GAA clubs’ struggles underlines reality of rural depopulation

Features

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT Lacken Sarsfields GAA club chairman Paddy Connor is pictured with one of the club’s underage players, Padraig Breslin, at the club grounds in June 2020. The club have struggled in recent years due to dwindling numbers and have withdrawn from this year’s Mayo Junior Football Championship. Pic: David Farrell

The challenges facing many Mayo GAA clubs are symptomatic of huge change in Ireland

Analysis
Edwin McGreal

THE news last week that Lacken Sarsfields GAA club had been beaten in a Mayo Junior championship clash with Kilmovee Shamrocks by 50 points (9-23 to 0-0) sent shockwaves around the county.
This proud North Mayo club, who are over 100 year old, are on their knees.
A club meeting was held last week and a decision taken to concede their remaining two Junior championship matches against Achill and Cill Chomáin.
There are particular GAA arguments to be considered here, such as a structure that allows teams worlds apart to play at the same grade, but underlining everything are socio-economic factors which cannot be ignored.
In very simple terms it comes down to numbers.
Right now, the only school in the Lacken area has just 27 pupils, 12 girls and 15 boys.
Schools have closed in the area and families have left, some to Ballina, others much further.
With little job prospects, difficulties in getting planning, and with the community’s numbers dwindling, it is little surprise the numbers have fallen.  
Few of the current Lacken GAA players live in the area. Instead they return home from all over the country for the love of the club.
But their children are extremely unlikely to play for Lacken.
It is a problem not unique to Lacken and is a consequence of many socio-economic factors such as urbanisation, lack of rural employment, infrastructure and planning.
Lacken are, right now, at a crossroads that many more GAA clubs will find themselves at in the coming years.
GAA clubs are a prism through which to examine many of the issues and challenges facing rural Ireland.

Erris erosion
KILTANE played Garrymore in the Mayo GAA Senior Football Championship last week.
In some respects, it is a world removed from the likes of a Lacken at the bottom of junior, but poke under the bonnet a bit and there’s more similarities than you might think.
Both are rural clubs with all the challenges that entails in the 21st century.
Currently there’s three national schools in the parish of Kiltane: Bangor Erris, Geesala and Doohoma.
Between them, there’s 112 pupils, 48 boys and 64 girls.
It’s much healthier than Lacken, of course, but when you look at demographic trends, you see why people in places like Kiltane ought to be worried.
In 1994, those three schools had 336 pupils, exactly three times the current figure.
A huge fall in just one generation.
“It just makes you think that if the trend continues, are we gone in 30 years?,” wonders Kiltane GAA club chairman, Ciarán O’Hara. “Were Lacken seeing a trend like this 30 years ago?”
At the other end of the county, the Garrymore area saw the closure of Cloghans Hill NS earlier this year. The numbers just weren’t there to keep the school open.
“Population decline is the single greatest issue facing rural GAA clubs,” says O’Hara, who has researched the topic considerably.
“You are looking at the fact that part of the problem is created by policy in our country. It is now virtually impossible to get planning permission to build in your own parish.
“There is a low housing stock, that’s a national issue, so you cannot purchase in your own parish and what is happening is all the development is happening in urban settings. So you have urban growth and rural decline. That has a knock-on effect for the GAA.
“This comes back to our national spatial strategy and government policy importing a policy from another country with a history of towns and villages, but Ireland is based on hamlets and townlands and it is not recognised in the spatial strategy. We are trying to impose middle England on Ireland when it is not at all appropriate.
“If we lose our GAA clubs in rural areas, we lose a social inclusion that’s vital to those communities.”
O’Hara can speak from experience. A TV producer, he moved home to Doolough from Dublin four years ago and were it not for the availability of an old family home, he doesn’t think he would be able to live in Kiltane parish.
“A working hub is opening in Geesala. These initiatives are great but the housing stock is not there and people cannot get planning so people working in these hubs might be living in Belmullet. Four or five of our seniors are living in Belmullet and their kids will probably end up playing for Belmullet which is great for them but we could end up out of existence.”
He could just as easily be speaking about Garrymore GAA club. Its magic is in its rurality. Éamon Ó Cuív was once a TD for the area and in our ‘What’s Best for the West’ series last year, which examined the issue of regional development, Ó Cuív said areas like Garrymore (which doesn’t have a church, shop or pub) are the antidote to much of the spatial strategy in this country.
“Garrymore is a very typical rural community with a very strong GAA club. The country is full of Garrymores. Garrymore is not built around a town, it’s built around the parish, there’s a dispersed settlement pattern in that parish based on townlands.
“If we don’t allow regeneration of the generations, the only people that will be left there are old people.
“These are successful parishes … A lot of Irish geography is based on the townland and the parish, the civil parish, the county and the province. Try change the county boundary in this country and you will know all about it.
“So that’s a different geography than what the planners look at so you have two conflicting geographies in this country, the other being the more European geography which is being imposed on us which I disagree with.
“When people say to me, it’s a European norm I say I don’t live in Europe. I live in Ireland. I don’t care what they do in France. I’m not going to be dictated to because their social history is totally different than ours,” he said.

