Leinster numbers game just doesn't add up for GAA
A few years ago, the Leinster Council set out to explore the challenges facing GAA clubs in a province experiencing exponential population growth. The chairman of the working group tasked with examining its wider implications was Syl Merrins. During the process his group chose St Columba's in Mullinalaghta as a case study of a small rural club trying to survive and stay on its feet with tiny resources.
At that stage Mullinalaghta had won a first county senior football championship in 66 years. Even before the added garlands of two more county championships and a Leinster title, their progress had left people awestruck. When Merrins read the figures and put those beside the achievement he simply couldn't trust what he was seeing. He called the Longford county secretary to confirm their accuracy, thinking some of the information might have been unreliable.
At the time the total number of boys in the local national school was 13. To survive on those rations qualifies as an achievement. To win what they have done is scarcely fathomable. "We are just lucky with a bunch of very talented players coming together at the same time really," says the club secretary, Patrick Matthews, whose father Mattie was goalkeeper on the team in 1950 that won the last county championship before their recent re-emergence.
The club of 11 townlands is the smallest in Longford and has been able to trump those limitations to engineer something extraordinary. Merrins, who watched last Sunday's outcome with added interest, agrees that it defies logic. "Oh totally, but it does show the strength of community. Okay, it is a small club but it has that community spirit. That is something I suppose the GAA needs to drive in newer urban areas."
Matthews, immersed all his life in Mullinalaghta, is a realist. He knows their time in this wonderland is finite. "It may be a question of whether you are going to be able to field at any adult level in ten years' time," he states soberly. "You might be able to field at junior level. Other clubs the same size as us have had to amalgamate, and some have pretty much folded."
They could not do it without an enormous buy-in from players, notably those who are working away and prepared to commute, including one from the UK, all at their own expense and of their own free will. With a population of around 450 that level of commitment is essential. They have been rewarded hugely and provide inspiration to all those who peddle the same philosophy and belief system in smaller clubs around the country, who swear by the GAA principle of the collective interest. The disparity in the membership figures between Mullinalaghta and Kilmacud Crokes, 155 to 4,800, is one measure of the gulf between the two clubs that faced one another in last Sunday's provincial final.
"The thing that came through was the community element," says Merrins on this exposure to the Longford club and its modest operations. "That was so strong. Take when they won that first championship in 66 years, the first place they went after the final was the graveyard to remember those who had gone before them."
Merrins has previously been involved in studying the impact of population increases for the GAA in Kildare. The Rural Communities Workgroup (RCW) which he chaired on behalf of Leinster Council released its report almost two years ago and called on the GAA to urgently address the issues raised. In the urban areas, Merrins' main point is that population growth is not being matched by GAA growth.
The RCW estimated that in Leinster, outside of Dublin, no new clubs will be formed in the next 15 years. They reported 20 fewer clubs in the province in 2016 compared to 1971. The group also raised the possibility of over 30 clubs either amalgamating or disbanding in the next 15 years.
There were worrying signs of stagnation and decline, with 144 fewer teams registered in 2016 compared to 2010. Up to 40 per cent of teams in secondary competition either failed to play in, or complete, their fixtures programme in 2016.
All this has happened despite the population of the 11 counties outside of Dublin having increased by 108 per cent since 1971. Some 55 per cent of the State's population is now resident in Leinster, and that is estimated to increase by 500,000 by 2031. The province is becoming rapidly more urbanised. In Merrins' own county, Kildare, the divide is roughly 30 per cent rural and 70 per cent urban, whereas in 1971 it was the other way around.
Seventy-one per cent of the population of Ireland is now resident in two provinces - Leinster, with 39 per cent, and Ulster, with 32 per cent. All of this has implications for the GAA as it does for society in general. Dublin accounts for over 50 per cent of the total population of its province and Dublin has a greater population than either Munster or Connacht.
"As it stands the GAA will continue to lose clubs," the workgroup's report noted, "becoming less and less relevant in the province. Urbanisation is not just a phenomenon of Dublin and the commuter belt. All counties have large urban areas that will form a greater percentage of each county's population as the years progress. This very fact is a major challenge for the GAA in Leinster, and the GAA needs to respond strategically to this challenge.
"The need to actively build on, and establish in some cases, constructive and positive relationships with stakeholders outside of the organisation, such as the education sector, local authority sector, other statutory bodies and the political establishment in general is crucial."
The inward migration witnessed in many parts of the province has not benefited Mullinalaghta but the club has been economical with threadbare resources. "The club/school link is maximised, it needs to be for survival, with players past and present giving of their time in a well-oiled coaching structure with every child playing Gaelic games," Merrins' workgroup found. "Representing St Columba's GAA club, Mullinalaghta is more than representing a club, it is representing your community, your family, the past, present and future.
