Le­in­ster num­bers game just doesn’t add up for GAA

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES - DERMOT CROWE

AFEW years ago, the Le­in­ster Coun­cil set out to ex­plore the chal­lenges fac­ing GAA clubs in a prov­ince ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ex­po­nen­tial pop­u­la­tion growth. The chair­man of the work­ing group tasked with ex­am­in­ing its wider im­pli­ca­tions was Syl Mer­rins. Dur­ing the process his group chose St Columba’s in Mul­li­nalaghta as a case study of a small ru­ral club try­ing to sur­vive and stay on its feet with tiny re­sources.

At that stage Mul­li­nalaghta had won a first county se­nior foot­ball cham­pi­onship in 66 years. Even be­fore the added gar­lands of two more county cham­pi­onships and a Le­in­ster ti­tle, their progress had left peo­ple awestruck. When Mer­rins read the fig­ures and put those be­side the achieve­ment he sim­ply couldn’t trust what he was see­ing. He called the Long­ford county sec­re­tary to con­firm their ac­cu­racy, think­ing some of the in­for­ma­tion might have been un­re­li­able.

At the time the to­tal num­ber of boys in the lo­cal na­tional school was 13. To sur­vive on those ra­tions qual­i­fies as an achieve­ment. To win what they have done is scarcely fath­omable. “We are just lucky with a bunch of very tal­ented play­ers com­ing to­gether at the same time re­ally,” says the club sec­re­tary, Pa­trick Matthews, whose fa­ther Mat­tie was goal­keeper on the team in 1950 that won the last county cham­pi­onship be­fore their re­cent re-emer­gence.

The club of 11 town­lands is the small­est in Long­ford and has been able to trump those lim­i­ta­tions to en­gi­neer some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary. Mer­rins, who watched last Sun­day’s out­come with added in­ter­est, agrees that it de­fies logic. “Oh to­tally, but it does show the strength of com­mu­nity. Okay, it is a small club but it has that com­mu­nity spirit. That is some­thing I sup­pose the GAA needs to drive in newer ur­ban ar­eas.”

Matthews, im­mersed all his life in Mul­li­nalaghta, is a re­al­ist. He knows their time in this won­der­land is fi­nite. “It may be a ques­tion of whether you are go­ing to be able to field at any adult level in ten years’ time,” he states soberly. “You might be able to field at ju­nior level. Other clubs the same size as us have had to amal­ga­mate, and some have pretty much folded.”

They could not do it with­out an enor­mous buy-in from play­ers, notably those who are work­ing away and pre­pared to com­mute, in­clud­ing one from the UK, all at their own ex­pense and of their own free will. With a pop­u­la­tion of around 450 that level of com­mit­ment is es­sen­tial. They have been re­warded hugely and pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion to all those who ped­dle the same phi­los­o­phy and be­lief sys­tem in smaller clubs around the coun­try, who swear by the GAA prin­ci­ple of the col­lec­tive in­ter­est. The dis­par­ity in the mem­ber­ship fig­ures be­tween Mul­li­nalaghta and Kil­macud Crokes, 155 to 4,800, is one mea­sure of the gulf be­tween the two clubs that faced one an­other in last Sun­day’s pro­vin­cial fi­nal.

“The thing that came through was the com­mu­nity el­e­ment,” says Mer­rins on this ex­po­sure to the Long­ford club and its mod­est op­er­a­tions. “That was so strong. Take when they won that first cham­pi­onship in 66 years, the first place they went af­ter the fi­nal was the grave­yard to re­mem­ber those who had gone be­fore them.”

Mer­rins has pre­vi­ously been in­volved in study­ing the im­pact of pop­u­la­tion in­creases for the GAA in Kil­dare. The Ru­ral Com­mu­ni­ties Work­group (RCW) which he chaired on be­half of Le­in­ster Coun­cil re­leased its re­port al­most two years ago and called on the GAA to ur­gently ad­dress the is­sues raised. In the ur­ban ar­eas, Mer­rins’ main point is that pop­u­la­tion growth is not be­ing matched by GAA growth.

The RCW es­ti­mated that in Le­in­ster, out­side of Dublin, no new clubs will be formed in the next 15 years. They re­ported 20 fewer clubs in the prov­ince in 2016 com­pared to 1971. The group also raised the pos­si­bil­ity of over 30 clubs ei­ther amal­ga­mat­ing or dis­band­ing in the next 15 years.

There were wor­ry­ing signs of stag­na­tion and de­cline, with 144 fewer teams reg­is­tered in 2016 com­pared to 2010. Up to 40 per cent of teams in sec­ondary com­pe­ti­tion ei­ther failed to play in, or com­plete, their fix­tures pro­gramme in 2016.

