The challenge facing grassroots GAA in a changing Ireland

The challenge facing grassroots GAA in a changing Ireland

“Somebody said to me recently it’s easier to get €50 out of a fella now than it is an hour of their time. It’s a fair way of looking at it.”

Cork’s development officer, chairman of the county’s most recent strategic plan, and Midleton stalwart Pat Horgan is talking about the reluctance of people to volunteer. By no means is it exclusive to GAA clubs in urban areas — the farmer is busier than most — but factor in the drain on free time and the greater distractions of life in an Irish town and quickly the urban issue can be as challenging as rural depopulation.

Now boasting a population of 12,496, Midleton has doubled in size from 1994 when the figure stood at 6,209.

Its growth is not on a par with Ballincollig, “the sleeping giant”, as Horgan calls it, which should exceed the 20,000 mark in the next census, but Midleton’s demographic proliferation has been significant and problematic at the same time.

Fielding over 60 teams between under-age and adult, Midleton is attempting to reflect what is happening to its catchment area. Last June, they purchased 37 acres from Pernod-Ricard/Irish Distillers for €380,000 with another €750,000 expected to be spent on developing the Park South grounds.

“We’ve kept the show going with just one field and the goodwill of the local schools,” says Horgan.

But sustaining the club has taken its toll on some, as Horgan reports. “The thing about whether Cork needs more clubs or not, the biggest issue for Cork GAA and the GAA as a whole at the moment is the volunteer. The club secretary that took over in 2010, if you ask the same person to take over now in 2019 the amount of work that has been snowed on them is just colossal. We need to make life easier for the volunteer.

“You take a club like Midleton and you couldn’t say that we weren’t successful last year. We went to the county senior hurling final, we went to the county U21 hurling final and we went to the county minor hurling final. We won the minor and lost the other two but you couldn’t say it was a bad year. Yet we went into an AGM and failed to elect a secretary.

“There’s no problem in people coming forward to help out in the club but to take the ultimate responsibility of runaí in Midleton or the majority of clubs is a huge undertaking given the frightening amount of work involved. It has to be addressed from the top down. We’re overloading people off the field as well as on it.”

Midleton is not an example of one but it’s the progress made by town clubs’ flagship teams that Colm Cummins fears papers over their cracks. The chairman of the GAA’s national community Development, urban and rural committee, he has been tasked with getting at least a grip on the organisation’s urbanisation issue highlighted as far back as the McNamee Report in the 1970s.

“Generally, there are urban clubs who can dominate within their own county and when they get into the provincial championships they tend to do quite well. They’re doing well on the field but that can hide what penetration they are getting in that area. So it might be fine that they’re fielding one team at every level and they’ve quite a vibrant club but it might represent only a couple of percent of the local population. In an environment where society is becoming increasingly urbanised and that is a massive challenge for us as an organisation.”

Cummins appreciates just how complicated the issue is. At the national club forum in Croke Park last month, two Dublin clubs identified themselves more as rural units when clubs in attendance were asked to split between those and urban ones. “Because they weren’t super clubs in Dublin, they defined themselves as something else. But it just goes to show there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here because everyone is on such a different scale and even if you go about grouping clubs into blocks of size it proves difficult.”

Identifying participation percentages in catchment areas is one of Cummins’ first objectives, the data being sourced by the Central Statistics Office and the Department of Education. “It’s all publicly available but unless you’re trained in that area it’s difficult to extract the relevant information and it can vary from club to club and the characters and skill-sets involved. What we want to do is create a tool that allows administrators both full-time and voluntary and GAA members to easily extract that data so that they complete accurate measurements.”

A couple of companies have been approached by the GAA about providing such a service and a map-based dashboard tool is the preference.

“Take Portlaoise, you could highlight that area and identify how many 10-year-old boys and girls are in that catchment area in any given year. What we want clubs to do is access that and for them to be conscious of and to begin to measure. We want them to work out then how the percentage of 10-year-olds participating against the amount of 10-year-olds in that area and that to become the standard approach particularly across the urban clubs.

“There were some studies done years ago and the participation rates varied quite considerably. In Dublin, the average participation rate for boys was around 16%, Belfast much lower around 5%-6%, Cork and Galway around the 25% mark and Limerick a little lower. We have to work out what would be seen as a good participation rate. Another committee, coaching and games, are looking at that and we’re working with them.”

With a population of 22,050, Portlaoise is a perfect example of a town that would be better served with a second club.

Such an aim is included in Laois’ strategic plan published early last year. It is hoped that by establishing what initially would be a juvenile club in the Knockmay or Mountmellick Road area a new club could spawn along the same lines as Castleknock in Dublin.

It would be another attempt to form a local rival to the Portlaoise club after an aborted attempt several years ago and Cummins knows the difficulties that can be faced. In the instance of Portlaoise, county board influence will help, of course, but he suggests assistance will be needed to set up new clubs from higher levels of the organisation.

“Experience has shown us the challenge of establishing new clubs in urban areas is difficult because land prices are going to be so high. The cost of going about it is a huge factor and I think any plans to do so is going to need an overarching group. It may need something like that rather than waiting for what has happened mostly up to now when a second club has developed out of a split in the original.

Cherrywood has been identified as a new community in South Dublin and with the pent-up demand for housing it’s inevitable that a glut of homes will be built in the next 10 years. These communities are going to pop up and I don’t think we can rely or hope on individuals arriving in these communities and be stimulated enough to establish clubs. I think we have to take it up another level whether it’s at provincial or national level and a group looking for solutions. It may not always be the establishment of a new club but we may be more flexible in our rules to accommodate for urbanisation.

“If you take Portlaoise for example, it may work in an instance like that where you don’t get a second club in the town but if you relax the catchment rules that some players could drift out to clubs in the periphery and keep them alive.

“There is a myriad of solutions and one size won’t fit all but we have to be open to them.”

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