Pitching for a future

Notes from the Western Periphery

County GAA and regional development

John Bradley

Although I get caught up in community support and enthusiasm for Mayo’s struggle to bring Sam home, my knowledge of the hard work behind the team effort is limited.
Back in the 1970s I shared an office in the Central Bank with Robbie Kelleher, Dublin star of the decade and the most modest of men. I used wonder why people dropped by on Mondays to talk football with Robbie. Giving him a lift home one day, he mentioned that he was off to the States. I asked where to? It turned out it was with the All- Stars! I almost crashed the car!
How could I have missed that? My colleagues felt that I needed to attend at least one match in Croke Park. But I caused hilarity when I arrived with a book to read during what I anticipated would be the quieter moments.
And then I read James Laffey’s extraordinary book ‘Will Galway Beat Mayo? How a 1960s’ GAA Rivalry Reawakened the West’. Two aspects of this book fascinated me. One was the energy, hard slog and dedication that was needed to bring the Galway and Mayo county-level teams to the peak of national performance. The other was the account of the evolving socioeconomic background to the sporting struggle, with its insights into a paralysing and static life that was slowly changing as Ireland modernised.
Counties are geographical units that attract fierce loyalty in Ireland. If in Northern Ireland tribal territory is staked out with Union Jack versus Tricolour, here it is staked out more benignly with flags of county GAA colours. Even the cycleways in Mayo have tarmac in green and red!
The challenges facing the GAA in Galway and Mayo were formidable as the dreadful 1950s drew to a close. In counties of relatively low population, haemorrhaging its active people through emigration, and with limited employment opportunities, the sporting turnaround during the 1960s was remarkable. But it puzzled me that sporting identity with the county did not spill over to any great extent to the challenges of county development and economic renewal.

Policy potholes
In 2019, I carried out a study of the economy of Mayo, probably the first time this was ever done for an Irish county. What surprised me was that many of my ‘findings’ were not part of regular county dialogue and discussion. The county level north-south divide, with slow town growth in the north and rapid growth in the south, was hidden. The embryonic, vibrant entrepreneurial county business culture, with small firms competing successfully on the world stage, was seldom celebrated. The policy consequences of scattered towns all over the county, with no Galway-like metropolis to act as a business and social attractor, were not understood.
A lack of countywide development continues to haunt the GAA clubs in smaller Mayo towns and villages, as recently documented by Edwin McGreal in this newspaper. And this brings me to the second theme in James Laffey’s book.
The assertion that regional development is a positive-sum game (everyone benefits) rather than a zero-sum game (my gain is your loss) has never been put better than in the book’s introduction. In view of Galway’s rise to GAA prominence, Laffey writes:
“Suddenly the rules of engagement had entirely changed and the Mayo men had a whole new set of exacting standards to meet: being competitive was no longer good enough, they must be better than the best in Ireland if they were to regain their status in Connacht.”

Strangulation by strategy
Whereas strategy on the playing field was something that the counties could tackle internally, development strategy continued to come from outside. Great hope was expressed in the construction of the peat-fuelled electricity-generating station at Bellacorick, commissioned in 1962 and decommissioned in 2005. While hiking recently near Bellacorick, I found a sad, abandoned and decaying village.
The abandonment of Inishark in 1960 was a dark metaphor for a more general abandonment of the west. Not that life on an isolated island was a bed of roses. But the failure of Government to offer support to the islanders who wished to remain resulted in unnecessary deaths and eventual exodus. A process eerily like how another resource, the Western Rail Corridor, was first starved of support and then strangled.
The other economic initiative described in the book is Tynagh lead and zinc mines, which opened in 1965. Either through lack of Government resources or lack of interest, the mine was developed by a Canadian multinational, which was also the main beneficiary. There was limited spillover to the surrounding regional economy, the boom was ephemeral and the mines closed in 1981. Not for the Irish government the muscular approach of Norway to exploiting their natural resources.
Bellacorick and Tynagh were flagship projects, wildly popular politically, but they did not address the underlying needs of the regions. They flamed up and then burned out. So the puzzle remains. Counties that were so successful in developing winning GAA strategies on the field delegated off-field county development strategy to central government. The level of care, attention and planning devoted to Sam was never marshalled to win the county development game.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.