All this has hap­pened de­spite the pop­u­la­tion of the 11 coun­ties out­side of Dublin hav­ing in­creased by 108 per cent since 1971. Some 55 per cent of the State’s pop­u­la­tion is now res­i­dent in Le­in­ster, and that is es­ti­mated to in­crease by 500,000 by 2031. The prov­ince is be­com­ing rapidly more ur­banised. In Mer­rins’ own county, Kil­dare, the di­vide is roughly 30 per cent ru­ral and 70 per cent ur­ban, whereas in 1971 it was the other way around.

Seventy-one per cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Ire­land is now res­i­dent in two prov­inces — Le­in­ster, with 39 per cent, and Ul­ster, with 32 per cent. All of this has im­pli­ca­tions for the GAA as it does for so­ci­ety in gen­eral. Dublin ac­counts for over 50 per cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion of its prov­ince and Dublin has a greater pop­u­la­tion than ei­ther Mun­ster or Con­nacht.

“As it stands the GAA will con­tinue to lose clubs,” the work­group’s re­port noted, “be­com­ing less and less rel­e­vant in the prov­ince. Ur­ban­i­sa­tion is not just a phe­nom­e­non of Dublin and the com­muter belt. All coun­ties have large ur­ban ar­eas that will form a greater per­cent­age of each county’s pop­u­la­tion as the years progress. This very fact is a ma­jor chal­lenge for the GAA in Le­in­ster, and the GAA needs to re­spond strate­gi­cally to this chal­lenge.

“The need to ac­tively build on, and es­tab­lish in some cases, con­struc­tive and pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships with stake­hold­ers out­side of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, such as the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, lo­cal au­thor­ity sec­tor, other statu­tory bod­ies and the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment in gen­eral is cru­cial.”

The in­ward mi­gra­tion wit­nessed in many parts of the prov­ince has not ben­e­fited Mul­li­nalaghta but the club has been eco­nom­i­cal with thread­bare re­sources. “The club/school link is max­imised, it needs to be for sur­vival, with play­ers past and present giv­ing of their time in a well-oiled coach­ing struc­ture with ev­ery child play­ing Gaelic games,” Mer­rins’ work­group found. “Rep­re­sent­ing St Columba’s GAA club, Mul­li­nalaghta is more than rep­re­sent­ing a club, it is rep­re­sent­ing your com­mu­nity, your fam­ily, the past, present and fu­ture.

“We should not take clubs like Mul­li­nalaghta for granted and be con­scious that a small neg­a­tive change in pop­u­la­tion, a loss of a strong par­tic­i­pat­ing fam­ily or fam­i­lies or the loss of an in­flu­en­tial club of­fi­cer, coach or teacher could have a cat­a­strophic ef­fect on a club of this size.”

But ris­ing num­bers cre­ate prob­lems and chal­lenges too, maybe even greater ones than where the stocks are low. The group also looked at the highly pop­u­lated north-east re­gion of Kil­dare, in the greater Dublin com­muter belt. There are eight clubs in this re­gion, with Cel­bridge, Con­fey, Leixlip, Maynooth and Kil­cock clas­si­fied as ur­ban, while Straf­fan, Ard­clough and Rath­cof­fey are des­ig­nated ru­ral, de­spite their prox­im­ity to a vast ur­ban area.

While the over­all pop­u­la­tion of this area has ex­ploded in the last few decades, the ru­ral clubs, due to Gov­ern­ment plan­ning pol­icy and cir­cum­stance, have not grown in re­cent years and needed to amal­ga­mate at un­der­age level. Ard­clough, a dual club with a strong tra­di­tion and good fa­cil­i­ties, in re­cent years found them­selves un­able to field in the pri­mary foot­ball com­pe­ti­tions at adult level, re­grad­ing to the sec­ondary com­pe­ti­tion, due to lack of num­bers.

In the area as a whole 8,200 chil­dren at­tend pri­mary school. “On the face of it,” the re­port stated, “you would imag­ine that all three clubs should have suf­fi­cient num­bers to field in­de­pen­dently at un­der­age and have a suc­cess­ful adult struc­ture. The re­al­ity is that a huge per­cent­age of those at­tend­ing these schools are com­ing from the ad­ja­cent ur­ban ar­eas and are not lo­cal to the com­mu­nity.”

Colm Cum­mins chairs the Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment Ur­ban & Ru­ral Com­mit­tee, which will run for the three years of John Ho­ran’s pres­i­dency. His own club Eden­derry is an ex­am­ple of a small tra­di­tional ru­ral club that has been im­pacted by huge pop­u­la­tion growth.

“It’s just on the edge of the com­muter belt,” he says. “Our pop­u­la­tion went from 3,000 less than 20 years ago to where it is head­ing for 10,000 now. You have a lot of new Ir­ish. You have a lot of Dublin peo­ple mov­ing down. A lot are not tra­di­tion­ally GAA. Our club wasn’t ready to cater for that surge in num­bers. We had a fa­cil­i­ties deficit. We were set up in a very tra­di­tional way. We weren’t open enough. So we re­struc­tured our ad­min­is­tra­tion and we worked on re­cruit­ment. I have a plan­ning back­ground my­self. I had a knowl­edge of the de­mo­graph­ics.”

