GAA plans to tackle rural-urban demographic shift
By John Harrington
The biggest challenge facing the GAA currently and for the foreseeable future is the population shift from rural to urban areas in Ireland.
Rural GAA clubs are struggling to field teams because they just don’t have the numbers, while urban GAA clubs are struggling to cater for the surging populations in their catchment areas.
Over the years a number of GAA committees have researched these shifting demographics and all have concluded that there is no one size fits all solution.
Instead, there are most likely a multitude of solutions for a multitude of problems, and identifying them is a challenge that the current Chairman of the GAA’s Community Development, Urban and Rural committee, Colm Cummins, is very determined to tackle head on.
Appointed by GAA President John Horan, Offaly native Cummins has made it his first priority to gather together all the information that can identify the specific problems faced by every single club in the country.
To this end he has developed a web-based tool that will parse all demographic data relevant to GAA clubs from the Central Statistics Office, the Department of Education and equivalent bodies in the six counties.
A club will be able to identify their catchment area on a map which will generate the information they require in an easy to use graphic format.
“A certain element of it looking forward with building in projections so that clubs and counties can plan for the future,” Cummins told GAA.ie
“One of the key bits of it is that it will show how many boys and girls there are within each catchment area and at each age. So, from ages four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, the whole way up.
“Particularly in a rural area, they'll be able to look at this and see that while at the moment they may be capable of fielding underage teams, if they look at the number of zero to five-year-olds in their catchment area they may see there’s a huge drop-off in numbers and that they will face difficulties down the line.
“When do clubs decide to come together? What we've found is that they don't realise it's necessary until they suddenly can't field a team in Go-Games, for example, and they say, 'We don't have the numbers, where are they, what's the problem?'
“It's too late then. You're scrambling to try to find a solution whereas if you can spot a problem coming down the road in two years you can plan for it and be ready for it and look at maybe temporarily forming independent teams or combined teams for that period.
“Then continue to monitor it and then maybe be able to revert back to the parent clubs in time. That's one aspect of it.
“It would also be a useful tool for clubs in urban areas who might be successful on the field and winning titles, but could discover the participation rates in their area are not what they should be.
“The core data from the CSO might tell you that you've 250 ten year old boys in your catchment area. But you only have 15 playing. So there might be issues there that need to be looked at on the urban side and see if we're penetrating enough into the community.
“We need to make this information accessible and I think once counties begin to see it, they will realise how valuable it is and begin to incorporate it into their county management.
“I would envisage someone sitting on a county committee to keep an eye on it and make sure it's reviewed annually so the county is ahead of the game rather than reacting to problems.”
This web-based tool is currently being piloted in four counties – Kerry, Westmeath, Roscommon, and Tyrone – and the intention is that when lessons are learned from the data and the system is fine-tuned, it will be rolled out to all 32 counties.
Identifying the unique challenges faced by each individual club and county is just the first step and, arguably, the easiest one.
Implementing solutions is generally a tougher task than identifying problems, and the harsh truth is that many rural clubs will have little option but to combine their resources at underage level to ensure their survival as separate units at senior level
Local rivalries might make that unpalatable for some, but reigning Leinster Senior Football Champions, Mullinalaghta of Longford, are a good example of just how beneficial an arrangement like this can be.
They have combined with neighbours Abbeylara at underage level to form Northern Gaels, and the fact that the two clubs have contested the last three Longford senior football finals is a testament to just how well that arrangement has worked in terms of bringing through talented young players for both.
Replicating that arrangement looks like the way forward for many rural clubs with declining numbers, but the challenge facing Cummins and his committee is that by-laws relating to clubs combining their resources in varying ways differ from county to county.
Going forward, he hopes these rules and regulations can be simplified and made more uniform.
More and more rural clubs are struggling to survive, but Ireland’s urbanisation poses its own problems in areas where the population is quickly rising.
Existing clubs in growing urban areas are simply incapable of serving everyone in their catchment area and so instead of being at the heart of their communities are drifting to the periphery of them.
From 1971 to 2016 the population of the eleven Leinster counties outside of Dublin has more than doubled from 619, 428 to 1,285,318.
Yet, in that time, over 20 clubs have gone out of existence in those counties and an estimated 30 more will either disband or amalgamate in the next 15 years.
There were 144 less teams registered in Leinster in 2016 than there were in 2010, and up to 40% of teams in secondary competitions either failed to play in them or complete their fixtures programmes in 2016.
In an ideal world you’d simply establish more GAA clubs to cater for growing populations of urban areas, but that’s a lot easier said than done.
Setting up a GAA club from scratch is a massive endeavour and there are a couple of obvious obstacles.
GAA people from that area with an affinity to an existing club are not going to be motivated to set up a rival one. And those who come into the area with a strong interest in the GAA will also gravitate towards the existing club.
Cummins believes some original thinking is now required in order to give the GAA a more vibrant presence in urban areas.
“There's a myriad of problems and also a myriad of solutions,” he said. “Take towns like Naas, Portlaoise, and Navan, you have traditional town clubs in there who are obviously working very hard but are limited in space now themselves because trying to purchase additional land is difficult.
“Due to the geography of the areas, there tends to be smaller, one-time rural clubs that were once on the outskirts of these towns which are now nearly sucked into the suburban area of the larger town.
