GAA Football

Gaelfast beginning to take root but big challenges await Antrim GAA

St Paul's clubman Paul Donnelly has taken on the daunting challenge of reviving Gaelic Games among primary school children in Belfast and beyond and has a sober eye on the challenges ahead

Brendan Crossan surveys a wide range of opinion on the GAA-backed £1m Gaelfast project that is designed to re-invigorate Gaelic Games among primary school children in Belfast. Still in its infancy, the hope is that Gaelfast can deliver for the city and beyond, but more funding will be required to sustain it...

Dr Paul Donnelly (Gaelfast’s Regeneration Manager)

AN important debate about the future development of the GAA is already underway. Recently Joanne Cantwell hosted a panel discussion on RTE’s The Sunday Game.

Regular panellist Donal óg Cusack highlighted the massive population in Dublin and said that it’s important for the GAA as a whole that the game is strong in Dublin.

In response, Antrim hurler Neil McManus said that from a population of over 350k people living in Belfast, only two of the Antrim senior hurling panel come out of the huge population in Belfast. “I wouldn’t begrudge Dublin one cent of what they got (in GAA funding),” he said “but we need some of it in Belfast.”

The need which was well articulated by Neil McManus was why Gaelfast came into existence.

Across Belfast and throughout county Antrim, Gaelfast is striving to re-ignite enthusiasm and involvement in Gaelic Games.

With funding pledged from the GAA nationally and provincially, Antrim County Board constituted and mandated Gaelfast with a small team of staff and its own new oversight and management Board. Last month, Gaelfast relocated to St Mary’s University College.

This is not about new office space: it’s about a strategic partnership. Working in collaboration with St Mary’s as a centre of excellence in teacher education, Gaelfast is promoting innovative and effective interventions such as the GAA’s new 5-Star Centre initiative.

Already, we have up-skilled 170 student teachers in St Mary’s and in Stranmillis University College and qualified teachers in coaching Gaelic Games. This is all about increasing capacity for long-term sustainability.

Now fully operational for four months, Gaelfast’s mission is All County, All Codes and All Communities. The future destiny of the GAA in Antrim and in Belfast is interlinked.

Growth of Gaelic Games must happen in harmony. Of course, there may be different needs in different parts of the county and across the city. That’s why Gaelfast has commissioned an independent research study by Sheffield Hallam University. For the first time, this will provide a baseline of need against which future progress can be measured.

Alongside this, Gaelfast has already held three Stakeholder Engagements events for all clubs in Belfast and Antrim, attended by more than 110 GAA members. The ideas and appetite for change is palpable.

Already, one area where Antrim Gaels seek change is equality of treatment for women and men, boys and girls. Gaelfast is committed to All Codes. We want to help facilitate integration and alignment within Antrim give equal esteem to all our codes. Already, Antrim County Board has delegated authority to Gaelfast to ensure the centre of excellence at Dunsilly is open to teams in Ladies Gaelic Football and Camogie. This is a step in the right direction but much more is required.

Likewise, Gaelfast’s goal is to extend Gaelic Games to all communities. No-one should be denied the right to play sport because of the postcode in which they live. This presents challenges in Antrim, especially in Belfast. Social, economic and cultural divisions and differences still exist.

Added to this is a changing demographic with more newcomers from other countries. It seems ironic that families escaping conflict abroad seek to settle in a city once worst affected by the past conflict in our own society.

But for Belfast, as Ireland’s second biggest city, that is a sign of the times. It’s an added incentive to re-imagine a Belfast which cherishes the rights of everyone to play a part in the civic and sporting life of this city.

We also need to challenge the poverty of expectation. So, while Gaelfast designs and delivers programmes to include and empower people, we need places to play as well. Right now, no place is more important than the redevelopment of Casement Park.

Transforming Casement Park is inextricably linked to renewal of the GAA in Belfast. Gaelfast coaches interact with 4,000 schoolchildren every week, none of whom have ever set foot on Casement Park. Without proper infrastructure and increased, long-term investment, Gaelic Games in Belfast and Antrim will never fulfil its potential. That’s the big risk.

That resources, in terms of people, infrastructure and revenue, don’t match the scale of need in Belfast and Antrim. We need help to close the gap. In the past, plans and strategies for Belfast and Antrim have come and gone.

