EARLIER this week, TJ Reid took to Twitter to amplify a sentiment that is become more and more pronounced in rural Ireland with each passing day.
“Please reopen our GAA pitches,” wrote Reid. “Public parks are open and were packed over the weekend, yet rural club areas within 5km of people’s homes can’t be accessed for use of safe walkways and to enjoy the grassroots of the community.”
Reid’s comments were similar to those aired by Paudie Murray, Cork camogie manager, a few weeks back. Murray spoke about being in a park in Cork City that was crammed with people playing GAA or training.
“You have groups training and we have grounds locked up,” said Murray. “I can’t see why from next week onwards groups of four can’t go into pitches in a supervised environment, better than any park. Herding club players out into parks I don’t think is right.”
Similar scenarios are happening throughout the country but, more in an urban than rural setting. Because in most rural communities, the only park that exists, or ever will in that area, is the GAA pitch.
Outside of the cities and big towns, there are minimal municipal pitches around rural Ireland. If there is a municipal pitch somewhere within striking distance, most are still outside the 5km travel limit.
People have been finding their own ways of keeping active and busy; walking, cycling, hiking, swimming. Open water swimming may be stretching it because only a small percentage of people are close to a beach.
Other sports are also back; golf, tennis, sailing. Golf is a popular sport but most members of their clubs live beyond the 5km limit.
Tennis and sailing are certainly marginal sports. In any case, those sports aren’t going to attract huge numbers from rural Ireland.
The crisis has been hard on so many of those communities, especially when the GAA effectively is the community in rural Ireland.
The GAA has shown huge leadership in the current crisis. Apart from wanting to safeguard their members, one of the main reasons the GAA were so firm in their stance of closing their grounds stemmed from frustration with the Government.
The GAA have been having weekly meetings with government departments. Yet the GAA hierarchy were annoyed when, despite what had been agreed between both parties in principle, those agreements didn’t seem to be reflected by the public comments of some government officials.
Despite the Government’s roadmap for reopening the country allowing for pitches to reopen on May 18, the GAA wanted to be definitive in their approach. And the decision to lock the gates of every pitch until July 20 was as definitive as the GAA could have been.
That move though, is getting harder and harder to justify with each passing week, especially in rural communities, and particularly with packed parks all over the cities and towns.
Safety, and protecting people, must always come first. But it’s harder again for rural communities to watch their club grounds remain closed when the vast majority of Covid-19 infection rates are in the cities.
In that context, it’s difficult to see people staying away from club grounds until July 20. Some won’t, which raises another point made by Murray.
“The other fear I have with grounds locked up is young fellas climbing over walls and spiked fences getting into these grounds,” he said. “You’d fear for them. I think they [the GAA] will come under pressure next week and the week after trying to keep people off their pitches.”
All those are legitimate fears but, as the weeks move on, the biggest fear with anybody breaching regulations focuses on insurance.
In mid-March, the GAA suspended its player injury scheme but continues to have cover in place for club facilities and those engaged in other activity such as maintenance.
That reality still hasn’t detracted from the increasing demands to reopen club facilities. GAA president John Horan’s undertaking to examine the possibility of organising volunteers to supervise the opening of club walkways for the elderly looks on track to begin by June 8.
That is a positive first step but the GAA have rightly had to monitor every step carefully. If the doors were swung open on May 18, how could the GAA have implemented a policing system at the gate of every club, trying to monitor who went in and out?
What would happen if a group of four players developed into seven or eight? Would there be a standoff with a supervisor if a coach decided to risk doing tackling drills?
Where would it all stop, or potentially end up?
Of course, everyone is still trying to look at the bigger picture, especially in rural communities. “In terms of mental fitness, the pitches around Ireland can give a lot,” said Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy recently. “Especially in rural Ireland, I think it’d be a massive win.”
Sheedy also said he was confident that the GAA could trust the clubs and members to respect the rules.
“And look,” said Sheedy “if it can’t be policed or if it can’t be supported, or if there’s misbehaviour, then you lock the gates.”
That’s a situation most people want but it would still be a tricky assignment for any supervisors.
In any case, the Covid-19 numbers will still decide the GAA’s next move.
And if the numbers keep improving, the GAA’s schedule will surely reflect that by moving forward more quickly.