Saturday 16 February 2019

Pat Spillane: 'GAA clubs are in the vanguard of a fightback being staged in rural Ireland'

Read Pat Spillane every week in the Sunday World

Pat Spillane
Pat Spillane

Pat Spillane

Remember at school when we were taught never to judge a book by its cover. Well, my wish for 2019 is that people don’t judge me or assume they know what kind of person I am based on my TV appearances.

As I’m perceived to be outspoken, I’m stuck with a particular caricature which has empowered my critics to launch all kinds of tirades against me.

However, at most I speak for about three hours on television every year. What about what I say during the other 8,757 hours of the year?

I hate bigotry, begrudgery, selfishness, snobbery and pretentiousness, but what really annoys me is people being judgmental about somebody without really knowing them.

Former Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice launched a particularly cheap shot at me before Christmas by comparing me to Donald Trump and saying he wouldn’t have me within a million miles of a Kerry team.

He made that sweeping comparison - and offered that opinion - without offering a shred of evidence to back them up.

I shouldn’t be surprised, though. In the world of social media everything revolves around the narrative; nobody bothers to check their facts any more.

Given that most of the Gaelic football we see nowadays is based around a conservative, defence-oriented game plan, it is inevitable that a lot of my comments on TV are negative.

I don’t see myself as some kind of modern-day Hans Christian Andersen who invents tales about the state of the game.

I could fill my allotted time on TV with intricate diagrams and graphs in an attempt to dazzle the viewer and gloss over the fact that the game was an atrocious spectacle.

When I witness a top-quality game – regardless of whether it is high or low scoring – I’m as positive as the next person about it. Unfortunately we don’t see enough of these.

The genuine GAA supporter doesn’t need or want their analysis to be sugar-coated. They want honesty and truth.

It’s not the pundits who are destroying Gaelic football; it is the coaches who are the real villains in this story.

Although I’m frustrated with the direction Gaelic football is taking, I remain passionate about the GAA – and there is another side to me than the one portrayed on the Sunday Game. 

This morning I want to tell you how I spent last weekend, which hopefully will give a better insight into the real me.

Last Saturday night I was in the famous Ballroom of Romance in north Leitrim for a dinner dance hosted by the local Glenfarne-Kiltyclogher GAA club, one of the smallest in the county.

Witnessing at first-hand what a tiny GAA club is doing at grass-roots level in rural Ireland made me immensely proud to be a member of the association.

The village of Kiltyclogher first came to my notice in 2017 when their national school was about to lose its two-teacher status due to falling numbers.

Now, the usual response in rural Ireland to such an announcement is to stage a protest march, with local politicians and opposition TDs condemning the government for their neglect of rural Ireland.

We’re good in this country at protesting and being reactive, but the community in Kiltyclogher adopted a different approach. They came together and were proactive in their bid to save their two-teacher school.

They thought outside the box and adopted a bottom-up approach, which I have always believed is the key to making things happen in rural Ireland.

Under the slogan Kiltyclogher Awaits You, they launched a campaign which had both specific time-lines and targets.

After an initial public meeting they devoted Week 2 of the campaign to targeting people who might be interested in moving to the village, which is situated on the Leitrim-Fermanagh border and is best known as the birth place of Seán Mac Diarmada, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation.

Week 3 was devoted to launching a media blitz across traditional and social media outlets to highlight what they were trying to achieve.

During Week 4 the committee checked out what houses were available for families who were interested in moving to the village.

What was the outcome? By Week 6 they had received 160 email enquiries and 50 phone calls, with about 60 people actively considering moving.

During Week 7 they brought families to the village to enable them to see for themselves what was on offer.

At the end of the eight-week campaign six families had moved to the village, bringing 12 school-going children with them, which meant they were able to retain a second teacher in their national school.

This is the kind of proactive, positive campaign needed to save rural Ireland. It is far more productive than waiting around for politicians to get things done. 

Delivering the odd grant to rural Ireland is a sticking-plaster solution, which does nothing to create a sustainable future for the community.

In my role as a rural ambassador I always quote the Kiltyclogher model when I’m speaking at events.

Last autumn the area hit the headlines again when John Greene penned a wonderful article in the Sunday Independent about the exploits of their local GAA club, Glenfarne-Kiltyclogher.

Like many rural GAA clubs, they were struggling to keep the show on the road, ending up in a relegation play-off at the end of the 2017 season.

Such was the dearth of players that they were forced to field two 50-year-olds, as well as a father and a son, and endured a humiliating 33-point loss to Carrigallen (6-16; 0-1).

However, they didn’t give up. Now operating in the junior ranks, they regrouped in 2018 and persuaded a few players who had retired to return to the fold. 

The end result was that they won the Leitrim junior championship for the first time in 27 years.

I thought it was a wonderful story because it typified the way rural GAA clubs keep the flame burning even when the odds are stacked against them.

They might be struggling for numbers, but they are not prepared to simply give in. GAA clubs are in the vanguard of a fightback being staged in rural Ireland.

Last Saturday night over 150 people – half the population of the parish – sat down for dinner in the iconic Ballroom of Romance, which has been transformed into a vibrant community centre.

I came away from the function with a pep in my step and I was so proud to have met the real heroes of the GAA.

Afterwards I was thinking that there is a lot of merit in Joe Brolly’s repeated suggestion that what is needed in the GAA is a revolution.

It is time to reconsider what the GAA is all about.

It should not primarily be about the elitist players, Croke Park, the pursuit of money, the GPA or the inter-county teams.

We need to return the organisation to its roots. The practical way to do this is to support the massive efforts that clubs are making to keep the GAA alive in rural Ireland.

Equally, we need a revolution in rural Ireland.

At national level we need to listen and address the problems of rural Ireland and not those of vested interest or lobby groups or, indeed, local politicians.

The spirit of Knocknagow was alive in the Ballroom of Romance last weekend. It was all about the honour and the glory of the little village.

I couldn’t have wished for a more positive personal start to 2019. It restored my faith in the true spirit of the GAA and of rural Ireland.

My experience left me more convinced than ever that, spearheaded by the GAA, rural Ireland is fighting back, but could do with a little help and support.

And talking to people like those I encountered last weekend in the Ballroom of Romance is more the real me than the fella you see occasionally on television.

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