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Dr Paul Donnelly, Regeneration Director, Antrim GAA, speaking at the GAA's Games Development Conference in January.
Dr Paul Donnelly, Regeneration Director, Antrim GAA, speaking at the GAA's Games Development Conference in January.

Gaelfast journey has commenced in Antrim


By Cian O'Connell

The Gaelfast journey has commenced. Encouraged by the initial response, Dr Paul Donnelly, Antrim GAA’s Regeneration Director, believes that significant progress can be made in the coming years.

Donnelly is adamant that there is real cause for hope and that the Gaelfast initiative can boost the GAA hugely in Belfast and Antrim.

Ultimately the aim is to increase membership and participation across Belfast and Antrim and that process has started.

“Most certainly,” Donnelly replies when asked whether a sense of optimism exists. “We are operational for about six months now. We have our staff complement in place now working to full capacity.

‘’So there is a certainly a mood and a move in Belfast and Antrim that hasn't been here for a long, long time. It is all very, very positive which is brilliant.

“You have 22 clubs in Belfast, two of which are in Down County Board area, Carryduff and Bredagh. They are part of the Gaelfast plan and they need the support, they are on the outskirts of Belfast. They are doing tremendous work and are fully part of what we are trying to do.”

Donnelly acknowledges many valuable lessons are being learned, and a solid structure built for the future. “I think it is important to highlight that the programme of work is well underway, it is our first year and we are using it as a transition year as you would expect in any major project,” Donnelly adds.

“We have established a Gaelfast Management Board and the purpose of that board is to provide oversight and direction in terms of planned activities. It is Chaired by Terry Reilly, who was the outgoing Vice Chair of Antrim GAA.

“He was part of a team that led to securing the funding and support from the GAA and others. It is great that he is on board leading the Gaelfast Board. Also on the board you have representatives from Down and Antrim GAA and also from provincial and national structures.

“They are very supportive of the work we are doing and they are essentially there to provide oversight and direction, and they are also to hold my team and I to account for the work we are doing which is great.”

Eager to ensure the various strands such as clubs, schools, and third level institutions dovetail nicely, Donnelly acknowledges the importance and breadth of the Gaelfast mission.

Dr Paul Donnelly believes significant potential exists in Antrim.
Dr Paul Donnelly believes significant potential exists in Antrim.

“For example we need the voice of young people in what are trying to do,” Donnelly states. “We are consulting at the minute with a range of key stakeholders, but one of them key stakeholders is young people in Belfast and Antrim.

“We want to know what they see as being priorities for ourselves now and moving forward. It is okay to have a view from an adult's perspective, but it is young people who are at the receiving end of what we offer.

“We need to get their views and opinions. It is still very early days, we have a long way to go, but we have a mandate.

“The mandate as I see it is to be a catalyst for change in Belfast and across Antrim. We also have a mission which is all county, all codes, and all communities.

“So for example within Antrim you have three divisional boards - a South Antrim Board which is essentially Belfast, we have a South West Board and a North Antrim Board. What we need to do is to ensure the needs and aspirations of clubs and Gaels in both rural and urban areas are met.

“We are working on an all county basis to make that happen. In terms of codes for the first time ever we submitted a Games Development Plan to the GAA which included references to working with and supporting all codes under the umbrella of the GAA obviously Ladies Gaelic Football Association, Camogie, and Handball.

“That is the first time ever it has been done. All communities from our perspective what we need to do is to build positive working relationships with communities which are non traditional to the GAA in Belfast and in Antrim. That is a medium to long term goal, but is certainly something that can't be ignored. It is something we have to work towards.”

A strategic partnership has been established with St Mary’s University which is a crucial step according to former Antrim hurler Donnelly. “It is a really good development, the future leaders and teachers that will come through this college will be the leaders and teachers going into primary schools, who we are always looking to engage with,” Donnelly responds.

“It would be great if they were already predisposed to the GAA going in. The GAA may not be their first love, but certainly to have some understanding and training in coaching Gaelic Games would make our jobs much easier down the line when we are looking to engage with all the schools in Antrim and Belfast.”

Practically how will the Gaelfast plan work? Are more coaches being put on the ground to assist clubs and schools? “We have a staff complement of 12, myself, we have two Games Development Managers, one is focused on rural areas and one focused on urban areas - specifically Belfast,” Donnelly explains.

“The managers have a team of GPOs, whose role would be to deliver the agreed Games Development Plan for Antrim. So you have six core areas contained within the Games Development Plan - our job is to ensure those areas are delivered upon, including the objectives and targets that are set for us by the GAA.”

Talented Antrim footballer Matthew Fitzpatrick.
Talented Antrim footballer Matthew Fitzpatrick.

It is why Antrim GAA is keen to implement initiatives such as the GAA’s 5 Star Centre Programme. “An example would be under the theme of schools we are working with and supporting just under 50 schools between January and June this year,” Donnelly comments.

“We are going to increase that to 70 plus schools come September in 2019. What we are doing is making sure those schools are supported to become a 5 Star Centre, we are looking to build capacity and capability of teachers in a school environment, while at the same time providing coaching support to schools throughout the school year.

“At the same time we are also looking to ensure there is a strong link created between clubs and schools. That takes time and some thought, particularly within urban areas.

“What we are looking to do is to support schools in terms of coaching provision, while at the same time creating a viable pathway from the schools into the local clubs. It is still very early days. We have one major event coming up on June 28. It is a celebratory event for the GAA's 5 Star Centre pilot which has ran in Antrim from January through to June.

“We will have Pat Daly, the principals and Heads of PE in the pilot schools involved and we have 70 additional schools coming, who have also registered via the online portal. We are looking to have maybe 100 principals and club representatives here in St Mary's University. It will also outline plans for the new academic year from September 2019.”

Donnelly is delighted by how clubs and schools have embraced the Gaelfast programme and is striving to develop Gaelic Games further.

“The early signs are very, very positive,” Donnelly says. “In terms of the staff we have in place, there is a general view out there that we have the right people leading the project.

“Most importantly people within Belfast and Antrim want change, they want things to improve. It isn't always about success on the pitch. It is about trying to increase levels of engagement and involvement in the GAA in Belfast and Antrim.

“We hope if we can do that we will actually be successful on the field of play. That isn't always guaranteed. So the feeling is very positive, but this is a long term commitment from all key players.

“What we would expect is that the initial investment of five years in Belfast and Antrim that we would be able to demonstrate the success and impact with a view to securing additional levels of support and investment through the GAA and others in the future.

“In order to achieve outcomes you need a clear vision, a plan, and support from all the key partners and stakeholders.”

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