I have a good friend who regularly remarks that words only mean something if they are followed by actions.
The GAA’s new manifesto is ‘Where We All Belong’ and contains fine words which capture the position of the organisation in the Irish psyche. These are the words of 8,000 people the GAA engaged with, words such as ‘community’, ‘a place where potential is nurtured’, ‘having a voice’, ‘being listened to’, ‘respecting each other’;, ‘a place that belongs to us all.’
These words are real for people, based on actual experiences and it is useful to consider some of them especially at a time when there is so much questioning about where the organisation is headed.
First up are the Cúl Camps. They were in full flow in local clubs in Galway last week with the three little neighbours and my godson taking part in the Clarinbridge camp. For the week, girls and boys are of one organisation and compete freely and evenly. There’s lots of fun but also time to develop skills and play games in small groups; basically ‘hurling and football school’, a once off for the large majority of clubs who can’t afford a dedicated coaching officer. The camps are definitely a GAA success story with a reach to over 100,000 children annually through a programme that doesn’t discriminate in any way. Uniformity is possible so surely there is scope for replicating it in other areas of the GAA where it is equally merited.
The second bright star for the GAA is the Healthy Club Project. The project, which is led by the Community and Health Team in Croke Park, is working to harness the energy that exists in clubs across the country to do more than provide games for the local communities. Through the project and through the commitment of the GAA leadership to the concept of health promotion in a sports club, clubs nationwide are re-establishing themselves as the focal point in a community. Clubs gates are opening and stigmas are breaking. Also, those who take part in the project, including my own club in Ballinderreen, report greater and more diverse membership, a better sense of belonging, and often, more onfield success also.
The third and maybe most recent success story for me was the GAA participation in the Dublin Pride Parade and the very public commitment by the GAA president to support the LGBTQ+ community and, incidentally to demonstrate actions speak louder than words.
The GAA has a privileged position of leadership in Irish society and still has a significant influence while the other institutions of the — Church and Government have lagged. Embracing LGBTQ+ sends a strong message to Irish society and will contribute to the ongoing culture change around diversity and inclusion. I sense this may have been a big pill for many in the GAA to swallow and shows that there is a capacity to make big calls when the right thing to do will ultimately quell any disquiet.
The last consideration is the success of the inter-county game. It often gets a hammering but is it difficult to question the absolute magic the county game generates and the legends it creates.
I met with Galway GAA coach Gerry Spellman last week and we spent an hour just chatting about JJ and Henry, the Cork hurling style, the Tipperary psyche and the future for Galway.
Gerry reminded me about a Henry story where he said that when the shadows were at a certain length in Croke Park, you knew it was time to finish the job.
The superstars of our games generate the majority of the GAA’s income, create the talking points and play in the games that are of national interest and ultimately spark participation and ambition at a local level. Yes, clubs are the lifeblood but without the flagship product, the GAA may crumble too. Values are central to people and organisations; having them and living them. Leading your own and others’ lives should be value-led as your values will ground you, help you to make decisions, and remind you of who you are. The GAA has given us all a statement of what it is and a strategic plan that proposes actions reflecting these value.
There is sometimes a disconnect between words and actions in the GAA, in areas like fixtures and funding, and unfortunately, a disconnect between the coalface and the leadership about what is deemed to be fair and just.
In other areas, like those discussed above, there is agreement between what the GAA sets out to be and what it is.
It is hard to be right and perfect all of the time so in the spirit of my most important value of integrity, let’s hope that the GAA keeps its word and remains the place where we all have a voice, we are all listened to, and we all belong.