Second-tier not the only numbers Special Congress must debate

Last Tuesday we had the Budget. Next Saturday it's the Special GAA Congress. Michael Moynihan wondered if the former might influence thoughts at the latter.

Second-tier not the only numbers Special Congress must debate

Last Tuesday we had the Budget. Next Saturday it's the Special GAA Congress. Michael Moynihan wondered if the former might influence thoughts at the latter.

Unless you have given yourself over body and soul to the Colleen Rooney-Rebekah Vardey battle - Wagnarok, as the Guardian put it - you may have noticed that Paschal Donohoe delivered the 2019 Budget earlier this week.

Move beyond the extra cost of cigarettes and the notional citizens (‘single non-smoker driving non-diesel from the midlands’) to actuality. Does it impact on your local GAA club? Should it have an impact?

At a Budget 2020 press conference, Junior Communications Minister Seán Canney said the €3bn National Broadband Plan is “the biggest investment since rural electrification in this country” adding that “an average of over €100m in every local authority in the country” is to be invested in the infrastructural project — Budget report

One of the most pressing issues for GAA clubs is maintaining numbers in the face of flight to the east, towards education and employment. However, something that’s often mentioned as a possible solution is high-speed broadband being rolled out to western areas.

Former Kerry star Marc Ó Sé described it once “as an issue that goes right to the heart of the GAA - no jobs, no people, no children and eventually, no club. This is happening all over rural Ireland and I see it on my doorstep”.

Given Ó Sé’s doorstep is the west Kerry Gaeltacht the news above from junior Minister Canney looks promising, and western counties could do with some good news in that department. Clubs amalgamating to field minor teams are an obvious indicator of trouble, but even when remote clubs succeed it can be a brief flare of light before the darkness returns.

Templenoe of south Kerry made the All-Ireland junior final three years ago but Pat Spillane was clear-eyed about the challenge for the club in sustaining that level of success, telling this newspaper: “Most of these fellas are in college, or just out of college, so they’re around now, or for another couple of years.

“The doomsday scenario is what happens after - two of them got teaching jobs in the last year, but those are in Dublin, a handy spin of 240 miles up the road. Another lad is in the Garda College in Templemore.

“The jobs are the problem, plain and simple. Because there aren’t any jobs around here the players have to go away, and they can only do the commute home for so long. It’s that simple. We’re enjoying this golden era but we know that it’ll only last as long as we can hold onto those 18 or 20 players. Afterwards it’s back to where we were.”

It’s no shock to learn that jobs are necessary to keep rural areas alive, however. Is there another canary in the mine for remote GAA clubs? What about housing?

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has announced an “unprecedented level of funding” of €2.5 billion to the Government’s Housing Programme in Budget 2020 - noting that about 15,000 new homes have been bought or built by first time buyers under the Help to Buy Scheme, he said he will extend the initiative in its current form for another two years to the end of 2021 - Budget report.

This is a hidden issue for those who are either based in urban areas or who aren’t involved in those remote clubs - the need for fresh blood. Or, to be more accurate, the way that need for fresh blood can be stymied by the planning system.

Recently your correspondent spoke to Niall O’Sullivan, chairman of St James’ GAA club in Ardfield, west Cork. St James’ had just won a first junior football championship, but O’Sullivan pointed out one specific challenge when it comes to maintaining membership numbers, which is a struggle to begin with.

“Work is scarce in the country, unfortunately, so people have to go to the city to work. In our area it’s also difficult for people to get planning permission - I know couples with young kids who want to build in the parish, and whose kids would play with the club, but they’re looking now at having to go outside the parish to live.

"There’s a knock-on there immediately, because that affects the numbers in our schools, that affects the community as a whole, that affects the GAA club and all the other sports organisations in the community. The school is a good indicator of how the population is in area, and the numbers there are usually pretty low - we’re trying to hold onto the teachers in the schools, which is disappointing.”

The benefits aren’t restricted to the GAA club either, as O’Sullivan points out. The schools enjoy greater numbers of pupils and retain teachers, for instance.

To further complicate matters, some of the planning permissions being granted in remoter areas offer no such benefits to beleaguered communities. Three years ago Spillane broke down that argument when asked about housing developments near Templenoe:

I’d say 80 per cent of the houses being built around here are holiday homes or retirement homes. The vast majority of those people aren’t going to integrate into the community at all, never mind providing players to fill underage teams.

In addition to those issues there are matters which - in fairness - neither government nor GAA can really get involved in. Children’s allowance: €2.20 increase for each qualified child dependant up to age 12 in all weekly payments -Budget statement

Why mention kids? Because there are fewer of them around, and fewer kids means filling jerseys gets more and more difficult.

“Clubs kept going through the bad days of the thirties and the fifties and even the eighties, but even in the eighties you had relatively large families. The problem now is that apart from emigration, you’re dealing with a smaller cohort of children coming through.

“Whether we like it or not, there’s competition from other leisure pursuits compared to the thirties, forties and fifties in particular, when the GAA had almost a monopoly on numbers.”

That was former GAA President Nickey Brennan’s view as expressed in the book GAAconomics some years ago.

Is he right? One hundred per cent, if the statistics are anything to go by. CSO figures show that in 1962, some 2,000 mothers in Ireland had ten or more children in their families. Even 20 years ago that figure had dropped to just 55 mothers in the whole country.

In 1971 there were 15,000 families in Ireland with six children or more. Three years ago that number was just 3,000.

There’s another blow hidden in those figures for the under-pressure GAA club. Not only are there fewer potential members in the locality - fewer families which can supply four or five brothers to backbone a team - but the rise in house/rent prices has served to expose just how concentrated numbers in the east of the country’s urban areas.

In 2006 the average household size was 2.81 people per household, but that fell to 2.73 in 2011 before rising to 2.76 three years ago. That apparently minor statistical leap — the first of its kind in 50 years - masks the growing tendency of adult children staying at home because they are unable to afford to move out.

By contrast, the CSO figures indicate the highest proportion of towns and villages with single-occupant dwellings — i.e. no children at all - are in the western half of the country. All of these factors mesh together to net rural GAA clubs. There isn’t employment so members can’t work locally; it’s difficult to build houses locally so they can’t live in the area; and those families living in the area have fewer children to supply the club.

There’ll be much to discuss at next week’s GAA Congress. Should a joined-up approach to these problems be one of them?

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