Caltra's epic story gives unique insight into the real GAA
I HAVE often said that the difference between the GAA, as portrayed through its national image in the media, and the real GAA, as expressed by its activity at club level in every corner of Ireland, is simply gigantic.
On the national scene, the GAA is seen as a large corporate operation involved in multi-million sponsorship deals, the building of massive stadia, and the organising of major sporting occasions which bring in millions in gate receipts.
The raw material for this corporate monster is provided by the various county teams. Every year about ?10m is invested in coaching and preparing county football teams and ?3m in hurling teams - an investment which pays rich dividends as it helps keep the GAA show on the road at national level.
But of course for every county team in the GAA there are about 100 clubs, from Carrickfergus to Castletownebere, from Bray to Ballinrobe and all points in between. The world in which these 3,000 or so clubs operate is a world removed from the corporate GAA that revolves around Croke Park and its millions.
I was starkly reminded of this last Saturday night when I had the honour of launching a magnificent publication called Caltra's Voyage to Success which recounts the outrageous audacity of this tiny half-parish in east Galway who came from nowhere to win the All-Ireland club football championship on St Patrick's Day this year.
Caltra had never even won their own Galway county championship before 2003, yet they stormed their way through Galway and Connacht and onto Croke Park where they defeated hot favourites An Gaeltacht who had a third of the Kerry senior team in their ranks. Caltra is not even a parish, only half the parish of Ahascragh where the emphasis is on hurling.
Needless to say, Caltra has had more than its share of celebrations since March 17, but they still found time for one more gathering in Kearys on Saturday night. And it was just that, a gathering. No limousines or fancy suits, no fur coats, no wine, no cigars. Instead around 10 o'clock, GAA time, the local people gathered in, men, women and children, just as if they were visiting the neighbour's house for a mug of tea and a chat.
But this is what the real GAA is all about. One final act of recognition had to be performed towards their own friends and neighbours who were giants in Croke Park when snatching victory over the Kerry lads last March.
Putting the success into print for future generations was the final act.
Despite all the advances in modern communications such as video, DVD, internet and texting, the written word has never lost its power. This book places the achievement in its proper context - the culmination of a long and usually barren trail which Caltra GAA club has travelled for the past 120 years.
Thousands of other clubs around Ireland have travelled the same trail, but most have not reached the ultimate peak which Caltra scaled last March.
This book will allow people in decades to come to read how this tiny club went all the way to the top in one season, in the process dismantling a century of failure.
And while the achievement of Caltra was exceptional, there are many other clubs around the country who also achieved remarkable things at a lower level in 2004. These are the largely hidden heroes of the GAA, but at the same time they represent the real strength of the organisation in every county.
The Caltra book, which was brilliantly put together by a team of people led by the club's PRO Mattie Kilroy, is a lot more than a mere record of the eleven games which brought them from obscurity to national prominence. It is a mini-history of the club, and it's a story which is replicated in many other clubs. For example, it highlights the importance of families in the life of GAA clubs.
When Caltra won their first ever competition, the North Galway junior title in 1924, the team included Michael Meehan and Michael Kilroy. And when the pinnacle was achieved 70 years later, several grandchildren of these two were playing in Croke Park.
But there were bleak times in Caltra too, such as in the 1950s when emigration nearly wiped out rural Ireland and club officers could only sit and watch as their best young players headed for England or America, lost forever to the GAA club.
There is a lot spoken and written nowadays about all the time and effort county players put in, and nobody doubts that. But as is shown in an article in the Caltra book, dedication is not confined to county stars.
Tomás Meehan is mentioned as an example, as are several other Caltra players who work in Dublin. On three evenings a week they drive the 200-plus miles round trip to train with Caltra for the honour and glory of their native place.
No perks here, no big meals, and not a lot in the way of expenses for these club players. Just pride in their own place and a burning desire not to let their neighbours down.
A great trait among GAA people in most counties, but not all, is the way in which members from neighbouring clubs, though often bitter rivals, will come out to share in celebrations.
On Saturday night, this was evident in Caltra and among the many 'outsiders' present were Padraig Joyce's father from Killererin and Bertie Coleman from Dunmore.
In places like Caltra, the heart of the GAA still beats strongly. Yet, the people who run the GAA should not take this for granted.
Some terrible problems are hovering beneath the surface, most notably the ever-increasing impact of additional inter-county games on the club scene.
This inevitably leads to early burn-out for those club players who are also county men. Without some action being taken, the GAA heart may soon be in need of a pacemaker.