A DRIVE to the north Leitrim village of Kiltyclogher on Thursday evening took me through parts of counties Meath, Cavan, Fermanagh and Leitrim. Many of the towns and villages along the route were quiet, and even in the dark it was hard to escape the feeling that many have been hit hard in recent years.
One thing stood out on the journey however – the amount of GAA grounds which were lit up and open for business, where teams were training or committee meetings were taking place. These clubs, like the vast majority of clubs in the GAA, are mostly trying to get on with what they do, beacons of light in small villages and parishes that many people have never even heard of. You only need to look to Croke Park last night, and again this afternoon, to see the most public expression of this.
Also notable on this journey to the north-west was the coverage on radio shows about the extraordinary series of Garth Brooks concerts and the amount of money the GAA will make from them. Earlier in the day, two more shows had sold out. These were concerts numbers four and five. And it struck me that, at that moment in time, these two ends of the GAA world – what is happening in Dublin and what is happening everywhere else, such as along this particular route – couldn't be any further apart.
There is a quiet pride among GAA people at the fact that the Croke Park stadium is now effectively debt-free, and that eight concerts and an American football game will earn the Association something like €7m. It is the same kind of pride the average Irish man and woman feels at any fine achievement, in any walk of life, in Ireland. But there is a conflict there too which goes to the heart of the struggle in communities all over the country: how can we make ends meet in our own club?
Just last week I happened to say to a man who has given long service to his local club that it was a fantastic achievement that Croke Park's debt had been cleared. It is, he replied, but could they not have stayed quiet on it for a few weeks until we sell these tickets; now every house we call to will complain 'sure isn't the GAA loaded?'
He was referring to the GAA national draw currently in progress. The Association has given every club in the country tickets to sell at €10 each and the club keeps all the money from what it sells and the GAA puts up the prizes. So, if a club can sell 500 tickets it makes €5,000 and has no costs associated with that. It's a great scheme and will be a huge success, but it is a hard slog for the handful of volunteers who are the backbone of each club as they go door to door in their parish with the best of intentions. And they will have that thrown at them: 'Sure isn't the GAA loaded?' How do you explain in 30 seconds on somebody's doorstep that it's two different things? 'That's Croke Park, and some of that money filters down some of the way, but we have to fundraise to keep our own club afloat'. Someone once said to me that when you're explaining, you're losing.
Of course, the GAA had to publish its financial results as Congress is less than two weeks away but there, in a nutshell, is the conflict. As an association, the GAA is in rude health. It is extremely well managed commercially and well run as a business. Yet you have to question the scale of the demands being placed on volunteers. The struggle on the ground goes on, and in this environment it's not easy. It's not easy to knock on someone's door and ask them for a tenner. Every €1,000 a club raises to put towards its running costs is extremely hard-earned and takes its toll on those who had to go out and collect it. No matter how passionate you are about your cause, it still wears you down.
Sometimes the simplest gesture can go an awful long way. A simple 'thank you' can make all the difference to people who give up so much of their time for something they believe in. In the 130-year history of the Association, it's hard to imagine there has ever been a time when this has been more true than now.
On Friday week, there will be a new GAA president-elect. There are three people contesting the position and the campaign has been even more
low-key than usual as the three – Seán Walsh (Kerry), Aogán ó Fearghail (Cavan) and Seamus Howlin (Wexford) – have been on the road for months giving their message directly to delegates.
It is said the election will be a close-run thing but whoever wins has a golden opportunity to reconnect the GAA hierarchy with the grassroots. Christy Cooney, to be fair, did it to some extent with his 'Ag éisteacht' tour which reached out to a cross-section of clubs; now it's time to reach out to them all.
The GAA has already admitted that the Garth Brooks concerts are "a Christmas present". Yes, the GAA's money filters down in different ways but it's time to go a step further. The Garth Brooks and One Direction concerts will earn the GAA something in the region of €7m and it should keep €1m of this in central funds. As for the remaining €6m, this should be divided equally between all 2,518 registered clubs, with no strings attached. This works out at €2,382 per club, the equivalent of one standard fundraiser like a table quiz or a poker classic. The equivalent of a couple of weeks of very hard work for some very dedicated people. It will be one less time hard-pressed volunteers will have to go the well.
In his speech the weekend after next, the next GAA president should call for every club to receive a cheque for €2,382 this year as a small gesture of appreciation for what they are doing, for the role they are playing in helping preserve some kind of normality in their community. They deserve nothing less.