JOHN FOGARTY: Amalgamation, or devastation

“I hate to paint a bleak picture,” says Diarmuid Ó Se, “but I don’t have to. It paints itself.”

South Kerry is quickly becoming a GAA wasteland. It resembles something like the dystopian movie Children of Men where society is in ruins because of infertility.

In places like Valentia and Derrynane young couples are like hen’s teeth. They’ve either left the area or emigrated.

Ó Sé, a Dromid Pearses man, was last year appointed to chair the Kerry county board’s sub-committee on rural depopulation. They delivered a report towards the end of last year. The results they returned were startling.

Across the vast majority of the Iveragh Peninsula, just 60 kids began national school last year. In one primary school near Dromid, there were nine children enrolled for the first time — eight of them were girls.

Of the 78 clubs in Kerry, 23 of their feeder national schools have less than eight boys per class. Eight schools have less than five, the majority of them in south Kerry.

Coláiste Na Sceilge, the 2009 Hogan Cup winners, now have a pupil population of 550 where once they had 950.

It being Kerry, the dwindling population’s ramifications for football in the county are almost unthinkable.

“You lose population, you lose standards,” states Ó Se. “Coláiste Na Sceilge were very successful for awhile but not of late and how can they be when the numbers are gone way down?”

Although it is the worst hit, south Kerry is no exception. West Cork isn’t without its difficulties. The likes of Kilmacabea, St James and Ballinascarthy can testify to that.

Neither is north Kerry. A quick glance at their U21 championship quarter-final results last year shows that: St Senan’s 0-10 Knocknagoshel/Brosna 0-7, Listowel Emmets 1-17 Beale/Bally/Asdee 3-8, Clounmacon /Moyvane/ Tarbert 3-13 Ballydonoghue/Ballyduff 2-14.

Amalgamation is the buzz word in rural GAA now. At under-age level in south Kerry, they have been looking at each other as the lifeboat to cling to. Waterville with Dromid Pearses, Skellig Rangers with Valentia, Sneem with Derrynane.

Even St Mary’s in Cahirciveen are looking at strengthening their existing ties with Renard.

But the next stage of destruction is adult level. As was reported earlier this week, Valentia have already waved the white flag on their ability to field a senior team. The first syllable of surrender is on Tuosist’s lips too, apparently.

When will it stop? It’s unlikely to desist.

“The amount of under-age amalgamations in Kerry is frightening,” says Ó Se, who’s a member of the Kerry Central Competitions Committee. “You go through the fixtures list and it’s this club with that and one club with another.

“What will happen then is it’ll happen at adult level, clubs will lose their identity, probably their jersey too and then the sport of it is gone.”

Last November, Pat Spillane was appointed chairman of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas.

The January previous, he drove the 45-minute journey from Templenoe to Cahirciveen to attend a talk with then GAA president-elect Liam O’Neill about rural depopulation. He passed just one car on the journey.

It was such symptoms of social erosion around his locality that he agreed to take up the position.

Things will begin in earnest next month when the group stage public meetings but the start up has been hard.

“We’re trying to come up with a job strategy. It’s soul destroying with the amount of red tape but that’s what we’re trying to do. You’re trying to convince people that this isn’t a quango, this isn’t a talking shop.

“You can talk about trying to keep schools open and whatever but at the end of the day it has to be jobs.”

The plight of Valentia, the difficulties of Derrynane, the concern of Tuosist — Spillane needs no reminding.

“It’s absolutely catastrophic. It’s getting worse by the second, it’s frightening. We’re fierce lucky in Templenoe because they’re all in school or college. But when they come out of it, there are no jobs out there and the problems will start then.

“I don’t think in the GAA or in Ireland that we realise how big an issue this really is. It’s a major priority for both but I still believe we’re not doing enough about it.

“The rural GAA club in many areas is the only thing left that you can close down in the west.”

Within 15 years, Spillane can see a series of Kerry clubs amalgamating at adult level but, like O’Neill and Páraic Duffy, he doesn’t see it as any sort of answer.

“I still think we need to retain the identity of clubs. I think amalgamations are too easy an option. Sneem and Derrynane amalgamated about three years ago and at the time they had two teams. Now they’re down in Division Five. The purpose of amalgamations can be to create a stronger team with two clubs and I’ve a problem with that. Whatever number you have to go down to to retain a club identity, I still think it’s worth it.”

CASE STUDY 1: WATERVILLE

As club chairman Darby Clifford says, the work dried up. People stopped marrying and settling in the area.

The Kerry board’s sub-committee report last year revealed there are just five boys in their feeder national school in the village. Clifford reckons it’s less than that.

Tied in with Dromid at minor, U16 and U14 level, the home club of Mick O’Dwyer are certainly the smaller stakeholder in the merger.

“At minor level, we have one player,” says Clifford. “At U17, we have two. At U15, there is one and U14 there are two or three and four down at U14. In U12 and U10 there are four.”

He saw Rural depopulation coming a long way off but Waterville was tied to the tracks.

“It’s really hitting home with the numbers falling away. There’s no building in the area, there’s no farming. Tourism is probably the only thing left that might pick up.

“The days of bringing industry into south Kerry are gone. They’re finished. Maybe some hi-tech companies can come in and there’s talk of wind farms in the sea but it’s a huge difficulty.”

Waterville are back in Division One this year but will compete with a threadbare panel of 17 to 19 players. “That’s assuming we have lads continuing to play,” notes Clifford.

Last October, they lost out to St Michael’s/Foilmore in the South Kerry final despite leading by three at half-time.

The six-point defeat didn’t tell their whole story, though.

“That day, five of the six subs were over 35 years of age. John B O’Shea was over 40, Denis O’Dwyer is about 38. You’re depending hugely on the older fellas to play.

“One of the subs was a fella who was in America but came back. He’s just after getting a job in the financial services in Dublin.”

Solutions? Amalgamations at adult level? “I can see more of it happening but when clubs are 10 miles apart it doesn’t help.”

CASE STUDY 2: GOLEEN

As the most southerly club in the country, Goleen (Mizen Rovers at under-age level) are used to the isolation.

Kieran O’Sullivan, under-age chairman, shrugs: “We’ve always been dealing with the numbers problem. We’ve had that all of the time but it’s definitely getting worse.”

Goleen’s junior football team have lost three players from last year but it’s at underage where they are hurt most.

“We are in danger with numbers and if you have anyone away for any reason you can come up short on the day of a game. Under-age, you’re talking about playing 15-a-side games and you might only have 13 players. That’s where our difficulties are.”

In recent weeks, another struggling west Cork club has approached them about a possible hurling amalgamation.

“People will need to be broad-minded,” says O’Sullivan.

Why so? The clubs’ rivalry, like so many other derby ones, is chequered. “The GAA is more than just putting teams out onto a field — there are communities behind them and it brings people together. If it’s the only option to survive that’s the way you have to be thinking. You can’t be thinking of the past.”

Plenty, says O’Sullivan, is out of the club’s hands but he isn’t afraid to admit the club could be doing more than it currently is.

“I wouldn’t be a diehard GAA person but if you take the GAA out of the community it would leave awful gaps. Some people in the clubs stand back and let others do all the work. It’s a pity because if you got more involved things would be much better.

“Look at the county champions Castlehaven. They’re from a small area but they’ve a great group of people who pull together and their dedication brings them through.

“I don’t know how the GAA can address this. The people high up in the GAA talk about things but a lot of the time things don’t happen. The grassroots is in trouble.”

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