THIS month two years ago, after Wexford was hit with its worst snowstorm since 1947, the front page of the Wexford People newspaper carried a picture of the army clearing mounds of snow off the streets and screamed with the headline: ‘It’s Snow Joke’.
Under the strapline ‘Wexford Whiteout’ the paper carried over 20 pages of stories ranging from how Wexford Harbour had frozen, to ambulances being stopped in their tracks, to how thousands of people had been left without running water.
One story told of how a funeral that was due to take place on a Friday morning but was cancelled due to the snow, went ahead on Sunday thanks to the efforts of a local community.
Myles Doyle, chairman of the Shelmalier GAA Club said that a tractor and trailer had been on standby for Sunday if the hearse had been unable to get through the snow.
After Doyle put up a message online at 10.30am on the Saturday asking people to meet up at midday and bring a shovel, 30 people showed up with just an hour’s notice and cleared the path from the church to the grave. “The family,” said Doyle in the Wexford People “was overwhelmed by the response and turnout at such short notice.”
The deceased had been a member of the Shelmalier club but the response of the GAA in times of a crisis has always been admirable. If anything, hard times often trigger the most latent examples of the community spirit the GAA inspires.
A couple of weeks after that snowstorm in 2018, the Metro Hotel in Ballymun was engulfed in flames. With the building also containing apartments, the blaze led to a number of people losing their homes and possessions.
The local GAA club Ballymun Kickhams instantly mobilised. On their Facebook page, the Kickhams reached out to people to bring along ‘clothes/shoes etc for a wide variety of ages and sizes for the families affected’.
The current crisis is far wider and more serious.
This time around, the response requires neighbours, families and parishes to pull together in whatever way they can. Yet the way in how that response is often just a reflex reaction anyway in times of a dire crisis offers a simple reflection in how sports clubs — and particularly GAA people — knit together the fabric of so many communities.
For more than a century, the GAA has provided far more support than just the games itself. The Association has created a greater sense of community and inspired huge local pride because, in so many areas, the community is the GAA.
That is particularly relevant in rural clubs but the GAA plays just as big a part in the big towns and cities.
Last year, the Dublin county board and the Na Fianna club in Glasnevin commissioned Sandra Velthuls of Whitebarn Consulting to conduct research, which sought to put a value on what a GAA club does.
Velthuls, who is an accredited practitioner of social return on investment (SROI), used a ‘monetisation’ process that equates the value that people place on outcomes generated by an organisation or programme to other things that they attach importance to.
The extensive body of research undertaken over the course of a year showed that the social value to the work and investment undertaken by Na Fianna to their membership and wider community amounted to €50 million.
When the approach and findings are applied to all 91 clubs in the greater Dublin area, the conservative social value is placed at €1 billion.
The €50m figure works out at a return of €15 for every one euro invested based on an investment in time and money of €3.5m, €800,000 in cash and €2.5m in volunteer time, with the rest made up in assets and proxies.
According to the findings, players got the biggest benefit, estimated to be worth €40m, parents got €5.3m worth of social value with supporters knocking €1.44m out of their association to Na Fianna.
With the consultation focusing on what people felt they got out of their involvement in a GAA club with Na Fianna’s profile, the revelations were hugely positive; 93% said their physical and mental health improved in a way it would not have without club involvement; 97% learned new sporting and life skills; 89% formed friendships at Na Fianna that they would not have otherwise made; 97% of parents believed that Na Fianna provides their children with valuable health and social benefit.
Na Fianna is a massive club, but the study still showcased the GAA’s sort of quiet neighbourly way of looking after others.
Despite the image now of the GAA becoming more elitist and moving away from its grassroots, the GAA works because of what roots it in the smallest and biggest communities everywhere — identity and connection.
The GAA has already shown huge leadership by opening up Croke Park and Páirc Uí Chaoimh to the HSE during the current Covid-19 crisis.
On GAA WhatsApp groups everywhere around the country, members have been offering to do what they can to help those most in need. Social media was dominated in recent days by inter-county players posting messages to reaffirm the importance of how everyone can play their part in fighting Covid-19.
And that message is all the more powerful again when it comes from local heroes.