The com­mit­tee he chairs is look­ing at ways of help­ing all GAA units down to club level to dis­cover how to read the pat­terns of pop­u­la­tion change in ad­vance and plan ac­cord­ingly. The com­mit­tee will be pro­vid­ing soft­ware in the New Year that will make ac­cess­ing rel­e­vant

‘Rep­re­sent­ing St Columba’s is more than rep­re­sent­ing a club’

in­for­ma­tion on de­mo­graph­ics in var­i­ous catch­ment ar­eas a much eas­ier task.

In Le­in­ster, Long­ford has the great­est ru­ral-ur­ban di­vide, with a 33 per cent ur­ban com­po­nent and 67 per cent ru­ral. Kil­dare has the high­est ur­ban club de­mo­graphic. In Wick­low, Meath and Louth, the ur­ban de­mo­graphic dom­i­nates and it is al­most 50-50 in Laois, Car­low, Of­faly and West­meath. The GAA is ea­ger to re­spond and adapt to those changes and re­alises that a one-size so­lu­tion does not fit all.

Each club is dif­fer­ent and even in ru­ral ar­eas there are vari­a­tions and com­plex­i­ties that need to be taken into ac­count when mak­ing club pol­icy de­ci­sions.

Since 1971, Le­in­ster has more than dou­bled its pop­u­la­tion, with a stag­ger­ing 235 per cent in­crease in the prov­ince. In Meath over that pe­riod the pop­u­la­tion in­crease has been 190 per cent and the in­crease is greater still in Kil­dare. In 2016, the pop­u­la­tion of

Meath was just un­der 200,000, while Kil­dare was just over 220,000. Long­ford had the small­est in­crease over that time pe­riod, 41 per cent, with its 2016 pop­u­la­tion be­ing 40,810. Ac­cord­ing to Cum­mins, the plight of ur­ban clubs, who are un­able to cope with es­ca­lat­ing num­bers, and the ru­ral clubs, whose sur­vival is threat­ened by de­pop­u­la­tion, is one of the great­est chal­lenges for the GAA. “Anec­do­tally the vibes I sup­pose com­ing from ru­ral clubs is de­pop­u­la­tion and they are all strug­gling and then ur­ban clubs with a lot of growth par­tic­u­larly in new ar­eas and in the com­muter belts. So we have looked at that. And what you find is that there are some that buck the trend. Not all ru­ral ar­eas de­pop­u­lated, some have growth. What we are try­ing to do is get an ac­cu­rate mea­sure­ment on it for the As­so­ci­a­tion.

“We are putting to­gether a tool that can be used at all lev­els of the As­so­ci­a­tion, na­tional, pro­vin­cial, county and even down to the club level, to ex­tract the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion from the CSO data and the data avail­able in the six coun­ties, so that the is­sues that are out there in terms of ru­ral clubs can be iden­ti­fied in ad­vance and planned for.

“What we are try­ing to do then as a com­mit­tee is present the hard facts so that these de­ci­sions can be made based on that hard ev­i­dence to try and keep the club units go­ing, to help deal with de­clin­ing num­bers, or where you have places like west Kerry that have been iden­ti­fied al­ready that are de­pop­u­lated. And what this tool will help us achieve is that we will know that five and ten years in ad­vance.”

For big­ger clubs in ur­ban ar­eas, a ma­jor chal­lenge is ob­tain­ing fa­cil­i­ties. An­other is find­ing a means of ser­vic­ing the vast num­bers in their catch­ment area. “In these mas­sive clubs where you might have 100 un­der 8s, are they re­ally able to cater for all of those?” asks Cum­mins. “Wouldn’t it be bet­ter to have a sec­ond club? And again in a sit­u­a­tion like this the in­for­ma­tion is key, de­ci­sions can be ev­i­dence-based.”

Cum­mins says they in­tend to pi­lot the project in the new year in six coun­ties and then roll it out to the oth­ers in the prov­ince. “Our goal will al­ways be to re­tain as many of the clubs as pos­si­ble and what we are do­ing is to pro­vide the tools to do that,” he says. “But some­times it is just down to the per­son­al­i­ties that are in­volved in a club who are run­ning it at such a level that peo­ple want to be in­volved in it. And Mul­li­nalaghta prob­a­bly have that at the mo­ment, both on the field and off the field, and that is where their suc­cess de­rives from.”

A de­lighted Shane Mul­li­gan the mo­ment of tri­umph.Photo: Daire Bren­nan savours

John Kee­gan (left) and Si­mon Cadam cel­e­brat­ing last Sun­day

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