Friday 17 January 2020

Colm O'Rourke: Dark clouds loom for St Pat’s ahead of amalgamation

Niall Friel, St Patrick's College, in Sigerson Cup action against GMIT
Niall Friel, St Patrick's College, in Sigerson Cup action against GMIT
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

If you think about all the various groups who have built the GAA into a world power with bases all over the developed and sometimes undeveloped world, then primary school teachers are probably the one group who should get the gold medal for contribution.

Maybe in the last 20 years they haven’t quite had the same influence as before but those who came up with the Cumann na mBunscol model should have bronze statues erected in their honour outside Croke Park.

The educational institution most associated with primary teachers is St Pat’s, Drumcondra in Dublin. From that small campus came presidents, including the present one, Aogán ó Fearghail, county chairmen, members of every committee under God’s sun and great players. But probably even more important are the countless clubmen and women who wash jerseys, put up flags and nets and generally make their club the centre of community life.

The Master was the most important person in rural Ireland after the foundation of the State and most were of strong GAA pedigree. When they spoke everyone listened and the GAA grew on the backs of their wisdom.

This great passion for the GAA may have started before they went to St Pat’s but it was enriched by the college experience. In many ways it is the purest form of the GAA where students run their own club and all its teams and where their professional development is enhanced by actually being able to study the GAA as part of their course. St Pat’s has, over the years, expanded the number and type of courses offered but the GAA club sits at the very heart of the college. It was a bit like the land of milk and honey for the GAA.

However, dark clouds loom for St Pat’s as Dublin City University, St Pat’s and Mater Dei College are preparing to be amalgamated. Proposals are in place for an effective takeover by DCU which will see St Pat’s having some of their lower teams still functioning under the name of Dóchas éireann, a name that means nothing to anyone outside the college and probably most of the students too. And with it comes a change of jersey.

Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny powers past Patrick Durcan of Mayo

Why this has been decided upon is quite hard to fathom. DCU is big enough and have any amount of players at their disposal. Their success in the Sigerson Cup over the last decade is testimony to the way the GAA has become embedded in the University. So it is very unlikely that the DCU club have any interest in grabbing the Pat’s students, even if Ciarán Kilkenny is a prized asset. Yet his contribution to St Pat’s last year was evident in his play and management of the team. Sometimes being part of a small group who are working hard together trumps medals and profile.

One thing that will be good for St Pat’s is the promised improvement in facilities. New pitches, especially a high-grade artificial surface, an improved gym and better changing rooms for all the teams — both men’s and women’s — are long overdue as well as a general upgrade of the campus. These young people who have added so much to the social fabric of this country have had to put up with poor conditions for far too long.

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Since I started reading about this saga it has become increasingly obvious to me that there is a risk here of all-out war if the initial amalgamation proposals go ahead. They will be resisted fully by the present students, Cumann na mBunscol and all of those who were part of the St Pat’s GAA experience in the past.

It is probably hard for most people to really understand the depth of passion involved but St Pat’s is more than just a college like the other universities in Dublin. It has quite a unique GAA model which is more inclusive than exists anywhere else in the country with the possible exception of Mary Immaculate in Limerick, which is a similar teacher training college affiliated to the University of Limerick — but they play away on their own.

The difference in the likes of St Pat’s GAA club is that it draws in a much greater diversity of student than colleges which are far bigger in numbers. Students belong to it and it alone. Students who play on St Pat’s teams will not have any interest in a new expanded college and the same atmosphere and ethos will not be recreated.

In St Pat’s, students are happy to carry the jerseys and the water bottles because it is part of what they are. After they leave these teachers become the greatest asset in the GAA armoury as the first introduction to the GAA in primary schools is being done, increasingly by women, who have learned by the positive experience of St Pat’s.

So the question remains: Cui bono? Who gains? An enlarged university taking over a smaller college which has a much greater GAA penetration than anywhere else I know and has created many of the greatest footsoldiers in the GAA’s history. There is nothing in it for the DCU club and they must be increasingly concerned that they might be drawn in to something they do not want and would come out of it looking like they wanted to plunder the best from St Pat’s. That would not be accurate.

It does appear too that Comhairle Ard Oideachais (CAO), the body which runs third-level competitions, could accept campus-based St Pat’s teams. What is wrong with live and let live? Let the name St Pat’s continue and let everything they have stood for continue too.

A college which has been the driving force for everything good that the GAA and has stood for and will continue to do so while the present ethos of the place prevails. There are lots of great things in the GAA. St Pat’s Drumcondra is one of them. There are lots of things which need urgent attention in the GAA. St Pat’s is most certainly not one of those.

The Romans used to say Festina Lente, make haste slowly. A work group has been set up with all stakeholders represented. They should adopt the normal Irish solution to an Irish problem — do nothing.

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