Thursday 13 December 2018

On the brink of devastation

Robert Ballagh's Homage to Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa: 'If the political establishment have to devour you and your family . . . they’ll do it'
Robert Ballagh's Homage to Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa: 'If the political establishment have to devour you and your family . . . they’ll do it'
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Don't listen to me. Hear it from the men who know . . .

'Five potential players are in Australia, two in Canada and one each in Scotland and Spain. In addition, eight have lost jobs since the downturn. Three remain unemployed. One has returned to full-time education and the remaining four are working in family farming, a family-owned pub and a family-run car repair business. No doubt the rewards are much reduced from their previous employment.

"Nearly all our players would have had their earnings greatly reduced since the downturn. Five of this year's panel are involved in the building industry. They could well have had their earnings halved. Four are farming. They all held full- or part-time off-farm jobs during the boom. Last Christmas Day, a party of 32 had dinner together in the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. Eight of them were potential Kilmacabea players (three have since returned home). In the past, trips Down Under lasted a maximum of a year. Now it tends to last a minimum of two and in some cases seems to become permanent.

"Fund raising has become much more daunting. For years it yielded a steady income of about €25,000. Last year it dropped to €18,000. This year it will not exceed €12,000. Our club was badly hit by emigration in the 1980s. One year early in the decade there were only two players in their 20s playing with the club. In that decade financial demands on the club were much less than they are now. We did not have any grounds of our own. We were tenants in a community-owned field. Even in the early '90s £3,000 ran the club for the year. Now we need about €30,000 a year. About half of this is a loan repayment as a result of buying out the field and upgrading it and building a new clubhouse. We were like the country as a whole in the '80s. We had very little but we owed very little."

Daniel O'Donovan, Secretary Kilmacabea GAA Club

"We have lost two players to emigration to date. Our greatest fear is the number of players completing college who will have little prospect of jobs. I can see eight at present who will probably have to leave this country to get work. If they go, we will not be able to field a second adult team in football or hurling. Fundraising is taking a big hit at present.

"More people were leaving in the 1980s but I think they are only staying at present because there is not a lot available in the USA etc, as some found out to their cost during the summer. We had two student lads returned home early having failed to get work during their holidays."

Liam Evans, Secretary

St James GAA Club

"I have always doubted the ability of a lot of the really small clubs in West Cork to survive another 1980s-style recession. Small rural clubs are going to be hit really hard if this continues. We may lose all our college graduates if this depression continues. We are down about three players due to emigration so far. Our college graduates are working, often in jobs far removed from their primary degree, quantity surveyors doing bar work, engineers working in call centres.

"We ran a golf classic this year and were down 15 teams from our last classic two years ago with businesses just gone to the wall. This was our main fundraiser for the year and we found the conditions extremely challenging."

Colman O'Mahony

Secretary, Bandon GAA Club

"A little over a third of our adult players are third-level students and these young men face uncertain times as to whether they will gain employment in this country once they graduate. One is fearful of what will become of the current graduates once they qualify and there is possibly less opportunity in the trade/farming/fishing sectors than there was in the '80s. Many seem to forget that the farming and fishing sectors were in a reasonably healthy state during the recession of the 1980s. This is something which could not be said of today's recession."

Seán O'Sullivan, Secretary Ilen Rovers GAA Club

"We have lost three players who have emigrated over the last 12 months to the UK, Canada and Australia and are likely to lose more in the coming 12 to 18 months. Unlike the 1980s, there are less opportunities elsewhere which is keeping people around presently. The recession has also affected our club because in recent times young people do not have the same enthusiasm to play games as they did before. Fundraising has become much more difficult."

Conor Nyhan, Secretary

Ballinascarthy GAA Club

A few weeks back I decided to get in touch with a few of the local GAA clubs here in West Cork to see how the recession was affecting them. The prevailing mood was one of anxiety. What came across most was a sense of foreboding, the fear that if things got any worse clubs would really begin to struggle, particularly when players now in college enter the job market.

The frightening thing about these interviews is that they took place before the cataclysmic events of the past few weeks, before the EU bailout, before the publication of the four-year plan, before the effective loss of our economic sovereignty to people who couldn't care less if every single rural GAA club was forced into extinction. A few weeks back people's main worry was about what might happen if the situation got worse.

It has got worse. Because the four-year plan, for one thing, blithely accepts high unemployment as a fact of economic life. It sets 9.75 per cent as a target rate for 2014. The target is too high, yet there is little hope of it being achieved as it depends on a rate of growth which is extremely unlikely. And, worse again, the government are depending on unemployment to be kept down by emigration. Emigration, it seems, is not to be seen as a blight on local communities but as a plank of government policy. Anyone who remembers the 1980s knows where there this will lead. The worst is yet to come.

