bodies being present.

Rural depopulation is not a new phenomenon, but it’s one that has become an increasing worry for the GAA.

Colm Cummins, chairman of the GAA’s Community Development, Urban and Rural committee, is overseeing the creation of an online dashboard that will give clubs a layman’s way of analysing population figures and trends.

The idea behind it is that they will be able to see that little bit more clearly into the future, aiding the decision making process from whether they’ll need to amalgamate or they’ll be looking more facilities to cater for bigger numbers.

Cummins was in Tyrone recently for a seminar on rural GAA, and says the Gaelfast project that will see £1m invested in Belfast over a five-year period is a nod towards the six counties facing the same issues as those created by Dublin acting as a vortex, pulling all the youth in from the four winds down south.

The difference being that the GAA tradition in Belfast hasn’t got as strong a pulse. Those migrating aren’t necessarily drawn to transfer to a city club. Some travel back up home for football. Others simply get lost to the game.

“The Gaelfast project is probably recognition of that, and we’ll have to look at it through this project. That’s the longer-term issue, but in the short term how is that solved?” says Cummins.

“That’s going to be a challenge, the greater Belfast area. There’s huge work going on but you wouldn’t be comparing like-with-like if you’re comparing Dublin with Belfast.”

When he was in Garvaghey, the Offaly native saw evidence of an ambition from rural clubs to find a way to fight back against the talent-drain.

“In one sense we could sit and say it’s a societal thing, it’s happening and we’ll just move with it and close down the rural clubs and go with the population and create new clubs.

“But I was in Garvaghey a few weeks ago, and the sense there was about a bit of fightback. The GAA, as the centre of the community as we see ourselves, should be fighting for our communities and the survival of them. I agree with that.

“We need to be getting more involved in the planning process that sets policy around rural settlement. The GAA should have a voice on that.

“At national level, we need to give guidance down the chain to get involved in the local development processes. Across the six counties, the new councils are rolling out these development plans.

“Now is the time to get involved, and the same in the 26 counties. The regional planning applications and county plans will be updated, so it’s time to get in and influence policy in the appropriate way, by making written submissions and making our case.

“That’s where a bit of fightback will come, by getting more engaged rather than sitting back as a bystander. It’s being a bit more forward-thinking.”

Equally challenging is how to deal with the influx of bodies into urban areas, where there’s a lack of green field space for playing facilities, as well as in many areas a resistance to the formation of new clubs for fear that it might disrupt the work of the established.

Cummins has loosely sounded out several ideas, including the loosening of the parish rule so that smaller clubs would be allowed to take the crumbs from the table of the bigger sides around them if it meant surviving.

As with all things GAA, that creates the counter issue of ambitious players wanting to leave the smaller club to transfer to the illustrious neighbours.

“When you suggest these things, you have to look at all the scenarios, and what would underpin any of the relaxations would be that you couldn’t dilute the essence of what the GAA is about.

“We’re trying to sustain clubs and make sure they keep going, and in other areas grow clubs and create new ones. Allowing a stronger player to move in somewhere else because it’ll progress him isn’t in keeping with that remit.”

Dublin is finding that its biggest issue is finding enough green field space for the clubs already in existence, never mind for any new ones that could and should be created.

Those with the vice grip on a section of the population aren’t always keen to let go for fear their own successes might be affected. That leads Cummins to believe there’s a huge challenge in that regard as well.

“This is a personal opinion, I’d have a fear that in urban areas our success on the field masks not being as active on the ground as we should be.

“If you’re bagging a few titles but you’re in a town with 20,000 people and you’re still only fielding one team at each age group, we should be asking ourselves is that good enough.

“There are huge challenges for urban areas. That east Leinster belt has witnessed massive growth in population [doubling to 1.2million in the last 45 years], new communities, new dynamics. How do you sell the GAA message to that new community?”

Mark Conway uses business terminology to define the greater problem. The GAA’s existing product is the games themselves, and its existing market is rural Ireland.

Its new market is urban Ireland, but in chasing what can look like rainbows there, he believes they’ve left their bread and butter out sitting to rot.

“The GAA are trying to embed Gaelic culture into these new market areas. There’s merit in doing that, but not at the expense of taking the eye off the ball on the existing product and existing market.

“That’s where the fatal strategic flaw is in all of this, and we’re doing it at our absolute peril.”

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