John Fogarty: Pitch closures highlight rural-urban divide

Here in Dublin, there are two GAA pitches within two kilometres of my home.
John Fogarty: Pitch closures highlight rural-urban divide
Members of the public adhere to social distancing as the hearse carrying former Offaly footballer Paddy Fenning makes its way to the church in Tullamore for his funeral. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Here in Dublin, there are two GAA pitches within two kilometres of my home.

Both situated in a public park, neither are owned by the GAA so are therefore open.

Most afternoons, parents and their children populate the goalmouths while teenagers do scoring of another kind lár na páirce.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say urbanites have had an easier lockdown simply down to the amount of choice available to them compared to those in rural areas.

What good is space if you can’t use it?

Speaking on The Sunday Game, Donegal captain Michael Murphy underlined the importance opening pitches is in rural Ireland.

“Hopefully, slowly and gradually we can get club pitches back open again. In rural Ireland, it's massive that we get our pitches open.

"It's the hub of everything that goes on in communities around Ireland."

In a group interview last week, we asked Murphy if he felt disadvantaged by the fact his own area of Glenswilly had no municipal pitches in contrast to city counties where they are plentiful.

Murphy made light of it, saying he was making the best of a bad situation by returning to the fields he played on as a child.

Last month, Dublin’s James McCarthy mentioned he had turned his shed into a makeshift gym but also how he was able to take himself off to the local park to shoot points.

“I’m going to the park I’ve two or three balls myself and try and kick a few scores.”

One lockdown, different experiences for two of football’s leading lights and from yesterday the likes of McCarthy can begin to meet up with either three club-mates or county team-mates to train in a park.

Who could blame him either? But unlike his old International Rules colleague Murphy he is not a victim of circumstance.

The same applies for the elderly as it does Gaelic games’ elite.

Talking in a professional capacity in yesterday’s Irish Examiner, Tipperary senior hurling performance director Eamon O’Shea, a personal professor in NUI Galway’s school of business and economics, stressed how vital it is for older people to “stay involved”.

Encouraging such engagement is pretty difficult when they are being prohibited from using facilities such as community centres to play a game of 21 and walkways.

After the cocooning restrictions were eased 15 days ago, an elderly relative of ours who lives in a rural coastal town likened the experience to what it must have been for somebody being released from prison.

But the world they are reacquainting themselves with is a changed one to when they were told not to leave their home because options are limited.

O’Shea co-authored the 2012 study, “Social Exclusion and Ageing in Diverse Rural Communities”.

In it, they analysed a series of communities including Rosemount in Westmeath, where they regarded the GAA club as “the main centre of sporting, recreational and social facilities in the parish, accommodating the activities of up to 15 different community organisations on its premises”.

With it being shut up, the village is surely a sadder place.

Before the lockdown, Mullagh in east Galway were close to renovating their grounds.

It features a walkway and a community centre.

It is hoped the complex will serve the area as the likes of their boot camp initiatives have done for retired players and people in their 40s and 50s.

The man behind that idea, Eric Glennon, spoke passionately to this newspaper four years ago about the potential the GAA had to help address rural isolation but it had to do better.

“There are only 280 houses in our parish,” he said.

“I’m hearing about club agms around Galway and there isn’t even 30 people going to them.

It’s like the pub and the church, people aren’t going to GAA clubs anymore and they’re becoming isolated. You can’t beat doing a bit of exercising for your mental health.

GAA president John Horan’s intimation last week that they could begin to relax the closure of grounds until July 20 by opening walkways, giving specific hours for the elderly, is hopefully a sign of things to come.

Supposedly based on insurance, the one-size-fits-all approach to closing pitches had to be adapted but the GAA should take into account that the number of new coronavirus cases is dropping quicker in rural Ireland than more populated regions.

It was reported last month that the Government were considering the possibility of lifting restrictions in some regions or counties earlier than others, although it appears it was ultimately deemed an unwise move politically.

Nevertheless, the stats are difficult to ignore.

Munster makes up 13.5% of the total coronavirus cases in the Republic of Ireland, Connacht a little over 6%.

There have been less than 18% of total cases in the nine counties that comprise the western seaboard, from Cork to Donegal.

In a time of crisis, the GAA can't and won’t discriminate yet the field is needed more where it is the only show in town, village or hamlet.

Sunday Game playing a blinder

Seventeen years ago, I aborted a planned 12-month trip to Australia halfway through to return home.

Sad as it sounds but I missed work and the Championship was around the corner. Being away for it didn’t make sense to me.

A few weeks back in the country, RTÉ began promoting The Sunday Game using an instrumental of The Cardigans’ “Live and Learn” as the music for the montage.

It was a beautifully pitched piece of work using the song’s gorgeous guitar to accentuate the highlights of the previous year’s competitions and pique the anticipation for what was to come.

Upon first watching it, I knew I had made the right decision to come home.

Seventeen years on and The Sunday Game and the show still has that knack of producing montages that pull at the heartstrings.

Elaine Buckley’s segment to open what should have been the start of the show’s season last Sunday week was evocative and powerful.

That would have been enough to crystallise what we’re missing out on but they only went and did it again with Rory O’Neill’s piece combining Dan McCabe’s excellent version of “Song for Ireland” with an appreciation of what front-line workers have been doing and how the GAA has played its part to help during the crisis.

Without sport, the sports pages have had to be creative, offering more magazine-like features but we would like to believe they have reflected the fondness in the absence and resonated with people.

Without the Championship, The Sunday Game has truly done that.

Don't say managers don't care - they do

It didn’t take long - less than two months, in fact - for some observers to change their tune about the GAA’s return to play.

Some of those who were calling for the All-Ireland championships to be cancelled in late March are now praising Liam Sheedy for saying that the county game can give the nation a lift.

We won’t be cynical and put down such u-turns to having nothing else to write about.

Instead, we’ll consider it as the sense of longing that has pervaded all our lives these last two months.

For the likes of Sheedy, Davy Fitzgerald, John Kiely. Paudie Murray and Seamus McEnaney, it has taken a lot of courage to talk so openly about desiring a return to play earlier than October.

Merely suggesting it runs the risk, particularly on social media, of being dubbed inconsiderate, ingracious and even inhumane.

Inter-county managers, given the short windows they have to succeed in, are often considered selfish but as Kiely said in this newspaper last week putting county before club is not about them being prioritised, more the fact it would be safer to do so.

The numbers stack up in terms of personnel and financially too.

Each of them know the worth of the game to the people particularly the older generation.

Kiely’s Limerick are busy raising funds for the Milford Care Centre in Limerick city.

Fitzgerald currently has his elderly uncle John, who has Parkinson’s disease, living with him.

By bringing him to game after game, it was John along with his father Pat who fostered the Wexford manager’s love of hurling.

Articulating their hope for the game to return under the right circumstances so that men like John have something to look forward to is anything but irresponsible.

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