NEVER in its 128-year history has the role of the GAA been more important in Irish life than in the turbulent economic circumstances which now engulf the country, according to association president Liam O'Neill.
As clubs – especially in rural Ireland – grapple with the reality of losing many players to emigration, O'Neill is concerned that amalgamation may be seen as an easy option but warns that it could have disastrous consequences.
"I'd counsel on amalgamations. I'd prefer to see it done from a position of relative strength rather than two clubs coming together because they both feel they're weak. The danger there is that the new club might be weak too.
"I'd like to see clubs work their way through the current tough situation as best they can. Being there for the local community is very important at a time like this.
"The GAA reflects society in a very real way. Nowadays, people are quite happy to have a job – they're not looking for extra benefits as perhaps they were in the past. Most people are prepared to hold on to what they have, get through this tough period as best they can and be ready to springboard when times get better.
"My advice to clubs is to hang on in there, don't get into any further debt and when the economy picks up, be in a position to drive forward in a very strong way. If you amalgamate under pressure now, the danger is that your identity will be gone forever."
Emigration is hitting clubs hard but O'Neill believes that instead of seeing it in a totally negative light, every effort should be made to harness the available talent that remains in an area.
"Players are emigrating – there's no doubt about that – but it means that older players get an extra year or two out of their careers. Losing top players certainly impacts on a club's prospects of winning championships but in terms of fielding teams, it's vital to keep going if at all possible.
"We've had bad times before in this country but we've bounced back. That's why we've got to be very careful about amalgamations. If the new club doesn't work for whatever reason, it's very difficult to unravel it and go back to where you were," he said. "Communities that were badly hit by emigration in the 1950s and 1970s thrived again and so did GAA clubs. If you give away your club, will you ever get it back?"
O'Neill has recently appointed a 'Rural Communities Workgroup' to examine the challenges faced by GAA clubs and communities in times of emigration, depopulation and reduced funding. Chaired by former GAA president Joe McDonagh, it will also be asked to come up with possible solutions and to identify other agencies and organisations with whom the GAA can work.
O'Neill is adamant that the role of the GAA has never been more important in Irish life and regards it as crucial that it lives up to the expectations of the communities which it serves.
"My own club (Trumera) held a race night at Kilkenny dog track last Friday night and as well as supporting the club, people turned out to meet their neighbours. We had a club day earlier on this year and people from the wider community came because they knew their neighbours would be there. Our games have now become the focus to bring people together to meet each other.
"People go to club games because they know their neighbours will be there. The GAA is more of a focal point in the community than ever before. We have to be conscious of our responsibility in that regard."
He points to the findings of the GAA's youth committee which sought the views of people aged 18-25 and discovered that while most of them attended third-level colleges, where they had access to games and serious competition, their main concern was their own club.
"If we want to be a force for real good, we have to put the club at the centre of what we do. That point was brought home in the deliberations of the Football Review Committee which issued their findings this week. What's good for clubs is good for local communities and has a huge social benefit," said O'Neill.
Despite the threat to clubs caused by the recession, O'Neill says that, even in these bad economic times, many positives continue to emerge. New senior hurling club provincial champions were crowned in Leinster (Kilcormac-Killoughey), Munster (Thurles Sarsfields) and Connacht (St Thomas), while Ballymun Kickhams were first-time winners in Leinster football.
"That's very exciting. Who would have predicted a few years ago that the most experienced of the four All-Ireland hurling semi-finalists would be from Antrim (Loughgiel Shamrocks)? I think this is going to be the best All-Ireland series, in both codes, for quite some time," he said.
However, the underlying problems continue in many areas as clubs – especially in rural areas – have to cope with losing several players to emigration. O'Neill accepts it presents a real challenge but insists that the GAA will come through it.
"Rural communities operate best when under threat; individual strength becomes collective strength," O'Neill said. "It has happened before and it will happen again."