Erin's Isle going the extra mile
By John Harrington
Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted just how positive an impact your GAA club has on the local community.
Every now and then though there are reminders you just can’t help but notice, and that was the experience for everyone who took part in Erin’s Isle GAA club’s recent family BBQ and sports day.
The day’s festivities included a sponsored walk – ‘Miles for Isles’ – that took them through the heart of Finglas, and it was about as vivid a demonstration as you can get of the GAA’s manifesto, ‘Where We All Belong’.
Like many other GAA clubs, Erin’s Isle have come to realise in recent years that you can’t simply expect that sort of ethos to blossom organically, you have to make the effort to welcome people through the gates.
One of Dublin’s most successful clubs in the 1990s, their fortunes dipped somewhat thereafter but are on the rise again thanks to a lot of hard work on the ground and an open arms approach to prospective members.
There has long been a talent-drain out of the community of Finglas, so the club knows it has no other option other than to work hard to constantly bring new people in.
“If you get a good paying job then most likely situation is that you'll move location out of Dublin 11,” explained Erin’s Isle club chairman Paul Campbell.
“And if you move away from Dublin 11 it means that every generation of your family after that point has also gone from the club unless you're very committed to the club.
“Sometimes there's a branding problem. People have pre-conceived ideas when they come over to Finglas and we would have socio-economic issues that a lot of clubs wouldn’t have to consider.
“But there are an awful lot of good people living here and those numbers are growing.
“Our intention is to keep pushing to increase our participation rates as we really feel by doing so that we're making a difference in our community and most importantly to the individual’s lives.
“We want our kids to achieve on the field, but we also want to facilitate them to help them on their journey to becoming positive contributors to society.
“We like to think we're making a real difference. There's a lot of energy around our club and that was very evident on the recent walk.”
The old Irish proverb Mol an Óige agus tiocfaidh sí (praise the young and they will flourish) seems like an apt one as far as Erin’s Isle GAA club is concerned.
Doing all they can to encourage local children to join the club and then stick with it is top of their priority list.
“One of the biggest things that we try to do is to leave the club gates open all summer and we'd encourage the kids to go down and hang around,” said Campbell.
“If you were to go down now, there would be 30, 40, 50, 60 kids hanging around.
“We leave the ball wall open so that they can go down and work on their skills and hang out. You'd have boys and girls mingling respectfully.
“Within those walls is a sanctuary and it has been a sanctuary for kids of this area for many years.
“When you get a buy-in from parents and they know that the kids are within those walls, then they know it's a safe place.
“There's plenty of anti-social stuff happening around them, but within those walls they are protected. We just ask that they bring a hurley or a ball down with them.”
The club isn’t just focused giving the youth of Finglas an opportunity to play Gaelic Games.
Well-rounded people tend to make well-rounded players and club volunteers, which is why Erin’s Isle have taken a very holistic approach to how they engage with their younger members.
One of the club’s mission statements is to assist their younger members to reach their potential through a personal development programme focusing on education and a healthy lifestyle.
“One of the most innovative projects that the club has initiated is our education program where we provide tutorials and grinds to fifth and sixth year students and arrange talks with club-members that have been successful in their profession," said Campbell.
“Then when the kids get into college we give them a financial bursary, something towards an electronic device such as a computer, tablet or indeed a payment towards annual tuition fees.
“We also have a mentorship programme in place so if some of our participants are doing accountancy or computer science, we pair them up with qualified members within the club who are working in the industrial sector such as the financial or computer science industry. We're getting a lot of success through initiatives like that.
“We're bringing a minor team into Mountjoy on Saturday just to show them the reality of what it's like in there.
“We'll have a few people giving them talks, prison officers who are involved in the club. Just to keep them on the right path and in the right frame of mind.
“We're getting a lot of plaudits from local councillors and gardai because they know what we're doing and they're 100 per cent supportive of what we're trying to do.
“There's no doubting there's a little bit of madness around here, but there's nothing wrong with a little bit of controlled madness.”
Erin’s Isle were a powerhouse of Dublin football in the 1990s when they contested five county finals in a row, winning two of them.
They’re not quite at that level now, but their graph is beginning to rise again thanks to a focus on improving the club’s facilities, underage structures, and general presence in the community.
“Our goal is to increase the amount of kids that will eventually enter the adult ranks,” said Campbell. “There has been an evident slide from where we were in the last century, we are where we are.
"But what we're seeing now is that all our teams are starting to move up the divisions through the hard work of some really special people working diligently over the last decade, coaches that have bought into the Erin’s Isle family ethos which is having a positive impact with our kids.
“Our boy’s teams are starting to compete where we want them with our U-16 team playing in Division 1 and an U-13 team playing Division 1 in Hurling & football. Our U-14 team is playing Division 2 and hopefully Division 1 next year. Our biggest growth area is amongst our Girls/Ladies section with some fantastic numbers and indeed talent coming through.
“We know where we need to go and the energy is palpable down in the club at the moment. Yes, you get your upsets on the field, but you just have to dry your eyes and keep pushing forward.
“We have quite an aggressive plan before us to get our facilities to the highest achievable standard to match the best in Dublin.
“If we increase the standard of the facilities, if we get the coaching standards to a higher level then hopefully we will see an increase in numbers, because ultimately it's a numbers game.”