This time, we can’t afford to fail. But success will not be measured by ‘boots on the ground’ or one-day wonders in Croke Park. Antrim’s awakening requires a shift in understanding about the value of the GAA in modern life. We need more people playing our games. But our games have to meet people’s needs. Paul Donnelly


The Gaelfast team…

Regeneration Manager: Dr Paul Donnelly

17-man management board

Urban Games Development Manager: Antoin McCaffrey

Rural Games Development Manager: Kieran Megraw

Gaelfast Urban team: Damien McCallion, Sean McLarnen, Sean McKenna, Niall Quigley, Simon McCrory

Gaelfast Rural team: Dominic McKinley, Alfie Hannaway, Paul Law


Anto Finnegan (former Antrim senior footballer and Antrim GAA ambassador)

MY ambassador role itself will be defined going forward but it’s really about speaking positively about the county, which I think is really important especially for our young members – just to give a positive message because irrespective of how we’re performing that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of good work going on in the county, not only at county development level but in the clubs.

Everyone has seen the work being done at Davitts, the Creggan U21 tournament, the St Paul’s minor tournament...

I know people want to see the development of Casement Park, and I’m one of them, but we can’t hold fire and not do anything while we wait for the new stadium to be built.

We still have to encourage young people to play Gaelic Games, give them the structures to do that in school and establish good links with the local clubs – not just in Belfast but right across the county.

There are so many balls in the air that Antrim GAA has to juggle in terms of development and finances. It’s not a matter of putting on a tracksuit, getting out and doing stuff every day.

When you look at the work that’s being done around the Saffron Business Forum over the last number of years and how they’re putting our teams on a sound financial footing, there’s a huge amount of work being done there - stuff that probably other counties have been doing…

When I was involved in the county, we seen people working extremely hard but I think what we’re seeing now is people working smarter.

For example, the business plan that went to Croke Park to get the Gaelfast project up and running. Hopefully there will be further funding if Paul [Donnelly] and the team make a big success of it, and I’m absolutely confident that they will.

But money is just an enabler; if it’s not spent wisely and in a strategic way, it gives people the opportunity to say: ‘Well, I knew that wouldn’t work.’

So I think the approach that we’re taking is right as long as we have the opportunity to make the business case for further funding. There is a huge amount of good work being done in Antrim - we just need to keep that work going. Anto Finnegan


Ciaran McCavana (Antrim County Board Chairman)


County chairman Ciaran McCavana wants to see Gaelic Games maintained in rural parts of Antrim

PEOPLE see the €1.2m Croke Park has given Gaelfast, which is about £1m sterling and is being spent over five years. You break that down and it’s £200,000 per year - which is not to be sniffed at - but that in itself isn’t going to be a game-changer. It allows us to bring extra coaches in and Antrim has put in additional money to bring in coaches throughout the county.

So the money from Croke Park won’t change the world but, as the saying goes, Tús maith leath na hoibre - a good start is half the job.

Nowadays, there are a lot more demands on teachers. Yes, teachers are still giving up their time but not in the way they were able to, say, 20 or 30 years ago. So if we want to kick on we need to be competing at secondary level schools throughout Antrim.

We are rolling out Gaelfast throughout the county and I know there is a danger that we are spreading ourselves too thinly, but we have to realise we are one county.

There is a problem in the city of participation but there is also a problem in rural areas coming down the tracks.

There is a population issue. In hurling, we can field many good teams now but if you look at the population of the schools in Antrim's rural heartlands, due to a lack of work a lot of young people aren’t staying there and rearing their families.

A lot of those places are becoming retirement villages.

There is no point having a seesaw approach where Belfast goes up and the rural areas go down. You need them both rising.

On the issue of Casement Park and how that all ties in, if it was built tomorrow, we’d still have the same problems in Antrim.

But Casement will give us simple things: it will give us an actual base to work out of; it will give us a visual aspiration for children to want to play in it… The day the doors are opened at Casement will give Antrim GAA a massive boost on many levels, but will it make someone score six points instead of four? No.

But if you marry the stadium with the good current structures we have in Antrim, you marry that with the Saffron Business Forum, Club Aontroma, the county board, divisional boards, a new Casement and Gaelfast, you tick a lot of boxes. Ciaran McCavana



Simon McCrory (Gaelfast Urban Coach and St John’s and Antrim senior hurler)


Simon McCrory is one of Gaelfast's five urban coaches

BEFORE Gaelfast, Antrim had three coaches on the ground and we were covering all-county. Now, we have eight coaches, two Games Managers, a Project Manager and Paul Donnelly, the Regeneration Director of the project.

From a staff morale point of view and the extra support through the Gaelfast project we definitely feel we’re getting things done. Beforehand, all we were really doing was ticking boxes because we simply didn’t have the resources to service the needs of the county.

In a short period of time we’re delivering more courses, more in-service workshops, we’re doing more coaching on the ground at the five hubs [Cliftonville Road, Sally Gardens, Woodlands, Cherryvale and Colaiste Feirste] with our clubs and development squads.

