FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT Lacken GAA Chairman Paddy Connor who found his club at a crossroads this year due to falling numbers. Pic: David Farrell
We often consider Mayo one homogenous county facing the same battles collectively. Perhaps that’s because of our collective pride of place. However, it is worth pointing out that there is a considerable gulf between certain areas of this county.
One of our columnists, seasoned economist Dr John Bradley, observed of a north-south divide in his 2019 report, ‘The Economy of County Mayo’.
Dr Bradley highlighted the empirical evidence showing how some parts of the county are growing while others stagnate.
Ballinrobe, for instance, saw its population grow from 1991-2016 by 127 percent. Crossmolina, meanwhile, went the other way, falling 13 percent.
Across the board, there was a general trend – towns in the south, east and centre of the county were growing at a far greater rate than those in the north and north-west. Dr Bradley identified better road and rail access to Dublin, as well as proximity to Galway, as reasons for the relatively stronger growth in the south of the county.
It’s a subject that we’ve discussed at length for an upcoming episode of The Mayo News Football Podcast.
Yes, a football podcast – because on the football fields of this county, GAA clubs are facing the reality of these depopulation trends, and it is clear that it is at its apex in the north and north-west of the county.
The issue came to prominence earlier this year when Lacken, a proud club a few short miles from Mayo’s first-ever settlement at the Céide Fields, was forced to withdraw from the Mayo club championship due to falling numbers.
As we outline in the podcast, the only national school in the parish of Lacken has just 27 children. School numbers are a very useful reference for the future prospects of a GAA club.
The Lacken NS numbers are extremely low, but they are not the only area being impacted by stalled economic growth.
In Kiltane parish, a proud GAA heartland, the current national school populations are exactly one third of what they were in 1994. In the three schools of Bangor Erris, Geesala and Doohoma, there are 112 pupils, compared to 336 in 1994.
In the parishes of Ballycroy, Ballycastle and Achill, the primary school populations have fallen by more than half in that timeframe.
Contrast this with the two big towns in south Mayo. Claremorris, with its greater proximity to Castlebar and Galway, and even Dublin, has seen national school numbers climb by 17 percent in that time, from 636 to 742.
The jump is greater still in Ballinrobe, a staggering 41 percent increase from 388 in 1994 to 549 now.
Of course, it is not just location that is key, but urban centres are overtaking rural villages considerably in terms of growth.
In Erris, Belmullet is an antidote to Kiltane, as it has a large enough urban centre that can sustain people under current spatial strategies in the way many other villages and townlands cannot.
Our Mayo News Football Podcast guests were Dr Bradley and Ciarán O’Hara, Chairperson of Kiltane GAA Club, who joined co-hosts Rob Murphy and Edwin McGreal.
O’Hara makes the salient point that while we often look at the Border, Midland and Western (BMW) region as underdeveloped and under resourced (which it is), we miss the reality that in Mayo there is a ‘BMW’ region that we do not talk about, running north from Achill into Erris and east to Ballina.
Do we want this to continue indefinitely?
The Mayo News Football Podcast on rural depopulation will be available to listen to next week on iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. You can also listen to it directly on The Mayo News website as well as mayogaablog.com.