spillane's view | 

GAA are facing up to an urban versus rural divide –but not along the traditional lines

City slickers dominate GAA landscape as urban sides how that size matters

Templenoe’s Tadhg Morley at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney© SPORTSFILE

A lone fan at a Templenoe match this year© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

Over the years, I have written a lot about my home club Templenoe. By now, most readers must be familiar with our set-up.

We are one of the smallest clubs in Kerry with a paid-up membership of just over 100.

There is no national school in the area and virtually no local employment.

During the 90s and early noughties, we were down in Division 5 and struggling to field an adult team. It was all about survival.

The wheel has turned full circle. Right now, we are on the crest of a wave and contested the recent Kerry senior championship final.

We are the only rural-based club playing in the county senior championship – the other seven clubs came from Killarney (3), Tralee (3) and Dingle (1).

And, of course, we had four players – the most from any club – on the Kerry squad which won the All-Ireland in July.

We know this boom will not last. It is a numbers game.

As is the case with all small clubs, success is very much cyclical. Sadly, there will be more bleak days in the future.

It is a similar story all around us in south Kerry.

Tuosist, situated across the bay, struggled to field a team this year in adult competitions. Valentia Island didn’t field an adult team in 2022.

A lone fan at a Templenoe match this year© SPORTSFILE

The south Kerry minor championship has just concluded. There were 11 clubs involved, but only five teams participated.

Nationwide, urban clubs dominated the county senior championships this season.

Here’s just a sample.

In Cork, the hurling and football finals were contested by three city clubs – Nemo Rangers, Blackrock and St Finbarrs, who featured in both deciders.

The Clare football champions, Éire Óg, are based in Ennis. The Waterford and Limerick senior hurling titles were claimed by city-based Ballygunner and Na Piarsaigh, respectively.

In Kildare, Naas won the football and hurling double for a second year in a row. They are a one-town club in an area with a population of 21,000. The club has 3,000 members and field 100 teams.

In Dublin, the super clubs dominated both codes, with Kilmacud Crokes beating Na Fianna in both the football and hurling deciders.

Clonmel Commercials ruled the roost in Tipperary; Portarlington in Laois; St Patrick’s, who are based in Wicklow Town, in the Garden County; Carrick-on-Shannon-based St Mary’s Kiltoghert in Leitrim; Ratoath in Meath; Ballybay in Monaghan and Enniskillen Gaels in Fermanagh.

Three of the Mayo semi-finalists – Westport, the winners, Ballina and Castlebar are urban clubs.

Of course, there were a couple of outliers such as Kilcoo in Down and Tourlestrane in Sligo, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

So, why is this happening?

It is obvious the urban clubs are bigger and stronger, but the situation in rural Ireland is more complex.

Though they might be called rural clubs, those based on commuter routes, or in commuter towns, are thriving.

For example, the East Kerry divisional side pull their players from a rapidly-expanding area between Killarney, Tralee and Killorglin.

The new Galway football champions are from Moycullen, which is, essentially, a satellite town for Galway city. Palatine, the Carlow champions, are based close to Carlow town.

The problems facing the GAA are a mirror image of the issues facing society. We have an urban versus rural divide, but it is not along the traditional lines.

And we must challenge the narrative that everything in rural Ireland is rosy since Covid 19 due to people moving back home to work. It’s not as simple as that.

Granted, things are improving, but there is a long, long way to go.

For example, GAA clubs and communities, particularly along the western seaboard and in the BMW (border, midland, western) regions are struggling.

It made my blood boil when I read at the weekend that the government annually forks out €42m in prize money – which is tax-free – to the horse-racing industry.

Any time there is a debate about how much money the government pours into the horse racing and greyhound sectors, we are told how thousands of livelihoods in rural Ireland depend on these sectors.

This is the kind of horse shit (excuse the pun) which must be challenged.

There is a big divide in rural Ireland. Big farmers and horse breeders – thanks in part to the subsidy from taxpayers – are doing very well, but in the peripheral areas that I alluded to earlier, small farmers trying to eke out a living on poor land can’t breed horses.

It is these parts of the country which need government assistance. Wealthy horse breeders/owners are more than capable of looking after themselves.

I once chaired a national GAA rural/urban committee. It was a bit of a joke of a committee because it was like being Minister for Arts and also Fisheries. The two sectors don’t have much in common.

Likewise, the problems facing rural clubs are different from those facing urban clubs. The latter need more pitches, but land is seriously expensive. Rural clubs have lots of land but no players.

Anyway, I presented a paper to the GAA management committee based on a plan to create 10 jobs around every GAA club. The committee unanimously adopted the proposal.

There was a change of president soon afterwards and I lost my job. I sometimes wonder what happened to the plan.

Recently, I came across some notes I made 10 years ago, when I was involved with CEDRA (Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas). Nothing much has changed in the interim.

Here’s what I noted:

1. Lots of policies but little vision; 2.East-coast solutions to west-coast problems; 3. We need economic drivers for targeted towns and villages; 4. Rural policy must keep in line with changing circumstances.

The last point is probably the most important one. The bottom line is there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different rural areas need different solutions.

So how does this apply to rural GAA clubs?

Survive

We know they are struggling for numbers. In order for them to survive, the GAA has to think outside the box.

Here are a few ideas:

1. Regardless of where they reside, players be should allowed to join clubs their parents played for – provided these clubs are based in designated areas; 2. The parish rule be abolished; 3. Underage players be allowed play at adult level in designated rural clubs.

Valentia Island made a plea at Congress a few years for this rule to be brought in. Unfortunately, it was turned down, which has now resulted in the club not being able to field a team at adult level.

We ought not to forget that the GAA club is the glue which keeps many communities who have lost their national school, post office and shop joined together.

The GAA and the Government need to work together.

At the moment, there is no national plan. There are too many agencies all looking after their own patch – and too many sticking-plaster solutions.

There is a bit for everybody in the audience but no big picture.

What constitutes rural Ireland must be refined, with the focus shifting to small rural towns and communities in specific regions.

It is time to put national interests ahead of sectional ones.

We need a fresh approach and new thinking, with the government and the GAA coming together to deliver for these targeted areas.

We don’t need any more grandiose plans. We need action.


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