The death of clubs in Laois – and elsewhere – should it come to pass is rooted in the realities of modern life, writes Paul Rouse

There is a paragraph in a document which was published by the GAA in Laois this month which carries a chilling message for the future of Gaelic games in that county.

And it is a paragraph which will – in some shape or other – make its way into documents produced in almost every county across Ireland in the coming years.

It reads: ‘The most worrying aspect … is a concern for the survival of several clubs in Laois due to a decline in playing numbers, especially at underage levels. Most of the clubs which find themselves in this position currently play as part of a combined underage team and are most unlikely to ever field on their own again at underage level. The commitment of the officers, players and supporters from these clubs is to be admired, but the reality is that stark decisions await these clubs at some stage over the next decade.’

The paragraph sits in a document entitled The O’Moore Rising: A New Beginning for the GAA in Laois. It has been published by the GAA in Laois and is intended as a strategy and action plan for the next three years.

Some 500 people contributed to the process (chaired by Nicky Brennan, past president of the GAA) that delivered the strategic action plan. And like every sensible plan, it sets out what needs to be undertaken immediately (that is across the next three years), but ‘in reality it is a roadmap beyond that three-year timeline.’

Much of the review of the current state of Laois GAA appears a realistic one – it noted the positive developments and the various strengths. On the positive side, it is considered that Laois GAA ‘has benefitted from excellent financial governance over recent years’ and its infrastructural development is good. This is evident in the development of a new training centre and the future upgrading of O’Moore Park.

But as Nicky Brennan noted in the executive summary there was ‘some negativity’ encountered during the engagement with clubs and individuals around the county.

Laois GAA
Laois GAA

And this negativity is rooted in a future which must be considered at best to be uncertain for those clubs and the individuals who play in them, run them, love them.

Having set out the idea that there are ‘stark decisions’ awaiting certain clubs, the document continues: ‘The review committee is aware of the emotional impact which the potential winding-up of any club can have on its members, players, supporters and the community in which it operates. The review committee is recommending that Comhairle Laighean appoints a small group to meet with any Laois club which is struggling to survive and assist the officers to identify options for the future.’

That even the notion of the winding-up of a club should be printed in an official document produced by any county should set alarm bells ringing across the GAA.

But it is now a real and present factor in attempting to understand the immediate future. It is also entirely at odds with notions of an Association which presents itself as thriving as never before.

The death of clubs in Laois – and elsewhere – should it come to pass is rooted in the realities of modern life. How people live and work has always influenced the basic operations and infrastructure of modern sport, of course: you cannot escape the context of your times.

And deep change is underway on some aspects of life in Laois. As if to emphasise the shift in living modes in the county, consideration of the death of clubs in rural areas is juxtaposed with the proposed creation of a new one in an urban centre.

So it is that a proposal is made that a new GAA club be established in Portlaoise in the Knockmay/Mountmellick Road area. Noting that an attempt to establish another club in Portlaoise some years ago ended in failure after a couple of years, the strategic action plan noted (in delicious euphemism) ‘strong leadership will be required from the Laois GAA County Board if this is to happen.’

Informing the Laois GAA plan was the local government document ‘The Laois County Development Plan 2017-2023’ which actually records a provision for the growth of County Laois to a population of 90,000 people by 2023. It currently stands at some 85,000.

This population increase will see the county town of Portlaoise grow to around 25,000, while the towns of Abbeyleix, Graiguecullen, Mountmellick, Mountrath, Stradbally, Durrow and Rathdowney are also expected to grow.

The logical extension of this wider socio-economic change is that house-building will continue to decline in rural Laois but increase significantly in its towns – and especially in Portlaoise – with an obvious impact on relative playing numbers.

Further, the towns of Laois will be ‘service towns’. And when it comes down to it, that essentially means for many of the people who live in these new towns they will be commuting to work in Dublin.

The battle facing the GAA in rural Ireland

On top of that again, some 6,000 non-Irish nationals now live in Portlaoise and engagement with these communities is considered essential. The Laois GAA strategic action plan notes: ‘Laois is now home to a significant number of non-Irish nationals, with few, if any, having any engagement with the GAA. Where non-Irish nationals have become involved with their local GAA club, they find great fulfilment learning to play and enjoy Gaelic games. This level of integration helps to break down social barriers with everyone sharing and enjoying sport irrespective of their nationality.’

The obvious opportunities for urban GAA in Laois stands in contrast to its rural clubs. The document notes that ‘as many as ten have reason to be concerned as to their future.’

And how can such concerns be addressed: ‘Those clubs ultimately have two options – disappear altogether or amalgamate, accepting that the latter option is not an ideal outcome for any GAA club.’

But how do clubs combine with each other when fielding amalgamated teams?

What is the process that allows this to happen in a sustainable way?

What structures are put in place to allow for this to happen in a progressive way?

In the words of Nicky Brennan in this document: ‘I fully understand the need for combined teams, but the process by which such teams were formed is woefully inadequate and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.’

And is there any option for those clubs who wish to continue alone: ‘Club identity might be preserved for a few more years if meaningful competitions can be organised for teams comprising less than 15 players.’

But this is a forlorn hope. The reality is that this will not be sustainable. The expected outcome of the review process is laid out in the clearest terms: ‘Those Laois GAA clubs whose future viability has emerged as part of the strategic review will be afforded an opportunity to engage with representatives of Comhairle Laighean to discuss the options for the future of Gaelic games in their parish/district.

The Comhairle Laighean representatives will provide recommendations relating to each club. Individual clubs will have the final say as to their future by considering any recommendations at a Club EGM.’

As the document concludes: ‘Given the number of clubs in grave difficulty, this matter is extremely urgent.’ To imagine that the story of Laois is a unique one in terms of its socio-economic concerns would be to seek refuge in delusion. This is a story which is being (and will increasingly be) told and retold across Ireland.

The battle facing the GAA in rural Ireland

The idea of one club, one parish has stood at the heart of GAA operations for more than 130 years. It is a vision which needs to be re-examined in the light of the change that is currently underway in how people live and work in Ireland. At the very least, it signifies a significant shift in the culture, the self-image and the operational framework of the GAA.

Here are some basic questions:

Has the GAA identified those clubs across Ireland which are in danger of dying?

How many clubs are in such a predicament, given that there are up to ten in Laois considered to be in peril?

Are there counties where the situation is particularly acute?

What planning is being done to assist such clubs?

What resources can be used to assist such clubs?

Who in Croke Park or in the Provincial Councils is charged with working in this area?

Is there even a plan which encompasses the future of struggling rural clubs?

What exactly do we want to achieve?

Who will lead us there?

And those questions are just a starting point.


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