Cahair O'Kane: To what do we actually belong in the GAA?
“We all belong here in this place. At this time. We belong not because of who we are or where we come from. Being here means belonging. Belonging means knowing you’re part of a community. A community that has a place for all. Where potential is nurtured. Where individuals become teams who honour the legacy of those who went before, and strive to build a legacy of their own. Some of us play. Some of used to play. Some of us never played. We all belong. Belonging means we have a voice, means being able to say what you think is right. Being listened to. Belonging means respecting each other, means being there for each other on the pitch. Off the pitch. Belonging means rolling our sleeves up and doing what needs to be done. We all belong whether it’s our first day or our hundredth year. We all belong here because this place belongs to us all. Our GAA. Where we all belong.”
The GAA’s new manifesto
TO what, though, do we belong?
The GAA is an ever-changing organisation situated at the heart of our ever-changing worlds.
There have been incremental adaptations going right back across the 135 years of its existence. Some say that’s the problem, but had it not been adjusting it might already be dead.
From the removal of the ban on playing foreign games through to allowing members of the security forces to play, and the opening of Croke Park to other sports that saw God Save The Queen played there for the first time, the last 50 years have been peppered with significant landmark decisions.
When you look back upon them now, an awful lot of them look like good calls.
If you look at the way in which the GAA has, particularly since the early ‘90s, become a slick, money-making machine and how it distributes a percentage of that income back through to the lower end of the food chain, there is the outline of the vibrant, community-based organisation it was always intended to be.
But as the tectonic plates of society have become increasingly volatile and hard to predict, the GAA has had more reacting to do in its last 20 years than ever before.
And it hasn’t always reacted in the right way. There have been few of those major milestone decisions since Rule 42 was abolished in 2005.
The way in which the debate around it seemed so polarised at the time, and yet subsequently it’s come to have been regarded as a positive move, suggests an understated sense of vision from the decision-makers of the time.
What, though, is the vision that currently exists?
It was interesting to hear Donal O’Neill, co-founder of the GPA, spell out on Off The Ball this week just how financially-driven he found things to be on the inside when he was trying to make inroads during the early throes of the players’ body’s existence.
The bottom line is very much the bottom line. The GAA has invested so heavily around the country that it almost finds itself in a position where it’s almost past the point of no return.
To scale back on operations that keep the green rolling in would be to potentially shake the whole thing at its foundations. The GAA has bailed counties, even clubs, out of financial trouble in recent years, but who bails the GAA out if it can’t meet the demands it’s placed on itself?
Where’s there’s money to be made, there are expenses to pay. And the biggest expense has become the thing that we all belonged to first.
Our club. Our place. Our parish. Our people.
Michael Foley wrote an excellent piece in The Sunday Times at the weekend, and in it presented some stark figures about rural depopulation and the impact it has had on GAA clubs, and thereby communities.
It revealed that of the 2016 Mayo minor football team, 86 per cent of the players have already left the county.
“It’s always been the way in Mayo, either for work or education. One time you had Bórd na Móna, ESB and other industry, there was always something to come back to.
“Now there isn’t. Last year’s Dublin county final, you had four Mayo guys involved and a manager from Mayo. There’s a talent drain leaving places like Mayo, Kerry and Donegal. Players are leaving and they don’t come back,” said Mayo GAA coaching officer, Liam Moffat.
The GAA is, quite blatantly, not doing enough to resist against the issues for small, rural clubs. Instead, it has set its eyes very much on urban lands, into which so many of its invested millions of recent years have gone.
That’s a reaction to, a reflection of, society itself.
But should the GAA, as Mark Conway put it, “be marching to a different tune than society”?
Rural Ireland is where so many of us belong, and where the GAA has always been at its strongest.
The population is migrating towards the cities, but that creates a whole different set of issues. In a sense, it feels like starting over, and with no guarantees that there’ll be a successful outcome.
The very least it will require is huge swathes of investment. In order to continue on that path, the GAA needs its inter-county game to keep on bringing in money.
For it to do that as effectively as they need it to, they want it stretched out over as much of the year as it can be, and as deep into the heart of summer as it can be. They see that as imperative from a promotional viewpoint.
But all of that means there is, and cannot be, space for the club game to thrive. It’s hard, under the current guise, to see any reversal of the rural trends of clubs folding or amalgamating. Is it a better strategy to go harder against that, or to plough all and everything they have into creating new avenues in the big towns and cities?
Will the latter bring a dividend in time? Because if the game continues to die in rural Ireland – of which the fixtures crisis is a primary symptom - and doesn’t grow quickly enough in urban Ireland, then the whole operation is in a catch-22.
Right now, we belong to a sporting and community organisation that retains the right ideals, but has lost sight of how best to achieve them.
Without young people, it's nothing. Without games, it's nothing. Without clubs, it's nothing.
The words of the GAA’s manifesto are everything that we aspire to. They are what we are.
But without actions, they’re just words.
What it the GAA needs most is to have a clear picture of what exactly it is we’ll belong to in 20 years’ time.