"We should not take clubs like Mullinalaghta for granted and be conscious that a small negative change in population, a loss of a strong participating family or families or the loss of an influential club officer, coach or teacher could have a catastrophic effect on a club of this size."
But rising numbers create problems and challenges too, maybe even greater ones than where the stocks are low. The group also looked at the highly populated north-east region of Kildare, in the greater Dublin commuter belt. There are eight clubs in this region, with Celbridge, Confey, Leixlip, Maynooth and Kilcock classified as urban, while Straffan, Ardclough and Rathcoffey are designated rural, despite their proximity to a vast urban area.
While the overall population of this area has exploded in the last few decades, the rural clubs, due to Government planning policy and circumstance, have not grown in recent years and needed to amalgamate at underage level. Ardclough, a dual club with a strong tradition and good facilities, in recent years found themselves unable to field in the primary football competitions at adult level, regrading to the secondary competition, due to lack of numbers.
In the area as a whole 8,200 children attend primary school. "On the face of it," the report stated, "you would imagine that all three clubs should have sufficient numbers to field independently at underage and have a successful adult structure. The reality is that a huge percentage of those attending these schools are coming from the adjacent urban areas and are not local to the community."
Colm Cummins chairs the Community Development Urban & Rural Committee, which will run for the three years of John Horan's presidency. His own club Edenderry is an example of a small traditional rural club that has been impacted by huge population growth.
"It's just on the edge of the commuter belt," he says. "Our population went from 3,000 less than 20 years ago to where it is heading for 10,000 now. You have a lot of new Irish. You have a lot of Dublin people moving down. A lot are not traditionally GAA. Our club wasn't ready to cater for that surge in numbers. We had a facilities deficit. We were set up in a very traditional way. We weren't open enough. So we restructured our administration and we worked on recruitment. I have a planning background myself. I had a knowledge of the demographics."
The committee he chairs is looking at ways of helping all GAA units down to club level to discover how to read the patterns of population change in advance and plan accordingly. The committee will be providing software in the New Year that will make accessing relevant information on demographics in various catchment areas a much easier task.
In Leinster, Longford has the greatest rural-urban divide, with a 33 per cent urban component and 67 per cent rural. Kildare has the highest urban club demographic. In Wicklow, Meath and Louth, the urban demographic dominates and it is almost 50-50 in Laois, Carlow, Offaly and Westmeath. The GAA is eager to respond and adapt to those changes and realises that a one-size solution does not fit all. Each club is different and even in rural areas there are variations and complexities that need to be taken into account when making club policy decisions.
Since 1971, Leinster has more than doubled its population, with a staggering 235 per cent increase in the province. In Meath over that period the population increase has been 190 per cent and the increase is greater still in Kildare. In 2016, the population of Meath was just under 200,000, while Kildare was just over 220,000. Longford had the smallest increase over that time period, 41 per cent, with its 2016 population being 40,810.
According to Cummins, the plight of urban clubs, who are unable to cope with escalating numbers, and the rural clubs, whose survival is threatened by depopulation, is one of the greatest challenges for the GAA.
"Anecdotally the vibes I suppose coming from rural clubs is depopulation and they are all struggling and then urban clubs with a lot of growth particularly in new areas and in the commuter belts. So we have looked at that. And what you find is that there are some that buck the trend. Not all rural areas depopulated, some have growth. What we are trying to do is get an accurate measurement on it for the Association.
"We are putting together a tool that can be used at all levels of the Association, national, provincial, county and even down to the club level, to extract the relevant information from the CSO data and the data available in the six counties, so that the issues that are out there in terms of rural clubs can be identified in advance and planned for.
"What we are trying to do then as a committee is present the hard facts so that these decisions can be made based on that hard evidence to try and keep the club units going, to help deal with declining numbers, or where you have places like west Kerry that have been identified already that are depopulated. And what this tool will help us achieve is that we will know that five and ten years in advance."
For bigger clubs in urban areas, a major challenge is obtaining facilities. Another is finding a means of servicing the vast numbers in their catchment area. "In these massive clubs where you might have 100 under 8s, are they really able to cater for all of those?" asks Cummins. "Wouldn't it be better to have a second club? And again in a situation like this the information is key, decisions can be evidence-based."
Cummins says they intend to pilot the project in the new year in six counties and then roll it out to the others in the province. "Our goal will always be to retain as many of the clubs as possible and what we are doing is to provide the tools to do that," he says. "But sometimes it is just down to the personalities that are involved in a club who are running it at such a level that people want to be involved in it. And Mullinalaghta probably have that at the moment, both on the field and off the field, and that is where their success derives from."
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