Colm O'Rourke: The GAA must go back to school to win field battles
Published 29/11/2009 | 05:00
A fter a year of 125th anniversary celebrations, largely carried out in a tasteful and reserved manner, the focus for the GAA now must be the future.
There is always a certain fear of the unknown and with uncertainty all round many will wonder if the role of the GAA can be as central going forward as it has been, especially over the last 30 years.
In that period, the GAA has blossomed. When I started playing adult football there were few really good club pitches and the standard of dressing rooms was pretty basic. Showers were a rarity and a player with a bottle of shampoo was liable to assault. They were not the good old days.
Since then the development of infrastructure has been phenomenal and there is a much more organised games programme in every county, even if club players are still neglected in getting sufficient matches on a regular rather than haphazard basis.
County football is also better developed and much better supported. I can recall Meath playing Kildare in a Leinster semi-final in Tullamore about 20 years ago with only about 15,000 at it. Nowadays that would be looked upon as a very small crowd.
The growth in summer supporters means venues like Tullamore no longer get big games and the sooner a system is devised to get more big games into county grounds during the summer, the healthier the GAA will become. Our heroes should be seen regularly on their home patch.
In the past a lot of GAA recruitment has taken place in schools and the primary school sector has been particularly innovative recently. One of the great fears as women began to dominate teaching was that sport in general, and Gaelic games in particular, would suffer. The opposite has often been the case as many young female teachers who have played football themselves have shown they are just as capable of coaching as their male counterparts.
The GAA would benefit from greater involvement of women in more powerful positions within the organisation. Yet the GAA in second-level schools struggles in many urban areas and loses out to soccer and, increasingly, rugby. This is a challenge for the GAA but it's also an educational issue.
The national games of any country deserve special status. This is especially important for an organisation which does not have an international outlet and must compete with sports which get saturation TV coverage. The two that are closest to each other in this regard are Aussie rules and the Gaelic games.
One has gone the professional route, the other sticks to the amateur line. Which type of game best serves the people is open to debate, but the development of community spirit is fostered best in an amateur context, even if the lines between amateur and professional are continually blurred in the GAA.
My belief is that Gaelic games should be a part of the curriculum of all schools. There are only a few things that distinguish Ireland from Britain and the rest of Europe; one is language, another is a different type of sport. Both need to be funded at a central level to ensure survival.
Now you don't need to be some sort of Irish-speaking GAA fanatic to respect the preservation of our cultural identity. It is part of what we are.
Those who love sport and appreciate its value in the development of young people will understand that a particular fondness for one game is not incompatible with an appreciation of all others. Real sportsmen like all sports. The qualities of discipline, respect, loyalty and manliness are common to each and are an inherent part of the education process.
I don't just talk about this. I actively promote it through my school where football, hurling, rugby, athletics and basketball all work well together. There is no conflict between rugby and football as the two suit different types whereas football and soccer tend to draw from the same pool.
The point at issue here is what status the GAA should enjoy in our school system. There are few rugby schools, for instance, who would give the same time to football as we do to rugby. It really should be the opposite.
An indigenous game should have state support in the education system -- not to try and ram a particular sport down anyone's throat but rather to appreciate the uniqueness of our own cultural heritage. That is something the GAA should be pushing for over the next decade -- a Leaving Cert subject called 'sport' with a compulsory section on the GAA and optional sections on other games. With possibilities for study in diet, physical fitness, psychology and many other areas, this subject would have as much merit for serious study as art, construction studies, music or anything else
that allows young people to excel in their chosen fields. Not to mention the health benefits involved.
So over the next decade the GAA needs to change tack a little and move away from physical development and more towards games promotion. The schools are where that battle begins.
Last year I was highly critical of the Government cutbacks in education and the way they would impact on sport. Most GAA schools are doing their best to keep on promoting the games in difficult circumstances, yet in this context and in the interest of balance, I find it very difficult to understand the selfishness of strike action by public sector unions when so many people are struggling to survive and parents are stressed out with prospects of unemployment. Proper leadership would avoid something which alienates the most vulnerable.
The real challenge in schools for the future will be to integrate those of different races to appreciate and enjoy Gaelic games while at the same time trying to ensure all young people are exposed to our national sport through the school system. That is what vision and real leadership is about. Building the stadiums was easy, the next part may be much more difficult.