In 1988, I surveyed the effect of emigration on GAA clubs in Roscommon. The figures were truly horrendous. As far as I remember, one club, St Faithleachs, had lost 34 members. Another was down 27. We have not reached the same point yet but we are getting there. Just a few weeks ago, Kerry County Board revealed that over 200 players from the county have emigrated in the last year. In Limerick, 150 players have applied for transfers to foreign clubs, a figure which, given that only 74 of the Kerry émigrés have done the same, suggests that the number of players actually leaving the county is much higher. No county has been unaffected.

This too was before the bailout and the plan. And the awful thing about the bailout and the plan is that their sole motivation is to ensure that the investment of foreign bondholders and corporations in this country will be defended to the hilt. There is nothing there that will create jobs. In fact, the main action the government has taken on the employment front is to ensure that people struggling along in low-wage jobs will get paid 12 per cent less from now on. On the bright side, the hard-pressed hoteliers who pressed for the minimum wage to be slashed should now be able to afford another racehorse.

The return of mass emigration is not so much a tragedy for GAA clubs as for the whole community. But looking at the local club is a good way of getting an idea of how it will affect rural Ireland in particular because that club is often a microcosm of the community. Add in the female sex and the guys who don't play GAA and you're looking at losses which will tear the heart out of areas which thought they had put the nightmarish days of the 1950s and '80s behind them for good.

Take the first club I mentioned, Kilmacabea. For over 100 years it has been proudly flying the flag for the small village of Leap and its environs. Take a couple of dozen youngsters out of a place like that and it has a severe deadening effect. I know this because I saw a similar exodus from my home village of Gurteen, Co Sligo in the '80s. Gurteen is a place of only a few hundred people but enough people left for there to be a Gurteen pub in London, the Marquis of Granby in New Cross. The memory of emigration rankled with people, it was seen almost as a source of shame.

Emigration hurts communities and it's also brutal on an individual level. When I lived in London during the late 1980s and early '90s, I came back every Christmas and saw some heart-rending scenes at Dublin and Knock airports over the New Year as kids who didn't want to be away from home said goodbye to parents and siblings who didn't want them to be away from home. Mary Coughlan, who inherited a Dáil seat at the age of 22 and has never done anything else and Willie O'Dea, who has spent his entire life in Limerick, may think that a bit of emigration is just what kids need to broaden their parochial little minds. But people would like to have a choice in the matter.

The GAA man I met recently who is heartbroken at the emigration of his two college-educated daughters or the man who saw three grand-daughters leave the country on the same day deserved better. Both of them, incidentally, have voted Fianna Fáil all their lives.

The enshrining of emigration as a solution to our problems goes against everything the GAA stands for. Because perhaps the great strength of the Association is its insistence that small local communities can be vibrant and viable entities, that they are not the backwaters an outsider might imagine them to be, but places full of life and colour and hope and dreams. Without their young people they will be nothing of the sort.

When I heard the man the other amadáns call King Amadán, éamon ó Cuív, commence the government's stunningly successful by-election campaign in Donegal South West by revealing to the faithful that there was a sinister conspiracy out there to bring down Fianna Fáil, by people who were also plotting against the GAA, I thought I would investigate this intriguing assertion. After all, if there is a conspiracy against the country's most popular sporting organisation, this is a major story.

Lo and behold, I discovered that ó Cuív is dead right. There is a plot to seriously weaken the GAA. The only problem for ó Cuív is that his party are behind it. By suggesting that, in the words of Brian Lenihan's equally incompetent, arrogant and useless father, emigration is okay because "we can't all live on a small island," they are spitting in the face of everyone who ever pulled on the jersey of their local club. Because the GAA above anything else stands for local pride. And local pride means nothing if people are told that wanting to live locally or work locally or bring up your family locally or simply visit your home place without having to get on a jet is too much to ask for.

I'd very much like to hear from people about how their club, in whatever sport, is being affected by the current crisis. Because your story is the one that needs telling, it contains a deep truth which is masked behind the abstract facts and figures of the financiers. Double-digit unemployment sounds reasonable enough to Clownihan but it's pure hell for the hard-working electrician or plumber or plasterer who has taken pride in his work all his life and now finds himself on the scrapheap, depressed about the way things are now, fearful about how they will be in the future.

There is a famous painting by the French artist Gericault called The Raft Of The Medusa. It shows a bunch of survivors from a shipwreck. The story behind it is that as the castaways began to starve, some of them ate the others in order to survive. Last week we found out that we're on The Raft Of The Medusa. And if the political establishment have to devour you and your family so they can preserve their ludicrously high wages, their obscene pensions, their government jets, their helicopter rides, their fleet of state cars, they'll do it. Ireland eats its young.

In the meantime, if you're worried that your kids are going to have to emigrate, I've got one suggestion. Train them to become politicians. Because politicians have never had to leave this country.

Not yet anyway.

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