The long journey home

What's best for the west

CAPITAL GAINS Mayo star Chris Barrett in action for Clontarf in the Dublin GAA championship on Saturday, against Colm Basquel of Ballyboden St Enda’s – whose father is from Aughagower, Westport. Barrett had been making the long trip home for over a decade to play with his native Belmullet, encapsulating the challenge facing many from Mayo.  Pic: Sportsfile

Case Study: Mayo GAA

Edwin McGreal

The recent transfer of Mayo GAA star Chris Barrett from his home club of Belmullet to Clontarf in Dublin, where he lives and works, encapsulates so many of the challenges for Mayo footballers at club and county level but also the wider issues around migration and imbalanced regional development we are examining in this series.
Barrett works as a civil engineer and the draw to home is evidenced by his willingness week on week for over a decade to point his car west for the long journey to Mayo training in Castlebar and further still to his family home in Belmullet and action with the local club.
He’s not the only one. So large is Mayo’s cohort of capital based players, that midweek training sessions in Dublin almost always have double figures in attendance. The same is true of several clubs in the county.
Indeed, the high numbers of Mayo players ensconced in the capital has often been held up as a reason why Mayo have failed to reach their Holy Grail, the Sam Maguire.
Dr Ed Coughlan, once part of their backroom team in the middle part of the last decade, said in 2016 that ‘until Mayo’s students settle for courses in NUIG and GMIT, and their bankers, accountants, teachers and engineers move home to make a crust, they won’t be winning the All-Ireland’.
The football merits of that argument can be teased out all day but the social and economic reality of it is clear – Mayo face unique challenges because of the reality of modern life in the county.
Players are being urged to ‘settle’ for courses close by, to try and find jobs in fields which may have scant supply in the county, if they want to live at home and pursue their All-Ireland dream. In most cases they will have to take a considerable pay cut to move home, if they even can get the work in the first place.
Perhaps the question should be posed less in the direction of the county’s footballers and its young people as a whole and more at what we want for our country.
“You have to take the view of what’s best for the individual as a person rather than him as a Mayo player,” said Chris Barrett in 2019.
He’s right in that players have to decide what’s best for themselves in life, not just in football, but it also raises the question of opportunity.

Wider world
There is no point in saying everyone wants to stay at home and work and live in the west. Many people want to travel, want to explore and want the opportunities the wider world can give them.
Depending on your line of work, migrating from your region to the country’s capital might be inevitable. There are always certain jobs that will be concentrated in cities like Dublin, London, Paris and Madrid. Its bright lights will always have a certain allure from a lifestyle point of view too.
But the example of Mayo county and club footballers hauling up and down the N5 and M4 is instructive of a strong tie to home. You have to wonder how many of them would remain in Dublin, if there were more opportunities at home.
If home held no draw, Barrett and many like him would have given up on that tortuous routine years ago. Home is where the heart is but home cannot sustain enough of its youth and many must find work in Dublin.
Does it have to be like that to the extreme it currently is?
The over concentration of Irish people in Dublin is a well-identified problem. As Dr John Bradley observes in his study of the economy of County Mayo, Ireland has one of the most skewed distributions of population in the EU. Dublin, for instance, is over six times larger than the second city, Cork; and 24 times larger than the fifth city, Waterford.
It is telling that only Mayo and Donegal have repeatedly endured the problem of so many of their county players being Dublin-based. Kerry has a lot of similarities as its cousins on the western seaboard but one crucial difference.
With Limerick and Cork cities one hour from the Kerry border, a greater number of ‘close to home’ work and college possibilities go hand in hand with that.
It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of Kerry players are based in the county or, if not, nearby. They are lucky to have the proximity of cities like Limerick and Cork to offset their isolation from Dublin. The same follows on for the county as a whole.
Mayo are not so fortunate so meanwhile players like Chris Barrett, Séamie O’Shea, Jason Doherty, Tom Parsons and Co must endure long journeys not just at weekends, but during the week at the height of championship, not returning to their homes in Dublin until 1am.
The next day, as Barrett observed in 2019, ‘you’re like a zombie for the day’.
“It’s not ideal but that’s the hand we’re dealt. We’re from Mayo.”
Does it have to be like that?