Over 880 players have been lost to the Clare and Limerick GAA scenes since 2008 due to a constant haemorrhage of emigration which has left clubs struggling to field teams and led to a financial hit of over €200,000 annually.
An Irish Examiner survey has revealed that 883 young men who competed in Limerick and Clare’s hurling and football championships since 2008 have left the country, mainly in search of work opportunities.
Clare chairman Michael McDonagh described the loss of 410 young men from his county as “absolutely savage” and estimated the total financial loss to Clare clubs could be “well in excess of €100,000” when memberships fees and other contributions are taken into account.
“Membership fees are just a small portion of how players support a club. Apart from that they contribute to weekly club lotto, sell books of tickets for different fundraisers and lots of other things” said McDonagh.
“Then consider the spending power of all these young men to the rural areas themselves, outside of the GAA club. It’s massive what has gone missing.”
Limerick secretary Mike O’Riordan also believes the annual loss to Limerick clubs due to emigration is “between €100,000 and €150,000, if not more”.
Limerick’s county board chairman Oliver Mann acknowledged that player emigration “is becoming a huge problem” with some clubs having difficulty fielding teams.
“The real consequences of this migration might not hit home hardest until 10-15 years down the line, when a lot of those who left might themselves have started a family in the area,” he said.
“There really is nothing we can do to stop the flow of lads leaving. It may be a little elitist, but we have tried to arrange work for one or two county players who were thinking of leaving, but even that is very difficult to do now… It’s hard to see a quick end to this, people need to put bread on the table, and they need to go where they can get jobs,” said Mann.
Limerick club Pallasgreen-Kildimo top the emigration list with 22 players, including six in the last year alone, leaving the country. Chairman Emmet O’Brien believes seven of these players would be possible senior starters and the club is now divided into two crops of players; those aged between 17-22, and those over 30.
“The next few years will tell a lot. Despite losing over 20 lads, there are definitely clubs in a worse situation. If by the time our younger lads come through college and there is still no work for anybody, we could be in real trouble,” said O’Brien.
The contrasting fortunes of urban and rural GAA clubs as a result of the recession are also coming to light. In Ennis, Éire Óg and The Banner dominate neither the football or hurling scene but the town boasts a population of over 25,000 people.
Then consider Milltown Malbay with a population of 575 which, including the hinterland, counts 1,580 inhabitants with three adult clubs, St Joseph’s, Clonboney and Moy, battling for players. Between all three, 33 players have emigrated compared to the combined 18 players for the Ennis area.
Clonboney club secretary Sean Malone has seen eight players leave their club. “Eight players gone from a small club like ourselves is a huge loss. Emigration is devastating the club.
“It’s devastating the whole area. It makes it more difficult in our own club because there are so many clubs in such small proximity. There are three clubs splitting up a small population for numbers, and then we straddle the border with neighbouring parish Kilmurray-Ilbrickane too.”
The matter has not gone unnoticed by the GAA hierarchy but president Liam O’Neill said that the level of emigration out of both counties was “concerning, but not catastrophic”.
“What you [the survey] have shown is that the smaller the unit or area, the bigger the effect emigration has on it. The problem is very local and very hard to track. You really have to look at each case itself, parish by parish,” said O’Neill.
The Laoisman reiterated his assertion that clubs should amalgamate to survive. However Limerick chairman Oliver Mann believes quick-fix solutions are not the answer.
“I have always stated my opposition toward clubs joining. Once a club amalgamates, it can’t be undone. Knee-jerk amalgamations are not the answer. If a club can stall for a couple of years until such time that things turn around and the majority of players that leave would only see working abroad as temporary, then that would be a better course of action.”