Conor Cooney has warned that rural Ireland is on “it’s last legs’” and called on the GAA to play its part in addressing the crisis by investing more in clubs that are struggling for numbers, resources and, in too many cases, their very lives.
A member of the St Thomas’ side that will meet Ballyhale Shamrocks in Sunday’s AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling final in Croke Park, the Galway star has seen how the flight from the countryside of both people and capital has blighted the association and the wider landscape.
A national school teacher, work used to be the small, 70-pupil St Thomas’ National School Peterswell in his home area until a change in the model measuring the allocation of special needs teaching hours led to the loss of one mainstream teaching post.
As last man in, Cooney was the first to lose out.
The day job now is 20 minutes down the road in Ballinderreen where he teaches sixth class. He at least found his feet again outside an urban setting and there is a recognition that St Thomas’ have been left relatively unscathed by the changing demographics.
Cooney jokes that the club chairman employs “a good chunk of the team” in his role an an electrical contractor and that the other half of the squad are, like himself, teachers. Some players have been lost to emigration but the drain has been minor.
“We’ve been relatively unaffected in comparison to other clubs,” he said.
This Sunday’s finalists aren’t the only rural outfits to have graced Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day in recent years. Ballyea of Clare, Offaly’s Coolderry and Mount Leinster Rangers have all done likewise of late — and that is just in hurling – but these stories are far from the norm.
And Cooney doesn’t have to look far for examples of decline.
Kilbeacanty are next-door neighbours who have been forced to amalgamate with Beagh at underage level. Mullagh and Kiltormer have done the same, the latter’s predicament all the more striking given they are intermediate now but were All-Ireland senior champions in 1992.
Such survival tactics are being adopted all over the country.
“We’re just thinking we’ve a good team now. We’re going to put the shoulder to the wheel and try and get a win on Paddy’s Day and see what happens after that. But it’s a wider problem maybe in the GAA itself, particularly in rural Ireland. There’s less and less facilities, there’s less money being made available.
“There’s so much strength in Dublin and I know the debate is ongoing about the … funding that Dublin get and it’s disproportionate. So, yes, the GAA definitely has to look at maybe putting more resources back into rural Ireland.
“Maybe, as a broader society, we need to look at supporting rural Ireland more because it’s on its last legs really, the way things are going.
“You see more and more amalgamations, throughout the country,” he emphasised. “Yeah, look it, it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with and people are maybe turning their heads and ignoring it and hoping it will fix itself. But, realistically, it’s not [going to be fixed] if administrators don’t act.”
combination of luck and hard work by the club at underage levels has allowed them to be swept along by a “wave” of players who have surfaced at more or less the one time, but Cooney isn’t blind to the longer term.
He knows that there are questions over its sustainability and that opportunities must be seized when they arise. It’s already six years since they claimed that maiden All-Ireland title with a two-point win over Offaly’s Kilcormac-Killoughey and the gap since has given Cooney considerable perspective as to just how treacherous a path it is just to make it this far.
A handful of that crew have since been lost to the sands of time but those departures have been countered by the influx of others who had been on the periphery in 2013 and for whom this will be the first taste to experience the big day inside the eye of the storm.
“Look, they’ve been a big driving force for us all year as well.”
They needed replays to see to reigning Galway champions Gort on the way to claiming their first county title back in 2012 and another to overcome Loughiel of Antrim in an All-Ireland semi-final before squeezing home in the decider.
This year’s story tells tales of the same hue with similarly hairy contests eventually negotiated inside the county boundaries and passage this far into proceedings was eventually booked on the back of an epic semi-final defeat of Ruairi Og Cushendall.
“We’ve some great level-headed lads and great leaders who’ll stand up and put the shoulder to the wheel when it needs to be done. We’ve experienced that in the past and come through a few games when we’ve been under pressure and have just been composed.
“We’ve been stressing that composure, that if we’re there or thereabouts we’ll hopefully come away with the win. I don’t think we’re the sort of team that will panic and let something slip or even feel like something is slipping away.
“Because if you feel like something is slipping away you’re maybe shooting yourself in the foot. So it’s just about remaining composed and thinking about the next ball, thinking about how you can reset, get the structure back and go again.”