GAA Football

GAA clubs can kick-start economic revival - Mark Conway

The stalled £1.4m hub project at Kildress GAC in Tyrone.

The GAA is flourishing and prospering on a daily basis even though we’re doing nothing related to games – because we’re anchoring our communities, we’re doing other very important work.


SELF-HELP and self-sufficiency may be buzzwords at present but they’re what the GAA has always represented, argues Mark Conway.

The ‘Club Tyrone’ chief knows these are testing times, but is optimistic that GAA clubs can help spark an economic revival after the coronavirus crisis abates.

GAA players, supporters, and reporters are all missing competitive action but Conway keeps their absence in perspective:

“Everybody sees things in their own way: people like me would always have said that the GAA is not about the games, the games are a means to an end.

“The GAA is about who you are and where you’re from, about providing structure and support. This crisis has maybe proved that is the case because when it comes to it, games don’t really matter.

“The GAA is flourishing and prospering on a daily basis even though we’re doing nothing related to games – because we’re anchoring our communities, we’re doing other very important work.

“The games can wait, particularly the games at a higher level. There’s nobody likes them more than me – if Tyrone was playing a game on the moon I would have to be there. But that can all wait, we can park that. We’ll do without it.

“The other stuff can’t wait: keeping people well, looking after them, and preventing other people becoming unwell. Those are the priorities. Thank God the GAA is there as part of the structures for dealing with that; we’re only a part but it’s good to play that part.”

Conway’s day job with Venture International involves business planning and his strategic advice for coping with this crisis is simple:

“There are two bottom lines: the first is health, keeping people safe and well, looking after those who become unwell – and looking after the people who look after them, those absolutely heroic people in the health service. That’s the bottom line.

“For people like me, a second bottom line is the economy. If we’re not generating wealth we can’t pay for any of those things.

“What the government is doing right now (subsidising wages) is quite brilliant – but it’s also unsustainable. The government only gets money because people like you and me, and much bigger people, pay taxes. If there’s no wealth being generated, there’s no taxes being paid.

“So the second priority has to be getting the economy going again. Even at the minute, if you’ve got money to spend and you can spend it – please spend it, keep the thing going.

“After that, everything else can be parked. It seems like heresy for me, but even football can be parked. Chapel can be parked, holidays can be parked. Entertainment, restaurants, going out at the weekend – all of that can be parked.”

Conway sees his own club, Kildress Wolfe Tone’s, being part of an economic uplift: “We were well into a huge capital project at Gortacladdy, a £1.4m project – we had to stop that.

“Once we get the go-ahead, or it’s sensible to start again, we’ll start up because the huge effort that was put into fundraising means we have the money more or less in place to pay for that work.

“Once those ‘taps’ are turned on again, that’s going to be a huge contribution to the local economy, particularly to the construction sector. That’s going to be very important, not just for finishing our building: that’s going to pay wages, put money into pockets, keep businesses going. The ‘white van industry’ is hugely important in Tyrone.”

Conway suggests that fortune has actually favoured Kildress, and points to other clubs in the mid-Ulster area also poised to regenerate their communities:

“What if this thing had landed a year ago? Then we were in the middle of what turned out to be the biggest, most successful club draw ever done by anybody in the GAA, ended up bringing in more than a half a million pounds. Our job started on site late last summer. If the club draw was this year we’d have to park that

“In a sense we were lucky, we got going, and a lot of other clubs are in the same boat as us. Pomeroy are the middle of big project, Ballinderry, Moortown has one underway. Those are going to be important for kick-starting the local economy once we get going again.”

While some may hold out their hands seeking support, especially at times like this, Conway is proud that Kildress and many other communities are looking after themselves:

“We’ve always said it, if you were to take the GAA out of places like Kildress there would be a huge gap there.

“One of the government’s key measures of deprivation is ‘proximity/ access to services’. They list out a huge range of services, from hospital A & E provision, GPs, optician, supermarket, financial services, government offices, right through to more local stuff like to grocery shops, hairdressers, and so on.

“Kildress, we’re more or less the same as Dunamore ward, we’re the sixth worst out of 584 wards in Northern Ireland; there are only five worse. One of them would be Greencastle up the road, another one Glenelly.

“So our £1.4m at Gortacladdy is specifically designed to help address some of those deficits. That’s why Pomeroy are doing their project, it’s why Loughmacrory did theirs, it’s why Greencastle do they work they do.

“Because if we all hadn’t been doing it, nobody else was going to be doing it. Some of us might have said, nobody else will do it and nobody else should be doing it because if you’re not interested enough in your own community to do those things why the heck should you expect somebody else to come riding to the rescue?

“Firstly, that’s not going to happen, and even if it did it’s a very debilitating thing, it’s not good, it weakens communities. If there’s always somebody else to pick up the tab or provide the solutions, that’s not good for communities.”

That approach widens out into the collective effort of fundraising for the entire county, directed by Conway:

“In Club Tyrone we have a particular view of the world. I don’t think it’s coincidental that our last annual report, out at the start of this year, carried this statement:

‘Kindness and selflessness have maybe become old-fashioned virtues, but they lie at the heart of what Club Tyrone is about’.

“That’s our view of the GAA: the bigger picture, not just the games, but the games as means to an end. It’s about people coming together and marching to a specific tune, which is maybe slightly different from the way the rest of society was increasingly going.

“This thing here is bringing us back to focus on that right across the board. If we can get a little bit more kindness and selflessness levered in after this thing is put away, as it inevitably will be, we’ll be the better for it.

“In the meantime a lot of people’s lives are going to be changed, we’re going to lose people. That could affect you or me, we just don’t know. A price is going to be paid here.”


The broadband issue

Sometimes the more vulnerable people are not on the internet. This time last year we held an event up in Garvaghey about the rural GAA and rural Ireland and the issues being faced.

One issue rural Ireland faces is poor broadband. This new world we’re in, and I think we’re going to stay in it to an extent, with home working and using technology to our benefit – a lot of people don’t have access to that.

Thank God the Free State government has done huge work – a bit controversial to some – about rolling out rural broadband. Michael Ring (Fine Gael Minister for Rural and Community Development) and those who pushed that, thank God they did. That may be parked at the minute but that work had to be done and we need more of it.


Income and expenditure

Kildress, I think we’re typical of most clubs. Our big income stream any year is the club lotto, almost every club is the same. Apart from those urban clubs who are heavily loaded onto the internet, it’s about going door to door on a weekly or monthly basis.

Kildress is one of those places where the internet connection wouldn’t be tarra (great).

The lotto is parked. Any event – we had one of those ‘Oscars’ lined up for June – any event is stopped until God knows when. We would have done a Patrick’s Day event, Easter – all that’s stopped. There’s no games for income.

Equally, there’s no expenditure, we’re not spending money. So there’s nothing coming in but equally there’s nothing going out.

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