Gaelfast director Paul Donnelly has made an impassioned plea for the entire GAA to support Gaelic games in Belfast and Antrim.
Last week, GAA director general Tom Ryan last week confirmed the organisation didn’t intend increasing their original £15m contribution to the long-delayed Casement Park project.
Donnelly, who is leading the €1m Gaelfast project to promote engagement levels with the GAA in the city and county at primary school level, highlighted Belfast and Antrim don’t have the same financial advantages enjoyed by the greater Dublin area.
He insisted the development initiative and the reconstruction of a provincial ground on the Andersonstown Road have to be considered as one and the same thing for the betterment of Gaelic games in the county.
Donnelly said few other GAA units in the country have had to strive to survive than those in Belfast and Antrim but existence is no longer enough. “The GAA needs balanced development and growth. But that is not only about a bank balance: it's about the past and the present.
In the past, I can’t think of a GAA club anywhere in Belfast or county Antrim which escaped unscathed from the conflict.
“Despite that, we made sure that Gaelic games survived. Now, we need to grow our games. For me, that's top priority. Its top priority for Antrim GAA. And as I said to the National Coaching Conference in Croke Park last month, this needs to be top priority for the GAA.
“If it's not, then someone needs to tell me right away. And if it is, then the GAA sees Belfast and Antrim as a top priority and is backing Gaelfast for the long term.”
Behind Dublin’s €1.337m total of games development grants in 2019, Antrim were next best with €545,606 and yet with €954,336 in total payments fell to eighth behind Cork (€2.256m), Dublin (€2.123m), Kerry (€1.254m) Longford (€1.167m), Donegal (€1.073m), Louth (€1.040m) and Mayo (€984,147).
As Antrim’s leading hurler Neil McManus highlighted on The Sunday Game last year, just two of the 2019 panel came from Belfast. “I wouldn’t begrudge Dublin one cent of what they got but we need some of it in Belfast.”
Donnelly is greatly appreciative of what is contributed to Antrim but argued the initial five-year Gaelfest initiative has to be extended.
“It’s a minimum of a 10-year plan because there is no real overhead fix for the issues that are facing Antrim and Belfast. The level of consultation, engagement and research that was undertaken in the last six to 10 months has been a core part of our work and the plan is for that information to be analysed with a view to identifying areas to be addressed in the next 10 years.”
He also pointed out that the area has challenges that the likes of Dublin does not have to tackle.
This isn't the Dublin commuter belt counties. Commercial and public funding has been lavished in the capital and surrounding area. Now is the time for the whole country to look north, come north and help the north rejuvenate the GAA.
“I am the full-time face of the GAA in Ireland's second city. And I'm calling for the country to back what we're working hard to achieve. Don't tell me it's Gaelfast or Casement. Don't ask me to choose between support for places to play, or games programmes. We need both. Like it or not, there is an imbalance in how the GAA has evolved. Now, it needs to be rebalanced."
Embracing the mantra “All County, All Codes and All Communities”, Gaelfast has now relocated with Antrim GAA to St Mary’s College campus on the Falls Road less than two miles away from Casement Park. With 350,000 living in Belfast and 800,000 across the country, St Paul’s clubman Donnelly knows the environment is ripe:
“Population alone, there is a real opportunity here to turn things around. And we need to be able to meet the demand which can be there to embrace our games.”
Donnelly is happy to report that of the close to 500 primary schools in Ireland that have signed up to be Five Star Centres aimed at giving children 60 minutes of Gaelic games activity per week, over a fifth are in Antrim. “It’s still very early days but the role we have to play is convincing principals of the schools that the GAA has something for them. We recently trained up 38 teachers from 18 primary schools within the Belfast area.
“That same day we deployed 34 trainee teachers and Liberal Arts students from St Mary’s College to those schools to allow for those teachers to be trained up as part of the Five Star Centre initiative. That might sound straightforward but had we not provided that support to the schools the teachers would unlikely have been released.”
Gaelfast are also offering assistance to approximately 20 post-primary schools. Last month, they launched a first of its kind ADAPt (Autism and Disability Project) to promote inclusion in Gaelic games for children with autism and/or physical or learning disabilities.