Ballycroy
NEXT door to Kiltane is Ballycroy GAA Club, who face many similar challenges.
Long-serving player, manager and club officer Eoin Sweeney says he feels for Lacken this week.
He recalls playing a game for Ballycroy where they failed to score, Eastern Gaels beating them by 2-13 to 0-0 in Brickens.
It wasn’t a low, that came with the club being unable to field for a time.
That served as a wake-up call while Sweeney credits the underage amalgamation with Kiltane as crucial in the improvement in the club’s fortunes in recent years.
They play as Erris St Pat’s and it has exposed young players in both clubs to a higher level, thus improving them for adult football.
“For me the amalgamation in 2013 breathed new life into the club. It was done properly. The chairmen of both clubs showed great foresight,” said Sweeney.
“For me the purpose of our underage amalgamation is to make both Ballycroy and Kiltane better at adult level,” says O’Hara.
Underage amalgamation is a road many rural clubs have went down in recent years. Indeed, Lacken are part of a four-club amalgamation: Naomh Padraig, with Killala, Ballycastle and Kilfian. However, most, if not all clubs, are trying to avoid it at adult level.
“Once you amalgamate at adult level, you cannot pull out of it. You never regain that footprint in your own parish,” said Ciarán O’Hara.
Local employment is an issue for many rural clubs.
For their Junior championship game against Killala last weekend, two Ballycroy players flew home; Peter Cafferkey came from Bristol and Michael McManamon from Germany.
It shows remarkable commitment to their native place, but no-one will deny it is hardly a sustainable pattern for future generations.
Local work is not plentiful, and while Eoin Sweeney rightly points out they are within an hour of Castlebar, Westport and Ballina, that’s a commute some will undertake and others will not.
That’s if they can live in the area to begin with.

The other side of the coin
AND while rural areas are seeing an exodus, urban areas are benefitting. There’s no huge spike in one town over the decades as factors such as smaller family sizes play a part but Castlebar and Westport parishes are seeing a steady increase across the same timeframe.
Indeed, Breaffy NS, outside Castlebar, has seen its numbers more than double in the past 40 years while Knockrooskey, outside Westport, has seen its roll almost quadruple since 1983.
In Castlebar parish, which contains two GAA clubs, Castlebar Mitchels and Breaffy, there are 2,025 national school children. In Westport parish, home to just one GAA club, there’s 1,120 national school children. That is exactly ten times the pick Kiltane have, over 20 times Ballycroy’s and over 40 times Lacken’s.
The challenges there are the inverse of those facing the rural clubs. Keeping players involved, having enough facilities for all those looking to play and organising second and third teams.
Eoin Sweeney witnessed it himself when in a secondary school in Castlebar on Friday last and most of the Transition Years he spoke to did not even know their local club.
“In Ballycroy, we just could not afford that kind of slippage,” he says.
The challenges facing the GAA in this regard mirror those facing wider society. Declining numbers in rural areas will impact on school numbers, on services and on the strength of a community.
Rising numbers in urban settings create other issues including rising property prices and congestion.  
Compare Kiltane to Westport and you see the stark contrasts.
For Ciarán O’Hara, there are solutions to the GAA problem aside from changes in government policy.
“You are filtering too much of the GAA’s playing population through too few of the GAA’s clubs. Either we need more clubs in the urban environments to cater for more participation or we have to be inventive and try and make everybody co-exist.
“A solution to that would be a parentage rule which would allow the sons or daughters of people from one area who now live in an urban area play with their parents’ home club and that solves both issues, it solves the bottlenecks that will occur in the urban clubs and it helps to solve rural decline,” he said.
He feels the GAA could do more themselves too.
“Mayo GAA do a lot for smaller clubs but if we look at the socio economic side of things, Mayo GAA can use its weight of numbers as a political lobby. I know the GAA is non-political but this is lobbying for economic development to keep communities alive.
“This is an existential threat for the GAA. Urbanisation is ruining the fabric of the Association. The GAA may not be able to cope with the growth in urban areas and the decline in rural areas,” he said.
But hope springs eternal. Eoin Sweeney talks excitedly about two new families moving into the area. One family returned from London with four children under the age of six and another moved into the area with four children of national school age. A cause for optimism. Before they even see them kick a ball, the local GAA club are ticking them down as potential players.
Because in the battle for survival for rural GAA clubs, every single person matters.