“Now, maybe they can act as the counter-balance if, in a very sensitive way, the local by-laws can be examined. Is there some flexibility there that would allow people from a town like Naas to go out and play with these rural clubs so we can help these smaller rural clubs sustain themselves?
“But, obviously, not undermine or harm the town club itself either. That's sort of what we're moving towards, we're going to have to begin looking at that.
“Or, possibly, if you're now living in a town but your father or mother were previously involved in a club outside of the town, perhaps that would give you the right to go out and play for them if local by-laws were changed.
“Things like that maybe need to be explored. A bit more flexibility without diluting the sense of space or creating a free for all where players go everywhere.
“Another interesting one that came up that possibly needs to be explored - it's a Dublin issue mainly but will become more and more of one in other urban areas - is where players come from rural Ireland come to work in an urban area like Dublin.
“So, rather than transferring into some of the larger clubs, that there would be a draft-like system whereby you could be transferred into a club that needs additional players, maybe clubs in a lower division or whatever, that there would be a bit of flexibility there.
“The attraction would be that if you partook in a draft like that then you could still go home and also play with your home club in their club championship. We need to look at different ways of thinking like that when we're trying to find solutions to these problems.
“I'm sure there are plenty of guys coming to Dublin who want to keep fit and play a bit of football and hurling up there but also still be eligible to go back home and play in the Championship with his own club.
“These are the sort of ideas we want to explore over the next two years of our terms.”
It’s tempting to say that there are greater forces at work here and that the GAA ultimately has little option other than to ride the winds of change in a country where successive Governments have sacrificed rural Ireland on the altar of centralisation.
Perhaps, though, that attitude underestimates the GAA’s potential ability to influence policy.
When GAA President John Horan addressed the Seanad earlier this year and made the point that “grey never goes back to green” and urged the Senators to “promise, protect and provide green space to let people breathe and let communities play”, he struck a chord.
Cummins certainly believes that from now on the GAA needs to be more proactive in terms of engaging with Government on a local and national level to ensure the needs of its members in both rural and urban areas are better catered for.
“One thing that keeps coming up is that the last thing that's really keeping a lot of rural areas alive is the GAA club,” said Cummins.
“Communities are losing post offices, shops, Garda stations, et cetera, but the GAA club is the one constant.
“What we feel is an area we could get better organised in through the provinces and counties is the way we engage in the planning process in terms of county or regional development plans.
“That the GAA would have a voice in there and be making submissions and trying to influence policy to sustain the rural areas.
“We're all very busy in all kinds of areas but maybe that's an area we need to take a strategic view on when it comes to protecting rural areas and that would be driven by people living in those rural areas.
“We could be a bit more vocal when it comes to pushing on various issues and developing policy so we could keep the viability of these communities going which in turn would help the GAA clubs.
“A lot of time we often take for granted that everyone else realises how important the GAA is to local communities.
“It was interesting, one of the things we spotted was that the Department of Community and Rural affairs issued an action plan for rural Ireland.
“There were 270 actions in the document and not one of them referenced the GAA. Now, they didn't reference any sport, but as GAA people we would feel we are the heartbeat of rural Ireland.
“And, yet, when the department sat down to set out policy there wasn't one mention of us. So we actually went in and met the Secretary General and some of the officials and outlined that.
“They were a bit taken aback as well, and the problem is that we don’t really engage with each other.
“And because of Ireland being so small, probably a lot of the influencing happens at an informal level. Someone at an All-Ireland Final gets chatting to a Minister, or whatever.
“But we need to be more formal about it in the future to ensure we are being heard, because our story will be very consistent throughout the country.
“Maybe it's just a matter of sitting down at national level and drawing up a few key points that we need to influence that can amended based on provincial or county variations and just continually push and promote them.”
Cummins believes a similarly proactive approach is just as vital to securing the future health of the GAA in urban areas as is it is rural Ireland.
It might be notoriously difficult to establish new GAA clubs in ‘mature’ urban areas for the previously outlined reasons, but ensuring that newly built suburban communities have a natural home for the GAA should be more doable.
“These plans that are being prepared now for new urban areas won't come to fruition for the next 10 or 15 years so it's important that we get engaged now,” he said.
“If you take new urban areas like Cherrywood or Clonburris that are being planned out now and will be developed soon, we should really be getting in there and making the case for the green space.
“Because, currently, its developers who are driving this and they're going to squeeze the green space as much as they can and have it as a bare minimum.
“We need to be getting in and making our argument for more green space because in a few years as the communities are developed then the demand for the GAA will arise. But if the recreational land isn't available then it will be very difficult to provide facilities, and that's just for the new communities.
"It's probably difficult for Dublin GAA to sell this as a problem because people will say ‘Sure Dublin have everything and get all the funding and are so successful', but so many Dublin clubs are reliant on corporation pitches and don't have the facilities within their own clubs that clubs all around the country would have.
“It's a huge challenge and an expensive one as well in terms of fees that are paid to the local authorities.
“So we need to be more vocal within Dublin and the other city areas about keeping green areas zoned recreationally so the values of them are low enough that clubs could invest and purchase them themselves.
“It's important that the GAA is more pro-active in that respect.
“Ultimately, what we need to do is provide solutions to keep children playing Gaelic Games both in areas where the population isn’t there and in the areas where it is”