Just having those extra bodies and extra knowledge means we’re no longer spread all over the place, trying to do a bit of everything. Our work is more focused and of greater quality as a result.

For me, this is the dream job because hurling and the GAA is such a passion in my life – and to do it as a profession is fantastic.

Nobody at Gaelfast is there just to pick up a pay cheque – we are there because we all love Antrim.

Under Paul Donnelly, I’ve no doubt people will see results of Gaelfast in a couple of years and Paul will grow this project.

Increasing participation is all well and good but there has to be a quality programme because that’s the only way you’re going to keep young people interested.

One of the big positives has been Gaelfast’s GAA 5-Star project where we have up-skilled a lot of teachers in the pilot project and we have more schools signing up to it for the August/September in-take.

The way it works is the school expresses interest on the GAA website and that bounces back to us.

We take them in at St Mary’s University, where we’ve linked up, we do in-service training with the teachers. During that in-service training a student teacher from St Mary’s goes out to their school to cover that teacher. It means there is no cost to the school.

We’ve also trained those student teachers up on the 5-Star resource. They go out for a day delivering the 5-Star programme to the school children.

Not only are we up-skilling the student teachers, we’re coaching the teachers at the same time in the fundamentals – hurling, football, rounders and Go-Games.

Because we have more resources through Gaelfast we’re having more impact on teachers on the ground…

PE, in general, is something that’s neglected within schools because teachers don’t get an awful lot of support, they don’t get a lot of training in that area. That’s where we can help them.

If we’re only in the school for a short period of time (in my area, north Belfast, there are 23 primary schools) – it’s hard to support them for a long time. If I can give the schools a resource where when I leave after eight weeks they have the confidence to deliver it themselves. The idea is we push to make GAA the school's first choice. Each Gaelfast coach has their own hub where they work out of.

In north Belfast [Cliftonville Road] I’d be tied in with Pearse's, Ardoyne Kickhams and St Enda’s, Glengormley. So I work in their schools that would serve them. My job is to encourage the kids to get to my hub and I encourage those kids to go to clubs that have been supporting me.

Gaelfast also supports the local clubs and finding out what their strengths and weaknesses are and whatever comes out of that, whether it’s a lack of volunteers or competence within their current coaches, we would run workshops based on their needs.

The biggest challenge for Gaelfast going forward is schools not relying on us as much. What I mean by that is I don’t want the schools to see GAA as Simon McCrory coming in and taking the P2s and P3s or Dominic McKinley [Gaelfast Rural coach] doing the same. It’s important that the schools embrace it, and that some day we go randomly into a school and there is coaching already going on in the yard. Simon McCrory


Conor Barnes (Ardoyne Kickhams, 20 years coaching experience)

Ardoyne Kickhams coach Conor Barnes says there is a huge onus on the clubs and schools to make Gaelfast work

ANY GAA-focused initiative to help re-invigorate Gaelic Games in Belfast can only be positive. What I particularly like about Gaelfast is it’s taking a longer term view, a more considered view than previous initiatives that were rich in good intentions but short on finances to back them up.

Initially, I was frustrated because I couldn’t see anything tangible happening with Gaelfast, but after attending focus groups they’ve been doing the work in the background and looking at the best way forward.

But, for me, Gaelfast can throw as much money at this and throw as many coaches at this and coach as many hours in the local schools as they want, but if the structures aren’t in the clubs it will be throwing money down the drain. Responsibility still ultimately lies with clubs.

In recent years, our club [Ardoyne Kickhams] has tried to broaden our coaching base and succeeded somewhat, where we have 20-plus teams now.

But every single club in every single area has different problems. There are areas in Belfast that have to be conquered in different ways.

Because of the patchwork-quilt demographic nature of north Belfast, GAA heritage has never been strong here, so there are maybe different challenges for Gaelfast to try and turn that tide - where you get more people involved, not just kids but their families so that they can fully appreciate the cultural aspects of the GAA.

West Belfast is different because there is that large track of land right the way up from the city centre, out to Lisburn, where clubs were able to build their hubs and their communities.

I think Gaelfast is cognisant that some clubs need more help than others. There are clubs that can field two teams at a given age group and there are other clubs that can’t field a team at that same age group.

So, does a club with 30 or 40 kids at one age group need the same sort of assistance compared to a club without those numbers?

There is also a facilities deficit in north Belfast where there is just one council pitch that is being used for GAA – which could negatively impact on Gaelfast - compared to 23 council-owned soccer pitches in our immediate area…

If you have better coaches, you have better players at club level and a better county team. I think Gaelfast can have a serious impact on that process and will raise standards.

But it needs serious buy-in from clubs and schools. I just hope Gaelfast gets it because it’s a worthy project that has the potential to make a difference. Conor Barnes

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