Radical solutions needed as rural GAA clubs struggle to field at all ages

New web-based tool gathers information to identify the specific problems faced by every single club in the country
Radical solutions needed as rural GAA clubs struggle to field at all ages

Ballyhea's Tom Hanley breaks from Bishopstown's Conor Hegarty during the Co-Op Superstores Cork Premier Hurling relegation play-off last season. Ballyhea draw off a small rural base, especially compared to Bishopstown in the city. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

TEN years ago, a report commissioned by the Kerry County Board underlined how much rural depopulation was threatening the survival of many smaller clubs in the county.

The study showed how only 37% of clubs were able to field a 15-a-side team at minor level, which was hugely worrying when compared with contrasting numbers over a 13-year period, which represented a drop of 54%.

Some of the report’s recommendations were largely aspirational but addressing the threats of rural depopulation would inevitably become more important in the future in light of in increasing urbanisation.

When similar numbers were collated again in 2018, 30% of Kerry clubs weren’t able to field a 15-a-side team at U16. 

Yet Kerry weren’t an isolated case because the biggest challenge facing the GAA is the population shift from rural to urban areas, and the inevitable by-products; rural clubs are in danger of being wiped out, while urban clubs are struggling to cater for increasing population numbers.

When the GAA’s Community Development, Urban and Rural committee was established by John Horan, Chairman Colm Cummins made it a priority to gather all the information together to identify the specific problems faced by every single club in the country.

Cummins developed a web-based tool Geographic Information System (GIS) to parse all demographic data relevant to GAA clubs from the Central Statistics Office, the Department of Education and equivalent bodies in the six counties.

Initially piloted in four counties – Kerry, Roscommon, Tyrone and Westmeath – the GIS tool enables clubs to identify their catchment area on a map, and generate the information they require in graphic format.

Much of that process is based on projections but clubs and counties will now be able to begin planning more progressively for the future once the GAA rolls out their ground-breaking GIS tool around the country.

PROACTIVE

Providing information on birth-rates and population will enable clubs to be more proactive than reactionary to the threats posed by rural depopulation. Data such as plummeting birth rates over a sustained period will allow clubs to plan for impending amalgamations with another club, or clubs.

The process will be spearheaded by the GAA’s Education Officer, Peter Horgan, and part-funded by the Sport Ireland Dormant Accounts Fund. Being synced with ‘Foireann’, the GAA’s recently launched new Games Management System, will also make it possible to continue updating the data on the GIS on a live basis.

The GIS can also be harnessed to provide valuable information across the board, ranging from participation rates to coaching numbers in a particular club. In an interview with John Harrington on GAA.ie, Horgan said that using the information GIS collates will be just as important as collecting it in the first place.

“We'll know a lot more about club numbers and population trends,” said Horgan. “We need to work on understanding what is happening that causes these numbers, what could assist clubs and how do we progress that. How do we apply the information and knowledge we glean to policy change and potentially rule change within the organisation?”

The continued population shifts from rural to urban areas requires new and more flexible policy surrounding player eligibility. 

With different by-laws in different counties, there needs to be more uniformity around rules and regulations.

Cummins has spoken about sanctioning players from outside in order to keep a particular club from going out of existence. Bending the rules that far may seem completely against the GAA’s core philosophy but Cummins mentioned the precedent of players being given weekend sanctions in the past to play with clubs in the US. 

In any case, the GIS data could inform how long such a policy would need to be in place until a particular club had the numbers to stand on their own two feet again.

Rural depopulation is inevitable but increasing urbanisation has forced the GAA to start thinking laterally in every direction. While rural clubs need more guidance on exploiting whatever resources they can muster to stay alive, and to keep their members playing, town and city clubs must also accept the creation of new clubs to cater for the rising numbers in their area.

Clonakilty's Maurice Shanley goes high with Newcestown's Fionn Keane. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Clonakilty's Maurice Shanley goes high with Newcestown's Fionn Keane. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Clubs will inevitably want to maintain their independence and identity, but the rules must also be adapted to suit the needs of modern society.

That could extend as far as a draft system whereby players moving to Dublin could be transferred into clubs that need additional players, as opposed to some of those players being recruited by some of the superclubs in the capital. 

The approach could be incentivised by granting a ‘dual-licence’ to allow those drafted players to also line out for their own club – if their numbers were tight – in the local club championships.

The GAA certainly needs to think more outside the box right across the board. With so many successive Governments focusing on centralisation to the cost of rural Ireland, Cummins has long believed in the GAA’s potential ability to influence policy, especially considering how important the GAA has been in keeping so many areas of rural Ireland alive.

In that context, the GAA needs to be more proactive in terms of engaging with Government on a local and national level for the benefit of its members in both rural and urban areas.

For now, at least, the GAA have moved to try and address the issue. But radical thinking is the only way forward in trying to find some kind of a feasible solution to such a complex problem.

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